For the final day of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, here’s the uncut proceedings of a live Blindfold Test I conducted there with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani, who were playing duo. It consisted entirely of trumpet-piano duo recordings. Following it are two long pieces on Bollani, which I may repost separately at some future date — one is a DownBeat feature on Bollani reported in Barcelona in 2012; following it is a long interview, conducted in Orvieto in 2009, that ran on the no-longer-accessible website jazz.com.
Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Blindfold Test, Perugia, July 2008 (Raw):
1. Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie, “Caravan” (OSCAR PETERSON & DIZZY GILLESPIE, Pablo, 1975) (Gillespie, trumpet; Peterson, piano; Juan Tizol, composer)
[AFTER ONE CHORUS]
Rava: We’ve got it. [IN ITALIAN] [SHTICK] Dizzy Gillespie.
Bollani: And Oscar Peterson. I would say that Oscar Peterson was my favorite piano player when I started listening to jazz music. I had this recording. He was playing “My Blue Heaven.” And I was sure, because I couldn’t read the liner notes in English (I was only 10 years old), that it was two piano players playing together. So when my father told me that it was just one, it wasn’t Oscar and Peterson, but it was Oscar Peterson, I started studying seriously, because I understood that you really had to practice a lot if you want to play jazz music. I love all the records he did with trumpet players. But my favorite one is the one with Clark Terry, the one where he is singing.
TP: Dizzy for Enrico Rava.
Rava: [IN ITALIAN] [THEN IN ENGLISH] Dizzy…what can I say about Dizzy? Dizzy is one of the main musicians in jazz. Of course, he is unbelievable. He brought the trumpet ahead twenty years when he started. Although in the very beginning, when he was a kid, he sounded EXACTLY like Roy Eldridge. Dizzy played in a big band when he was a kid, and he was very …(?)… Anyway, I saw him in my home town, Turino, in the ‘50s with the beautiful band he had with Leo Wright, Les Spann, Lex Humphries… To talk about Dizzy doesn’t make any sense, because he is so great he deserves more than words. Words cannot describe him. I can say that the art of Dizzy is enormous. The technique of Dizzy is so extraordinary and unique. He invented a way of playing. He has little tricks with the fingering. Something that I learned from Dusko Goykovich, another good friend. Although I always say that, of course, Clifford Brown, Miles, Chet, the people that I love, I know what they are doing. If I stay a hundred years practicing, every day, I might do the same thing. But Dizzy, I really don’t understand how he got those things. He’s something that’s too much. Dizzy is too much.
2. Paul Bley-Chet Baker, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from DIANE, Steeplechase, 1985) (Baker, trumpet; Bley, piano)
Rava: I feel sure that the trumpet player is Chet Baker. It could be Paul Bley, because I know they did the record together, but I’m not sure if this is him. We’ll wait til the solo. [SOLO BEGINS]
Bollani: It sounds like the pianist is Paul Bley, but it’s not that record with Paul Bley. I don’t know who is this piano player. For me, it could be (?-12:54). For Chet Baker, one million stars. But I am not in love with this piano player.
Rava: For me, 2 million stars for Chet.
TP: Paul Bley is the piano player. You probably were thrown off by the sound of the piano through this system.
Bollani: [translator: The trumpet players, it’s easier, because they have a personal sound, but the piano, they’re just touching something mechanical.
Rava: I did a duo with Paul Bley, and I know how he plays. I know him very well. So this is why I said, “Maybe it’s not…” Although I was almost sure that it was Paul Bley, because I know the record, but I don’t remember exactly.
Bollani: This is the Steeplechase record, Diane. It’s strange because I have the record…
Rava: They did it for Enja.
Bollani: No, Steeplechase. But I have this record, and I didn’t recognize the sound. To me, it sounded better in my home.
Rava: I love Chet. Chet for me, after Miles, is the one I love more than anybody else. I am very close to his way of thinking and playing melodies. I love his sound. Besides that, the first modern jazz… I am a jazz fan since I was 6 years old, and I love Bix and everybody else. But the first modern jazz I really heard was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, and I think that was some of the best trumpet playing I’d heard. So I fell in love with Chet then, and I became a very good friend of Chet. When I bought a trumpet, I was about 18. One year after, he came to live in my home town, at the house of one of my best friends, so I would be all day with Chet, bringing the trumpet, asking him things he couldn’t answer because he was totally …(?—16:59), so he couldn’t give any advice. But I was almost… I couldn’t speak with him, because it was like to be near the sun. He was so strong for me. I was very young then. Then I got to play with him many times, and we were friends. I think he was one of the most beautiful musicians.
Bollani: It’s easier for me to talk about Chet Baker, because he’s one of my idols, even as a singer. It’s not easy for me to talk about Paul Bley, because I am not a big fan of Paul Bley. I don’t know him so well. Actually, I also have to say that in talking about Chet Baker in duo with a piano player, I would rather prefer the record with Enrico Pieranunzi. I think he was much more close to Chet’s feeling, so the final result of the recording is better.
