Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stefano Bollani: Taking risks for jazz

Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , JAKARTA | Sat, 03/07/2009 12:58 PM | People


Not everyone can make their childhood dream come true, but Italian pianist Stefano Bollani certainly has.

“My childhood dream is to be exactly what I am now,” Bollani says, “a musician who can also sing and write a novel.”

When he was only six, Bollani was accompanying himself on the family keyboard, and at 10, he recorded a cassette of his performance. He sent it to his childhood idol Renato Carosone, along with a letter explaining his dream. To his delight, Carosone replied advising him to listen to a lot of blues and jazz, and so the little boy from Milan did.

“I think he was very surprised receiving a letter from a very younger fan,” Bollani says. “He was very famous in Italy in the 1950s and had been retired for about 20 years but surprisingly he had a 10-year-old fan.”

At age 11, he enrolled at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory of Florence, and at 15, he started performing professionally, playing mostly pop music while studying jazz at Siena Jazz.

“Jazz is not a kind of music but it’s a language of improvisation. It’s good for me to talk about jazz because I feel it’s a great big thing and you can have a lot of things inside,” says Bollani, now 37. “Reggae, rock ‘n’ rolls or blues are genres of music but jazz is a language and you can use it to say whatever you want.”

The first thing about jazz, says Bollani, is improvisation, which means a musician has to be ready to expect the worst to happen in any performance.

“This also means that the main thing is changing and you have to be yourself. If you are tired, angry or fall in love, the music is going to change.”

Pop music is predictable, classical music is always seeking perfection, but jazz is always changing and challenging, says Bollani, who made it to the cover of the May 2008 edition of the weekly magazine Topolino for his ingenious and sparkling character, and his natural gifts as an entertainer.

The decisive moment in Bollani’s career was meeting Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava at the Teatro Metastasio in Prato in 1996.

“I played with him and at the end he asked for my phone number. It was like a love affair really. He was a very famous musician at that time and I was like a desperate little girl.”

Enrico invited him to play in Paris with him, saying, “You’re young. Take a risk, give up pop and devote yourself full-time to the music you love.”

Bollani took the advice and threw himself into jazz, with dynamic success, triggering a career that has included no less than 80 collaborative albums and 18 solo albums, performances on the world’s most prestigious stages, and awards and critical acclaim across Europe, Japan and North America.

His music often reflects irony, an evident characteristic of all of his work, some of which is quite bizarre and offbeat. Consider “Gnosi delle fanfole”, a recording in which, along with songwriter Massimo Altomare, he set to music the surreal poetry of Fosco Maraini in 1998, or “Cantata dei pastori immobili”, a sort of musical comedy for four voices, narrator and piano, based on texts by David Riondino, published in 2004.

Above all, he says, his music is “an attempt to take inside and as soon as you come inside I will try to escape.”

But it’s not all music — he has books to his credit also. In 2004 he published L’america di Renato Carosone, a tribute to the history of swing and jazz in Italy and, especially, to his idol Carosone. He followed this up in September 2006 with his first novel, La sindrome di Brontolo, which he had been working on for four years.

“I write because I have lots of free time while I am traveling. I write because I have no musical instruments with me. If I had a piano in my hotel room, I would play all the time.” Or reading: He confesses he brought eight books on his six-day visit to Jakarta.

September 2006 also marked the release of Piano Solo, Bollani’s first CD for the famous German jazz label ECM. The album went straight to the top of the jazz charts, landing in 31st place in the Sorrisi e Canzoni chart. In 2007, he made another album for ECM with Enrico Rava, called The Third Man.

That year, even more accolades poured in across the world, as his musical risks paid off. American magazine Downbeat ranked him eighth among the world’s new jazz talents and third among the young pianists. The New York magazine All About Jazz named him one of the five most important musicians of 2007, alongside monstres sacrés such as Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. And in Vienna, he was awarded the Europe Jazz Prize, as European musician of the year.

His philosophy about unexpectedness and change means he has great admiration for legend Miles Davis’ attitude, if not always his

“He was always trying to change all the time. He once made a masterpiece and then one year later he made a record that is not a masterpiece at all just because he was trying to improvise. I don’t like all of his records. I like the idea of taking the risk of changing every time. I don’t believe in evolution,” he says.

“I’m not sure that musicians get better. They simply do different things.”

His most recent work defined his vision. An incursion into popular Brazilian music, Bollani carioca was recorded in the slums of Rio de Janeiro with prominent local artists, making Bollani the second international musician to play a grand piano in a slum area in Rio (the first was Antonio Carlos Jobim).

The concert itself has great memories for Bollani. “If you have ever seen the movie City of God, that’s what the area looked like where we performed,” he says. “We could even hear shooting guns when we performed.”

Stefano Bollani is appearing at the Java Jazz Festival 2009 with his quintet I Visionari, with Mirko Guerrini on sax, Nico Gori on clarinet, Stefano Senni on double bass and Cristiano Calcagnile on drums.

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