Album review

Stefano Bollani – ‘El Chakracanta / Live in Buenos Aires’

Stefano Bollani, Orquesta Sin Fin directed by Exequiel Mantega – El Chakracanta / Live in Buenos Aires

(Alobar AL1009. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

Since being rated best new talent by Italy’s leading jazz magazine Musica Jazz in 1998, the pianist Stefano Bollani has collected awards and international recognition the way most of us collect groceries. Highlights include the North Sea Jazz Festival’s Paul Acket Award for the artist most deserving of wider recognition in 2009, an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2010, and Italy’s highest award of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2016.

In 2007, he was awarded the European Jazz Prize for Best European Musician of the Year and I can testify that he was on fire that year, as I reviewed his stunning London Jazz Festival concert at the Barbican with his long-time collaborator Enrico Rava. A decade later, my belief that he’s one of the finest live performers you’ll hear was reinforced by his LJF 2017 concert at Cadogan Hall with Nico Gori (clarinet), Daniele Sepe (tenor saxophone) and Bernardo Guerra (drums).

In short, I knew I was in for a treat with a live recording from Buenos Aires of Bollani performing two concerti he wrote himself plus two much-loved tangos (Don Agustín Bardi by Horacio Salgán, and Libertango by Astor Piazzolla) with the Orquesta Sin Fin, conducted by Exequiel Manteg – an orchestra created by a Buenos Aries-based organisation with the mission of popularising new Argentine music.

The recording actually covers two concerts, from 2018 and 2019, the first a performance of Bollani’s Concerto Azzurro and the second of Bollani’s slightly shorter Concerto Verde plus the two tangos. Wisely, the album is organised into tango-concerto, tango-concerto, which creates a greater sense of cohesion than respecting the original order of performances would have done. And despite some changes of personnel between the concerts, the listening experience is akin to hearing one seamless concert.

Don Agustín Bardi is an inspired opener, a jaunty interplay between piano, bass and the bandoneon of Santiago Segret soon swelling to a full orchestral treatment. It provides a beautiful lead-in to the sumptuous sensuality of Concerto Azzurro [Azure Concerto], so named because azure is the colour of the fifth chakra, associated with self-expression and communication. The concerto progresses from a prelude of ominous drums and bowed bass followed by delicate minor-key piano with lush strings, to brass that bursts from the darkness like daybreak; to a first movement that builds from a dancing piano ostinato into … well, it would be tedious as well as a spoiler to itemise all the delights in this first concerto alone – let’s just say there are plenty.

Let’s also say that even on a first hearing of the first concerto it’s clear that Bollani is equally comfortable in both the classical and jazz worlds. He was classically trained and has performed with symphony orchestras such as the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra in Milan and the Orchestre de Paris; and he’s performed with many of jazz’s greats including Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Richard Galliano and Enrico Rava – with whom he’s recorded 13 albums. He also has a love affair with South American music, two other recent exquisite albums (Que Bom and Carioca) being dedicated to Brazilian music.

Concerto Verdi [Green Concerto] is named after the colour of the fourth chakra, associated with love. It’s as full of delights as Concerto Azzurro, the main difference being that it sounds more like ‘jazz trio with orchestra’ as opposed to ‘piano concerto’, with bass and drums much more to the foreground – and indeed this is reflected in the line-up, as the bassist Juan Pablo Navarro and drummer Bernardo Guerra (he of the LJF 2017 concert I so enjoyed) are listed separately from the orchestra. And putting Concerto Azzurro at the end is another instance of wise programming, particularly considering the climactic finale with strings and brass swooning around the trio for a rapturous finish.

Right, that’s quite enough spoilers. Just trust me that this album is an absolute beauty well worth hearing, as is anything else by this most gifted of pianists and composers.

LINK: El Chakracanta / Live in Buenos Aires is available from UK distributor Proper

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