3. Martial Solal-Dave Douglas, “34 Bar Blues” (from RUE DE SEINE, CamJazz, 2006) (Solal, piano, composer; Douglas, trumpet)
Rava: I think that that’s Don Ellis.
Rava: Okay. It sounds like Don Ellis. I have no idea.
TP: It’s recent. Contemporary.
Rava: Maybe Herb Robertson.
Rava: If it’s not Don Ellis, it’s someone I don’t know at all.
Bollani: Me either. I have no idea of the piano player. At the beginning, the vocabulary sounded like Martial Solal, the French piano player. But I’m not sure it’s him because of the kind of phrasing. And I wouldn’t know who’s the trumpet player, actually. But I really like this piano player, but I don’t know who he is.
TP: You’re right. It is Martial Solal.
BOLLANI: [RAISES HANDS OVER HEAD]
TP: The trumpet player is Dave Douglas, and it’s on the Italian label CamJazz.
Bollani: He said Dave Douglas. He told me, “Maybe it’s Dave Douglas with Uri Caine,” and I said, “this is not Uri Caine.”
Rava: But then, to me, he sounded really Don Ellis at the beginning. I love Dave Douglas. I know him pretty well. But he didn’t sound like Dave Douglas to me; he sounded like Don Ellis. I would give it 4 stars. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it’s wonderful.
Bollani: Actually, I really like it. This is my second Blindfold Test ever. I did it once in France. I only liked two ones. One of them was also Martial Solal. So I really like him. Now it’s the same. I told you, I like this piano player, but I’m not sure of who he is. To me, Martial Solal is the greatest piano player alive, technically and mentally speaking. Maybe you can compare other piano players, as listeners. But as a piano player not as a listener, I am amazed at what he can do. He’s always thinking what you’re not expecting he is going to do.
Rava: You mean as a piano player?
4. Wynton Marsalis-Eric Lewis, “King Porter Stomp” (from MR. JELLY LORD, Columbia, 1999) (Marsalis, trumpet; Lewis, piano)
Rava: Very nice. 5 stars.
TP: Would you like to know who it was?
Bollani: We were talking about the trumpet player, and we said that probably it’s the same period of Roy Eldridge, but not before…
Rava: I think it could be. I am doing a very stupid thing, but it could be maybe Rex Stewart. I’ll tell you why. I know that Rex Stewart was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke, and this trumpet player did things that reminded me of Bix, but it was not at all that kind of trumpet player. But it sounded to me maybe like Rex.
TP: So you think it’s an old recording?cheche
Rava: Uh… No. I think it’s very new. [LAUGHTER]
Bollani: We were talking about the piano player. I don’t think he’s one of the greatest piano players of jazz history, people like Earl Hines or Teddy Wilson or whomever. He sounds like a modern piano player trying to pretend he’s in the ‘30s. I guess he’s American, but he’s got something which is not exactly in that style, and he sounds more modern. So I guess he’s trying to do these kind of things, but probably he doesn’t do these kind of things all the time. He’s not an expert of that kind of jazz. This is a very precise style, so you can immediately understand if it’s a pianist who was born today or is from that period. He played stride piano, but he didn’t really come off completely; a few things told me that it wasn’t an old pianist.
Rava: I have no idea.
TP: It was Wynton Marsalis and Eric Lewis, who played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years.
Carlo: It was too much technique.
Rava: It really sounded like a guy from the late ‘30s.
Bollani: Actually, I thought the trumpet player was an old one, with a young piano player trying to play in that style. So I couldn’t guess who it was.
TP: So Wynton did what he intended to do.
Bollani: Yeah, exactly.
Rava: I had for a moment, if he’s not… But he sounded so much like an old trumpet player. Anyway, five stars.
Bollani: I am not giving 5 stars, because I loved Wynton, but not so much the piano player. 3 stars. His way of comping was not… 5 for Wynton.
5. Lester Bowie-John Hicks, “Hello, Dolly” (from AMERICAN GUMBO, 32 Jazz, 1974/1999) (Bowie, trumpet; Hicks, piano)
Rava: To me, that’s Lester Bowie.
Bollani: Lester Bowie. The problem with this piano player, it sounds like the opposite of the other one. It sounds like he’s not one of the musicians involved in the free movement, but he’s older, so he sounds older than Lester Bowie. Maybe he wants to sound modern. But he sounds like a very good piano player from the ‘60s.
TP: Actually, he was the same age as Lester Bowie, and also from St. Louis. John Hicks.
Rava: I’ll give 5 stars to Lester. 3 stars for this piece, because to me it’s too much… I always loved Lester, and this very ironical… But this I think was really too much. He still is great. He was a good friend. So 5 stars. Maybe even 10.
Bollani: I liked very much the piano player.
TP: One thing that was interesting about John Hicks musically is that he was very comfortable playing outside or inside. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He played anything, and played it great.
