The collaboration between trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani is a joy to behold. Both are Italian, but Rava was born in Trieste 33 years before the pianist. Together they sew together classicism and whimsy, lyricism and the mad dash to freedom. In 2006, ECM released the record of a concert demonstrating the pair alone, perfectly balanced between Rava’s Miles Davis lyricism/punch and Bollani’s Keith Jarrett rhapsody/bop. They are one of the more intimate and entertaining jazz duos playing in 2009.
New York Days places Rava and Bollani in the context of a quintet, with three sensitive and exemplary New York greats around them. Paul Motian on drums is terminally wonderful, providing just the kind of slippery timekeeping the duo needs. Larry Grenadier anchors on bass, and the tenor saxophone probing is handled by Mark Turner, who provides a useful contrast to Rava. Turner plays with a steely sound and seems to think through each composition, plucking it apart with the care of a skillful dissection.
The heat of the record, the feeling of it, is mainly in the hands of Rava and Bollani. Rava’s sound is informal and human. His most intense solos have a casual feeling to them: a man with his collar loose and his eyes just a bit sleepy. There is no escaping the fact that Rava played in New York in the 1960s and modeled his sound on Miles Davis, but he has developed a distinctive sound by now: a fluid impressionism that blends modal beauty with a kind of atonal romanticism. Rava likes to play softly phrased long tones that may sit a smidge outside the conventional harmony, and there are frequent repeated, rhythmic phrases that also point toward his history playing in more avant-garde settings. The total impression of his playing is certainly a hugely relaxed freedom, a lyricism that sits beyond the mainstream, but not by much.
Bollani is the wildcard of the disc, the lesser-known quantity that ultimately returns a listener’s attention. The desire to hear the various influences in his playing (Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, perhaps some of the modern stride playing of Jaki Byard) is strong, but he consolidates these elements gamely. He is masterful, for example, on the first of the recording’s two purely improvised pieces. “Improvisation I” begins in impressionism but develops an insistent rhythm under Bollani’s careful hands. “Lulu” gives the pianist ample space to stretch out, but the overall tone is calming and safe. And “Thank You, Come Again” brings out the playful side of Bollani—his lighter touch, and his ability to color an ensemble passage with conversation, countermelody, and bits of wit.
Mark Turner continues to be a young tenor saxophone player who refuses to comply with conventions. He plays the muscular horn the way a horn-rimmed reader treats Portrait of the Artist. He moves deliberately and thoughtfully around his horn; probing, stretching, investigating but almost never galloping. On songs like “Improvisation II”, this makes him the leading voice of the group, the calmest hand among a group of explorers in unknown territory. Even when he does heat up (“Outsider”), the feeling is clean and precise, giving the listener the plain impression that he is fully control and aware of where he’s headed.
If New York Days has a drawback, it is that old saw: it is another ECM record that could use a good bit more bite. There is no reason why Rava and Co. could not dig into the rhythms a bit harder or why the tunes chosen could not cook here or there. Of course, Rava is ultimately a melodist and impressionist, so the fit here is good. And having Motian and Grenadier beneath the band assures a buoyancy even when (particularly because?) tempos are slow and reflective. But for a listener popping on an album for a complete listen, this program is more monochromatic than is ideal.
However, for listeners wanting to get a bead on Enrico Rava or Stefano Bollani, this is a place to find a generous example of their partnership in art. Here’s hoping that, next time out, they focus less on pretty and more on daring—of which they have no shortage.