Rolling Piano, Hear My Sigh, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Unclassifiable.
Reading through the sources of inspiration for Stefano Battaglia's songs on Songways can make someone feel stupid mighty quick. You've got the composer deriving music out of stories from Homer, Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe, René Daumal, Italo Calvino, Adalbert Stifter, Alfred Kubin and the old testament. Don't forget French philosopher Charles Fourier. So what does it sound like? In Battaglia's own words, it is "a new harmonic balance between archaic modal pre-tonal chant and dances, pure tonal songs and hymns and abstract texture." Oh, where do I begin?
I guess I should start by emphasizing that Stefano Battaglia is not, purely speaking, a jazz musician. He gets stuck with the label because, though he is a classically-trained pianist, he composes his own tunes and performs them with his trio, with Salvatore Maiore on double bass and Roberto Dani on drums. From a distance, that looks like a traditional piano trio, right? Move in closer and you'll see a lot more going on. What you will find is an abundance of music, elastically imagined and tightly performed, that derives a creative spirit from jazz, classical, soundtracks, third stream...whatever you got. If ECM head Manfred Eicher's headstone should note one thing, it ought to be his knack for finding musicians who softly dismantle our need for genre labels. I can't tell you how many ECM recordings I've reviewed where I've been gladly at a loss to describe the sounds. I can add Songways to that list with no reservations.
"Euphonia Elegy", the CD's leadoff track, comes off as a warm-up, as if the trio had actually recorded this piece first to clear away any cobwebs. Battaglia rolls his chords rapidly but softly back and forth while Maiore moves gently up and down the neck. Meanwhile, Dani is spending most of his time with mallets on his cymbals, giving them big dramatic swells to compliment Battaglia's rudimentary searching. A tangible melody is hard to come by, but the work is probably meant to show how Battaglia can stack chords with the best of them. This mood setter continues for about twelve minutes--I guess I should mention that Songways exceeds 78 minutes in length. Never during my many listens of the album did I wish it to be shorter.
The melodies make themselves clearer on more straightforward tracks like "Ismaro" and "Abdias", which could be thrown into any film's dramatic scene to heighten tension. But honestly, the majority of Songways finds it to be a pretty sprawling album. It's melodic themes are there, but they are hidden (not buried) within the constant genre-bending and push-and-pull of the ever-evolving relationship between Battaglia's piano and his bandmates. It would be one thing for him to obscure them so you could never, ever decipher them. But it's another thing entirely when artful distractions, to say the least, broaden your appreciation's scope.
For instance, "Vondervotteimittis" and "Armonia" could be seen as formless blobs, the two of them together totaling over 21 minutes in length, where Roberto Dani is just occupying himself with busywork. Or you can relax your grip on what you want the pieces to do instead by imagining a thousand dour-looking Edgar Allan Poe's staring at a town clock or a circle of Frenchmen pondering sexual minimum. You may sarcastically think "yeah, that sure sounds like fun". But Songways is amorphously terrific. It may not be a jazz or classical release, but it's one of 2013's best so far.