Bollani: Another one that I really love is Jaki Byard—he could do that, too, very well, He could play stride piano, then he was playing modern things, and it was perfect.
6. Dick Hyman-Randy Sandke, “Slow River” (from NOW AND AGAIN, Arbors, 2005) (Hyman, piano; Sandke, trumpet)
Rava: To me, it sounds like Ruby Braff.
TP: Good guess, but not.
TP: The trumpet player is alive.
Bollani: I really like it. But I’m not sure about the piano player, because he sounded once again like Oscar, but it’s so much cooler than Oscar Peterson that I wouldn’t say it’s him. I would say once again that he’s not a very famous one probably. I don’t know him so well.
TP: He’s the same age as Oscar Peterson, and both he and Oscar Peterson were influenced by Art Tatum.
Rava: Could it be that white trumpet player that used to…Warren Vache?
TP: Not Warren Vache, but that’s also close.
Rava: Anyway, it really sounded like Ruby Braff to me. Anyway, I give 4 stars.
Bollani: Same age as Oscar Peterson? He’s cooler than Oscar. He’s playing less notes. But he’s alive.
TP: The trumpet is Randy Sandke.
Rava: I don’t know him. I’ve heard his name, but only several times. His playing was very good. But he really sounded like Ruby Braff to me.
7. Kenny Wheeler-John Taylor, “Summer Night” (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn; Taylor, piano)
Bollani: We both recognize the trumpet player, and we think it’s Kenny Wheeler. I think the piano player could be John Taylor.
Rava: We know the trumpet, or flugelhorn…it was a flugelhorn. I’ll give it 2 stars. Do I have to give stars? I’ll give 3 stars. I must say I did not get that much from it.
Bollani: Sometimes it sounded like Kenny Wheeler’s composition.
TP: It’s a standard called “Summer Night,” by Harry Warren.
Bollani: It had something in the chorus at the end of the tune which made me think about Kenny Wheeler’s composing, things like “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” These kind of compositions, the long ones that go the ‘70s.
8. Nicholas Payton-Anthony Wonsey, “Weather Bird” (from GUMBO NOUVEAU, Verve, 1996)
Rava: What I can tell you is, first, whoever it is, there is a time problem, with the piano speeding up. The trumpet player, whoever it is, sounded good, but he played licks of everybody else. I heard some Dizzy licks, some Bobby Hackett licks… I mean, it was like an encyclopedia for trumpet. So I didn’t really like it. I’ll give it 2½ stars, maybe 3 for the technique and the ability. They are very good players, but I didn’t see any magic or any voice or something like that.
Bollani: Once again, I will start saying that probably they are not two very-very-very famous jazz musicians, because I really don’t recognize the… The same as the trumpet player . I don’t recognize the style of the piano player, because it sounds like a good piano player but not really a special one, a personal one. But still, I think that what Enrico said was true about the timing problem, but I think the piano player is the problem, not the trumpet player. He’s doing things, and he’s not very creative.
The problem with the records, the duo recordings with trumpet and piano is that the most famous jazz musicians, except maybe Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, didn’t do this kind of formula. Except for the Oscar Peterson albums… You can count them. But if you talk about the greatest players in the world… Miles, for example, never did one. So a lot of the greatest jazz musicians never made…
TP: It was Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Anthony Wonsey on piano playing “Weather Bird.”
Rava: Sorry, I recognized “Weather Bird,” of course.
Bollani: They are alive. So they are going to read the Downbeats and kill me.
Rava: I like Nicholas Payton most of the time. But I did not recognize him on this tune, probably because he wanted to make a kind of tribute to Louis Armstrong. But he didn’t sound like Nicholas Payton to me at all.
Bollani: I have to say, I’ve never heard even the name of the piano player. Never.
9. Earl Hines-Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Mean To Me” (from JUST YOU, JUST ME, Black and Blue, 1978) (Hines, piano; Edison, trumpet)
Bollani: We know the period, of course, but we’re not so sure about the musicians. I would say that this piano player, maybe it’s not him, but now he’s sounding like Willie The Lion Smith, but I don’t know if he recorded something…
Rava: To me the trumpet player sounded a lot like Harry Edison.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: I love Harry Edison. This is, for sure, not one of his best performances. If you compare this to the solo he played with Lester Young on “Sunday” which is a total masterpiece, this… But I don’t mind.
TP: He was 22 years older when he did this.
Rava: Not everyone is like you. Getting older, I feel better.
Bollani: Anyway, what can I say about Earl Hines? His nickname was “Fatha,” so this means that he is considered the father of the modern piano players. So I won’t say anything. He’s one of the piano players I always loved not only for the piano playing, but because of his attitude. Often people say that I’m too much entertaining or I’m too much funny or smiling or whatever. But people like Dizzy, Fats Waller, Earl Hines…
Bollani: Armstrong. These were people who were playing great and also entertaining people. I have a record with Earl Hines singing and imitating the trombone, which is fantastic. I think he was a great performer. Smiling all the time.
