Stefano Bollani- Piano Variations on Jesus Christ Superstar (ALOBAR AL1007. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
Does musical virtuosity or emotional appeal seem more important in jazz? Italian pianist Stefano Bollani’s new solo album has both in copious amounts. 50 years on from the rock opera’s first recording, it’s hard now to remember the countercultural thrill of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan singing the part of Jesus, banned by the BBC. Bollani first heard Lloyd Webber’s musical at the age of 14, and has long wanted to record it. “I love this music,” he says, and interprets it here in a dazzling range of jazz styles to get to the heart of each song.
The lulling arpeggios of the Prelude give way to the taut jazz funk groove of Heaven on Their Minds, where each finger seems to have independent volume. The original vocal line grows into a dark bluesy solo, then a bright ragtime- but in 7. The skipping slinky beats of What’s the Buzz? jump apart without falling between the cracks. There’s a James Brown punchiness. (Bollani does a fine version of I Feel Good on his 2019 solo album Life from Mars.) Strange Thing Mystifying and Everything’s Alright are sweetly melodic. The first has a country feel (between Jarrett and Glasper?) The second draws gently reharmonised jazz chords into the original’s Take Five-ish feel with an achingly beautiful solo.
This Jesus must Die begins with leapfrogging notes, and darker hints of gospel choir, then explodes into immaculate stride and densely-voiced chords. In contrast, Hosanna starts with starkly staccato single notes. It develops a dancing carnival feel, with complex Latin rhythms and deliciously quirky humour. (Bollani’s worked with many Brazilian musicians, such as Veloso, Buarque and Gismonti.) The driving boogie woogie and swashbuckling rock of Simon Zealotes makes way for the meditative musing of Pilate’s Dream, which could almost be a Michel Legrand tune. Distilling the rock grandeur into one piano sometimes reveals what sound like grand classical themes. The Temple is full of daredevil rhythms, from dark grooves with 7/4 jazz twists to dramatic tremolo chords.
I Don’t Know How to Love Him is a jazz waltz full of Bill Evans-ish triads and glowing new harmonies, but never moving far from the plangent melody. “Thanks to my piano I become an instrument myself,” says Bollani on his website. Damned for All Time keeps an insistent rock groove, and the sheer physicality of his playing creates something quite ethereal. The Last Supper comes across as a lyrical jazz standard, each verse given a lift by going up a semitone, as if it’s about to go into the bridge of ‘Body and Soul’. The psychological drama of Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say) filters through the introspective soloing and subtle dissonance. Forceful chords break out with darting left hand, claustrophobically convoluted.
Herod provides the musical’s comic relief, and King Herod’s Song is a light-hearted stride piece with some Art Tatum-esque glittering wit and skill. Trial Before Pilate turns the relentless rock groove into something more like Messiaen or blues-inflected Stravinsky- Bollani is also an accomplished classical pianist.
The piano speaks for itself on all but one of the tracks. Bollani himself intones Tim Rice’s searching lyric on Superstar and his family sing the gospel chorus over jazz funk. Finally, he condenses the originally orchestral John Nineteen: Forty-One into an elegiac coda.
Bollani describes playing solo piano as “like building a bridge while walking on it…”and his expressive skill is extraordinary. One of his albums for ECM is called Joy in Spite of Everything, and that phrase describes this album perfectly too.
VIDEO: Stefano Bollani explains the background (with English subtitles)