This is NOT background music. This is the TRUTH.
Last fall, young Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani released his first solo piano record in Europe, calling it Piano Solo. It has now been released here in the U.S., and jazz people need to pay attention -- he is subtle, he is skillful, and he might be a large part of the future.
There are very few histrionics on this record, no extended freakout liberation pieces or anything like that. But that does not mean that he always colors inside the lines either -- very often the beat is only implied and/or there is no known time signature -- they are all pitched in the same style. The opener, "Antonia", reminds one of one of Lennie Tristano's mellower pieces; Thelonious Monk's solo work is a huge influence the four pieces listed as "Impro"; Bill Evans seems to be pretty huge at other times, as in his interpretation of the Beach Boys' "Don't Talk".
Yet although he wears his influences on his sleeve, Bollani walks his own path. His lively Dixieland work on "Buzzilaire" just keeps modulating from place to place, restlessly exploring everything a piano solo can accomplish. On "A Media Luz", he improves on a sweet semi-free fantasia by (very) occasionally plucking one of the piano's inside strings; the sparing use of this technique early on keeps the listener off-guard in case it happens later on. (I'm not telling.)
Like many European jazz dudes, Bollani keeps himself close to the classical edge. His lovely "On a Theme by Sergey Prokofiev" is still jazz, but it could flatten a tuxedoed-and-begowned audience in a heartbeat. But the next piece, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans", is more about trills than frills, and its relentless walking lines are way too gully-low to please that crowd. It's fun when he suddenly doubles the time, then quadruples it and starts painting rainbows all over the room -- but he's after a jazz thing here instead of any kind of "respectable" destination. Which is good. (Better: his out-there take on "Maple Leaf Rag", with a lot of respect for its negative space.) (Yes I know that sounds like bullshit but it's true.)
Because piano is the only instrument here, Bollani has to work pretty hard to get heard; some pieces, like "Como Fue", have a tendency to fade into the background unless you are really paying attention. But then he'll come up with a particularly genius idea (like his decision to play the melody line of "On the Street Where You Live" with his left hand at first against hyperactive syncopation in the right), or a stunning original composition ("Sarcasmi", which uses every key, every mood, and every dynamic, and sounds like a mission statement), and one realizes something important: this is NOT background music. This is the truth.