Rava: Hines’ style. For Harry Edison and Earl Hines, I’m not particularly fond of this record, but I’ll give it 1000 stars. All the stars in the universe.
Stefano Bollani Article (Barcelona, 2012) – (#1):
Stefano Bollani does not do soundchecks. “I always try not to have a sound in my head before playing,” the 39-year-old pianist explained in his room at Barcelona’s El Gran Havana Hotel, a few hours before hit time for a solo recital at Luz de Gas, the final event of Umbria Jazz Festival’s week at last November’s edition of the Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz. “I don’t want to know how the sound is on stage or in the place. So I don’t go to the theater before the concert. I just go on stage and play.”
He elaborated the point. “Being alone at the soundcheck is so sad,” he joked. “That’s one reason, but also I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know that the piano has a problem or a good characteristic, because then you think, ‘Wow, this piano is playing well, but only when you play it softer, so let’s make a list of how I can play softly all night.’
“Usually I am telling a joke or talking about some other subject—not thinking about the music—until the moment I begin. Then I forget everything. That’s free time. My phone is off. Nobody is asking me questions or proposing things. Nobody is interviewing me. I am doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child. I have two kids. I am never home, so I feel guilty because they don’t have a normal father. But when I’m playing, I know it’s my job, so I’m cool. I’m in the right place at the right moment. People are buying a ticket for me, I’m playing for them. I chose to come here. You chose to listen to me. It’s perfect.”
It was time to go. Dressed in an untucked black shirt, jeans and sneakers, his matted, gray-flecked hair tied back, a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, Bollani picked up his backpack and walked briskly to the elevator, passing several open rooms in which several Umbrian representatives sat in their undershirts, glued to CNN, hoping to catch the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Later, at Luz de Gas, after Bollani had finished two tunes, an audience member called out that the deed was done. “This is going to be a very special night,” Bollani said, “because as you know, we have very sad news. We’ll just have to go on without him.”
Bollani instantly stated the melody of “If I Should Lose You.” He launched his improvisation at jet tempo, a la Conlon Nancarrow, crisply articulating every note. He transitioned to a rubato section, abstracting the harmony to its limits before working back into the theme. Suddenly, he chugged out a relentless walking bass line in the Jaki Byard-Dave McKenna manner, supporting high-velocity Bud Powellish “horn-like” lines that included an “I Found A New Baby” quote. He offered a pluck-the-strings sidebar, crossing the hands (variations by the left; bass figures by the right), executing Cecil Taylorisms with extravagant gestures. Some repeated treble notes coalesced into a portentious, impressionistic melody that gradually morphed into “For Once In My Life,” upon which he built a rollicking, swinging statement that transpired over another pendulum-steady bassline.
The “Adios Berlusconi” theme continued when, after a pause, Bollani abstracted “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” limning the melody with the right hand juxtaposed with with more laugh-provoking atonal harmonics on the strings. This morphed into “Angel Eyes,” on which, after a rumbly, low-end climax, he decrescendoed to a gentle theme statement, returning to the strings for the last chorus. Bollani played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” medium up, repeating “she was more like a beauty queen” in different voices, counterstating with Powell-Tatum references. Pretending to forget the lyric, he fixated on “the kid is not my son” section, which he addressed as an aria. He interpolated the lyrics of “Old Devil Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” then laid out a series of reharmonized permutations that concluded with “Blackbird.”
After two more songs—“After You’ve Gone,” done as an old-school saloon stomp, and “Kingston Town,” treated as a gentle waltz—Bollani took requests, which included “Cavaquinho,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Tico Tico,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Für Elise.” He cogitated over his list, and developed an ingenious, structurally connected collage, at various points singing in a French accent and emulating a flamenco singer. Then, after an ovation, he filleted Berlusconi one more time with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelling his variations—to which he scatted a falsetto counter-melody—with yet another surging bassline.
“Every jazz musician will say to any interviewer that you’ve got to tell your own story,” Bollani had said earlier in the day. “But I love when the story is full of things. Our lives are full of nice moments and sad moments—there’s a funny situation, then one of us is dying on the floor so it’s suddenly tragic, then you call the police but they aren’t coming, so it’s funny again. Life is changing all the time. Some jazz music today is like the Sea of Tranquility, trying to develop the same feeling for sixty minutes. My life is not like that; I cannot tell this kind of story.”
Bollani’s communicative flair, his penchant for addressing serious improvisation as quasi-populist performance art, is the primary source of his high Q-score in Europe, the reason why, since 2007, he’s hosted the much-listened-to Il Dottore Djembe on Italy’s NPR equivalent, Rai-3, and, more recently, a TV spinoff. This quality comes through on his solo concerts and more recent piano duos with Martial Solal, Antonello Salis, and Chick Corea, where he generates an erudite flow that is at once hilarious and poignant, buffo and nuanced, elemental and complex. Some might see Bollani’s predisposition to skip from one reality to the next as bespeaking superficial clownishness, but it’s more accurate to say that it denotes an exhaustive breadth of reference.
“Stefano doesn’t make a distinction of ‘there’s one world here, and another there,’” said drummer Jeff Ballard, who has performed on several Bollani projects since 2009. “He has an incredible command of styles—everything is available at once, and out it comes. His thought process moves at incredible velocity, whether he’s performing or just hanging out. When I was touring with him, he’d sing one Italian song after another in the dressing rooms, saying, ‘Check out the harmony of this; see how this goes.’ He’s a natural performer and a virtuoso.”
“Comedians are usually very well-prepared,” Bollani had said earlier of his modus operandi. “But I am not preparing the funny part. It’s something I feel at the moment. If I have somebody with me, I am using musicians on the stage. Otherwise, I am using the audience. A lot of listeners, not necessarily jazz fans, tell me they get a feeling that I am having joy and want to share it. Jazz can be a kind of magic circle that some people feel they cannot enter. That’s not good for jazz music, or any kind of art.”
As jokes were the topic, Bollani mentioned that, on Dottor Djembe, he and co-host Mirko Guerrini pre-record fake music to present to their guests, mostly Italian musicians, with whom they perform live and discuss contemporary jazz, some of it by one or another of the numerous “fake musicians” of their invention—composers, pop singers, instrumentalists—whose biographies appear in a book-CD (Lo zibaldone del Dottor Djembe).
“If you don’t know what you’re listening to, you might think we’re talking seriously—until somebody starts laughing,” Bollani said. “There’s a scat singer called Tex Plosion, and on our recording he scats until he explodes—it’s a point of departure to talk about how dangerous jazz can be and not to play too many notes. We have a contemporary French-German composer named Jean-France Camenberg who did a seven-hour opera in Berlin called Sisyphus and Tantalus. For the whole time, Sisyphus sings ‘I am pushing the stone’ and Tantalus sings ‘I need the water.’ The moment Tantalus reaches the water is exactly the moment when Sisyphus is able to throw the stone, which hits Tantalus on the head and kills him, ending the opera.
“I have Duck Ellington, a guy who found a female duck that he uses to sing all the Duke Ellington repertoire. It’s very stupid, so stupid that the guest isn’t expecting it. Most of our guests said, ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ ‘Why? Didn’t you like it? Don’t you like jazz music?’ ‘I do, but…’ Very funny.”
Bollani related that he and Chick Corea “did lots of jokes” at the free-flowing duo concert at Umbria Jazz Winter, 2009, that produced Orvieto [ECM]—he described it as “feeling like one piano player with four hands.” However, they do not appear on the recording. “I’m not mad about humor on records,” Bollani said. “A good piece of music works when you listen to it forever, but not a joke.”
Indeed, humor is not a prominent component of Bollani’s eclectic discography, which includes several solo piano solo recitals, a dozen encounters (including two duos) with trumpeter Enrico Rava, six standards dates for the Japanese market, and presentations of his original music by three different trios, a quintet, and a 40-piece orchestra. The jokes are also tamped down on Carioca [Universal], Bollani’s learned exploration of a broad array of Brazilian flavors; on the 50,000 unit-seller Rhapsody in Blue [Decca Classics], on which Bollani and conductor Ricardo Chailly present a vivid interpretation of the Gershwin classic; and on Big Band! [EmArcy], a 2011 project on which the NDR Big Band—with Bollani on piano—performs Norwegian arranger Geir Lysne’s reworkings of five Bollani compositions from the early ‘00s.
“Geir chose the pieces, and I came in after the band had learned them,” Bollani said. “I didn’t recognize them. I love that everything sounded new, that he used them to build different atmospheres. I use my compositions to build something different each night, which is how music keeps herself alive.” He quoted Surrealist philosopher Andre Breton’s bon mot, “Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.”
He continued: “You take different things, shake them, and see what comes out—the postmodern idea. That’s what I like in jazz. Take a melody by the Beach Boys and place a chord from a Prokofiev sonata; start with a standard, “My Funny Valentine” or ragtime, and go some other place. It’s playing with language, like working with characters in a novel.
“On some of my own compositions, the principle is funny—we miss a bar or jump to another key, and that’s clear. A lot of people did this, from Raymond Scott to Frank Zappa. But lots of them are not funny until I play them; the pianist Bollani is funnier than the composer Bollani. Actually, I am a tremendously serious composer. The pieces are never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars—always 43. There’s a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one that wants to be original. He is saying, ‘Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put in a bar more.’ I’m so serious that I would write only ballads, if I could. I have to force myself to write something light.”
Born in Milan and raised in Florence, Bollani internalized his everything-is-grist-for-the-mill approach early on, playing the piano along with the Fats Domino-Nat King Cole-Jerry Lee Lewis portion of his father’s extensive collection of ‘50s pop, from which he also assimilated the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. He learned Italian musica legere (light music) as well, through recordings by Renato Carosone and Celentano. At 11, the aspiring young singer enrolled in Florence’s prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory (he would graduate with honors in 1993) and also encountered local pianists Luca Flores and Mauro Grossi, who gave him hands-on instruction in the codes of jazz and blues. At 12, he fell hard for Art Blakey’s Night At Birdland album and joined what he describes as “the Taliban of Hard Bop.” As his teens progressed, Bollani expanded his horizons, absorbing “the real masters”—Martial Solal, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines.
“Ragtime and stride piano is the sound of joy to me,” he said. “Even the ballads, except for things like ‘Lotus Blossom’ by Strayhorn.” He sang the melody. “In fact, as soon as they get melancholic, they sound European, in a way. But I love the joyful part of jazz, which is probably coming from Africa.”
Apart from the ebullient feel of the earlier styles, Bollani cited the technical derring-do required to play them. “These guys had amazing character,” he said. “When Teddy Wilson played with Gene Krupa or Nat Cole with Buddy Rich, they had no bass, and they often had no amplification—they had strong hands, big hands. When Bud Powell started playing mainly as a horn player with the right hand and no chords on the left hand, that became the book. But I discovered a lot of people in jazz history, before and after Bud Powell, who think of the piano as an orchestra, which it is. I can play 50 notes at the same time if I want. So why should I force myself to solo only with the right hand? It’s ok, it’s an idea, but that’s ONE thing you can do. But as a piano player, you can’t only practice on that. A lot of people study Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, without considering that they are not points of departure in piano history, but points of arrival. If that’s how you start, you miss their process in getting to that point, and you’ll be an imitation of them.”
Bollani’s strongly typed tonal identity is fully apparent on Orvieto, a trans-stylistic tour de force on which he and Corea improvise interactively through American and Brazilian Songbook and jazz standards, a blues, and several scratch inventions. “I immediately knew that I could go anywhere with Chick,” Bollani recalled. “Usually one person solos and the other comps, and vice-versa, but here no one is driving—no roles are played for more than a few bars, then we start over. I told myself to be careful about quoting him, but it didn’t feel like the Chick Corea I knew in my youth. It’s just music.”
Trumpeter Enrico Rava, who hired Bollani in 1996, was a key figure in helping him gain the confidence to develop his mature conception. “When I was a teenager playing in clubs and theaters with my trio, people were silent, listening,” Bollani recalled. “This meant that I was developing a music that was closer to Art than entertainment. In 1995, when I’d been mostly playing keyboards with [Italian pop singers] Irene Grandi and Jovanotti, Rava joined our trio as a guest. Later he told me that if I turned down a long tour with Jovanotti, he could find gigs for us that summer. It was maybe seven concerts, but that was enough.
“After the first set on my first concert with him, he asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I’m playing.’ ‘No, you’re playing a little of what you can do—maybe you are shy.’ ‘Well, it’s you, it’s Aldo Romano, so I leave the space.’ ‘No. I called you because you have to fill the space.’ Enrico always tried to get from me what I wanted to do.”
Whatever Bollani chooses to do in the future, being funny will remain in the mix. “If I like you, I can joke with you; I can play with you,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll probably be more serious, because I cannot be free to laugh. I’m not iconoclastic, though probably people feel I am. I’m not laughing against something. Usually, I like the persons I’m making fun of. Serious fun is important. If you take yourself too seriously, you should die. Why play the piano after Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich? Just jump from the window. Why make children? Why make love? You know you’re going to suffer about that in a few hours, a few days. One member of a couple is going to die first. You can’t do anything if you think negatively. I cannot imagine a life without self-irony. Otherwise I couldn’t stand myself.
“But I am very serious about music. I can’t do anything else. I’ve never worked. I’m not a practical man. I am really saved by the music.”
Stefano Bollani (Orvieto, Jan. 4, 2009):
Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this winter’s Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvieto, a small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millennium, pianist Stefano Bollani, digesting what he described as his first real meal in days, sipped pear juice in the salon of his hotel. He was looking forward to a well-earned nap: Called five days earlier to replace bossa nova legend João Gilberto, the festival’s headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, the 18th century opera house that is one of Orvieto’s many architectural wonders, Bollani had been hustling to fulfill the task, and had executed his duties with aplomb.
After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet, while on Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohen, herself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvieto’s central square. After his nap, he would sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by bassist Roberto Gatto.
An obscure figure to American audiences, who know him primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and in March will release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release Piano Solo, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy, where, in addition to his eclectic musical production, he is a television and radio personality as well as a published author of both children’s books and experimental novels.
Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated with honors, Bollani was also a teenage bebop acolyte. His solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of kaleidscopic repertoire—Italian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originals—in which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable digital dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.
During the course of his Thursday duos, he displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, Bollani sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partner’s solo episode) and with Solal, who maintained a Buster Keaton deadpan as he went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play “musical piano benches,” and riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.
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TP: What you’re doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, you’re called to replace João Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets, half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, you’re seamlessly occupying the flow and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it’s not.
BOLLANI: Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second night—we played what we play. Of course, we didn’t know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didn’t want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No “Desafinados” in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque. So it wasn’t just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.
I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of music—of course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.
TP: How many groups are you working with now?
BOLLANI: I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.
TP: What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group that you primarily compose for?
BOLLANI: Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.
TP: Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?
BOLLANI: I would say that EVERYTHING has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, “This is coming from Italian music” or “this is coming from Brazilian music,” etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, “Ah, it’s joy.” C-minor—“Ooh, something happened.” Symphonic orchestra—“Ooh, it’s classical music.” The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.
Q: You do that when you do those encores.
BOLLANI: Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didn’t see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. “This is Chopin,” then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes… I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isn’t that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, it’s like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.
TP: This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you can’t…
BOLLANI: Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesn’t expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I don’t do. They do this on purpose—they are waiting for me to do this. But if I don’t know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I don’t know, and I said, “Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one.” [ENGINE SOUNDS] That’s what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, “This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.”
TP: You’re 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.
BOLLANI: A lot of old songs. Usually it’s better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neal Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.
TP: You’ve been working since you were 15. Did you learn all these songs as a working musician?
BOLLANI: Not, not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentano—old stuff. I’m sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what I’m looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I don’t find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever…
TP: You’re talking about Bjork, Radiohead, those people…
BOLLANI: I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world—the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what I’m talking about, “Musica legere,” “light music.” It shouldn’t be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record or Mahler or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesn’t mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.
TP: You also play with language when you compose and write..
BOLLANI: I do. In almost any of my compositions, it’s never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. It’s always 43. You miss something or there’s something more. That’s why my musicians hate me.
TP: Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?
BOLLANI: I’m not sure, but I think it’s deliberate. I pretend it happens.
TP: Why is it deliberate?
BOLLANI: [CRADLES BELLY WITH HANDS] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one which wants to be original. He is saying, “Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put a bar more.” I feel it’s natural, but I’m not sure it is.
TP: It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?
BOLLANI: Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old til 16—I only listened to Hard Bop, Horace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock or Free Jazz. I was playing THE shit, like the Taliban of Hard Bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones—I’d been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernova—I got into rock music. The most intellectual ones maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles…
TP: The songwriters.
BOLLANI: The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speaking — Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didn’t really like it. I was studying the technique. I didn’t really like Beethoven at that moment.
TP: But the way you use the pedal and your touch, it’s obvious…
BOLLANI: Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini or Ricardo Muti, for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like BAPPP. So very serious. And he didn’t know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, “Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; he’s going to throw me out.” But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, “Okay, I discovered you’re playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.” Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he HATED it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he just said, “Okay, let’s go on.” I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now he’s happy about me, about my playing; even if he doesn’t like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.
TP: Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.
BOLLANI: A little-little bit. I don’t like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composers—but I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you don’t know the music, it’s interesting because the character is so interesting. That’s what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who I’m quite interested in as well—the technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, it’s enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.
TP: So it’s a challenge, an additive thing.
BOLLANI: Yes, I would say so. It’s not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think it’s good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.
TP: How about the jazz avant garde in the ‘70s?
BOLLANI: Almost the same.
TP: You were speaking of the Taliban of hardbop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to Neoclassicism and Art Blakey Young Lions editions of the Jazz Messengers and so on.
BOLLANI: Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people don’t understand what you’re doing—there is the Avant Garde Party and there’s the Hardbop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans don’t understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hardbop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. I’m trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. I’m waiting for that.
TP: That’s the opposite of my impression from outside. For example, I’ve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.
BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. I don’t want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own music—they just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords, you learn the RIGHT thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.
But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each other—which is why it’s hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably it’s this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I don’t know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.
TP: I haven’t heard you deal so much with Italian materials.
BOLLANI: Not so much.
TP: It seems to be pop.
BOLLANI: Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kind of things, but it’s a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar… Some songwriters from the ‘20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and he’s older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello. So it’s his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. It’s really different.
TP: So it’s hard to speak of Italian jazz because it’s so…
BOLLANI: I think it’s big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But it’s actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the world—it’s like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.
What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think they’re islands.
Antonello Salis is a genius, and he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. He’s coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesn’t have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, we’ve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. That’s what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.
Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad… For example, Denmark. That’s the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, “Okay, now you can play whatever you want…” “Whatever I want? Okay, let’s play a blues.” “Ah, okay, let’s play a blues.” Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You don’t have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.
The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, they’re wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But it’s dangerous if you think THAT’s the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still TRYING to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whatever—they never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. “Okay, they told me what music is.” It’s not like that.
TP: Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?
BOLLANI: Actually, I do think it’s changing over time, but it’s hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I don’t know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to do—trying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz music, hardbop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whatever, was a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I don’t know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.
TP: You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.
BOLLANI: Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldn’t sit down and think, “I should go in this direction.” I don’t want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, “Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line…”
TP: You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock…
BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasn’t interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian—we rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. That’s quite interesting to do as practice. It’s not interesting at all when you do it on stage.
To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. It’s just I’m playing… Then I listen back, and I say, “Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.” But then after a minute, I see where I’m doing something different, so ok. Whew. It’s ok. Good. Because I don’t really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I don’t recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that it’s an external thing coming into my music, that I’m adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I don’t even recognize because it’s part of my language.
TP: You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?
BOLLANI: I was talking about compositions, I don’t like compositions.
TP: Why not?
BOLLANI: Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I don’t like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. Elena e Il Suo Violino,” for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, “I have enough.” But I don’t have enough of playing “There Will Never Be Another You” or “Cheek To Cheek.”
TP: Not so dissimilar to Solal.
BOLLANI: I would say so. He is a composer, but you are never listening to his compositions.
TP: Because he returns to the same songs all the time.
TP: What about those songs allows you to do that? Is it about the music, or the signification?
BOLLANI: Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kind of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.
TP: That’s interesting, too, because you’re speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet you’re simultaneously loving both things.
BOLLANI: But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because it’s anachronistic. That’s why it’s interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.
TP: I’m fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. You’re in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and it’s beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. You’re from Florence, the home of Dante…
BOLLANI: Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.
TP: The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?
BOLLANI: I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think it’s a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.
TP: The church was an instrument of political power.
BOLLANI: Exactly. But it’s not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. That’s good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and we our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politics—if you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. It’s not the ego thing. It’s the idea of the world. It’s the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable…
TP: You’re pointing to your brain.
BOLLANI: Exactly. It’s much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.
TP: So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is…
BOLLANI: Absolutely. It’s coming from that.
TP: You seem to have a very young audience.
BOLLANI: I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hardbop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, or in Europe Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, “Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.”
TP: As though you’re not quite serious.
BOLLANI: Yeah, exactly. I am not enough serious.
TP: It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re…
BOLLANI: More serious.
TP: It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.
TP: It seems more like performance art than comedy.
BOLLANI: Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello, everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.
TP: You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.
BOLLANI: No-no-no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but THAT was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out… When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.
TP: How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?
BOLLANI: Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.
TP: The French ones are very serious.
BOLLANI: Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.
TP: Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava, because if you have a musical mentor it would seem to be he, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.
BOLLANI: Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.
So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or João Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.
TP: He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?
BOLLANI: I never thought about it.
TP: You were working the whole time, I guess.
BOLLANI: Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, “oh, I would like to be Chick Corea” or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.
TP: When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, “You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it, you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.” Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanatti, which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.
BOLLANI: I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.
TP: But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz.
BOLLANI: I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995 when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, “Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,” which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, “I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.” Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.
TP: And you found enough other work to…
BOLLANI: Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning SO much money from the Pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.
TP: But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.
BOLLANI: Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever…
TP: I saw a Youtube where you do that.
BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.
But talking about the Pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, “wow, why doesn’t he like that?” But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.
TP: You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading, your writing filter into your performance attitude?
BOLLANI: I’m reading a lot of novels.
TP: All Italian?
BOLLANI: No-no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones, Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa, where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it because after three pages, for example, there s a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, “wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.” When you read Calvino or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside… A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. “If on a winter night, a reader…” I don’t know the title in English.
Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [SINGS OPENING 12 BARS]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [SINGS SECOND REFRAIN] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.
TP: There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice metaphor for your performances
BOLLANI: That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. “Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,” and then, “Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.”
TP: Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?
BOLLANI: Yes, I think so.
TP: How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?
BOLLANI: I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.
TP: Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?
BOLLANI: Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, “I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.” Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst…That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing… Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.
TP: I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.
BOLLANI: Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and the idea of Breton, or of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that “beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.” Which meant you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take “Yesterday” by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.
TP: When you talk about the Taliban of Hard Bop, it’s a clever phrase, but it also refers to a music that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. Blues developed from an American context in the ‘20s-‘30s-‘40s-‘50s, so does dance music, then it evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.
BOLLANI: Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, “Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!” Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying “I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.” In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, “This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.”
TP: You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano…
BOLLANI: Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that… Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in Antonia which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert, because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing “The Wrong Note Rag” for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [SINGS IT], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone… What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the “Wrong Note Rag,” and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.
TP: Does your intimacy with so many languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on “Do You Know What It Means” on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.
BOLLANI: Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.
TP: The word “idiomatic” would cover it.
BOLLANI: Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, Promenade is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.
TP: So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.
BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet and João Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to João for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with João. I can go to a desert island with João’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. “Girl From Ipanema,” six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.
TP: Solal talks about having to practice every day.
BOLLANI: I do not. I never practice. I am a disaster. I would love to practice. I have no time to do that. I am practicing at soundcheck, which is always not enough.
TP: Is practice important to you?
BOLLANI: I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.
You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to IMAGINE myself doing something else.
[END OF CONVERSATION