Stefano Battaglia: Pelagos (ECM 2570/71)

Pelagos

Stefano Battaglia
Pelagos

Stefano Battaglia piano, prepared piano
Recorded May 2016 at Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile (Italy)
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 15, 2017

No one can comfort me in my misery
In my lamenting and suffering for love
But for the one in the beautiful mirage…

Following a string of concept albums—including the cinematically inflected Re: Pasolini—and endeavors with his trio, pianist Stefano Battaglia returns to ECM with a two-disc solo effort of mostly spontaneous music. Playing piano and prepared piano—and sometimes both—he weaves together a program from behind closed doors and live on stage, and by its sequence tells the story of a shoreline thirsty for the tide.

The piano at his fingertips is a printing press, every letter and ornament moved carefully into place before transferring messages to the pages of our inner ear. From the sweeping grandeur of “Migralia” to the brittle unspooling of “Brenner Toccata,” he understands that the sea is a force of forces, each drop with the potential to swallow vessels whole. He dots the map between them with exes and lines, charting terrain both vertical (“Horgos e Roszke”) and horizontal (“Life”). Like the sustains breathing throughout “Lampedusa,” his notes resonate as gifts for the broken.

Preparation of a piano is often seen as a way of expanding its vocabulary. Battaglia, however, treats it like an endoscopic camera into the instrument’s very heart. Taken as a measurement of its pulse, the gong-like meditation of “Processional” and rhythmic intensity of the brief “Dogon” indicate a healthy organism whose dreams are as melodic as they are ineffable. “Destino” is, perhaps, the rawest of these improvisations. It feels like déjà vu, folding time into a mysterious origami.

The title track is one of five composed pieces in the set. Among them, its archaeology of recall is matched only by the urgency of “Migration Mantra,” a wave of untold stories given room to breathe. In light of which the Arabic traditional “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” glows with all the beauty of life in its hands. A necessary touch of wordlessness for a world that can’t keep its mouth shut.

Stefano Battaglia Trio: In The Morning (ECM 2429)

In The Morning

Stefano Battaglia Trio
In The Morning – Music of Alec Wilder

Stefano Battaglia piano
Salvatore Maiore double bass
Robert Dani drums
Recorded live April 28, 2014 at Teatro Vittoria, Torino
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Concert produced by Torino Jazz Festival
Artistic director: Stefano Zenni
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 28, 2015

Pianist Stefano Battaglia and his trio with bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani have redefined the capabilities of the jazz trio by going inward. Each of these musicians is capable of engrossing power, but expresses that power by increasingly vulnerable means. This is also the trio’s strength: in finding the gentlest persuasion into a tune, effects thereof linger as unbreakable memories.

Battaglia’s has always been a thematic trio. Having oared mythical waters in The River of Anyder and the follow-up Songways, they now take on the music of American popular songwriter Alec Wilder (1907-1980) in a set of seven tunes arranged by the bandleader. In this album’s press release, Battaglia recalls his early encounters with Wilder by way of Keith Jarrett, who had recorded such songs as “While We’re young” and “Moon And Sand” with his trio. One listen to the Battaglia’s trio take on the latter tune, and you’ll realize that, while they might not have the depth of output of Jarrett’s, there’s no denying their contributions will be deemed every bit as significant when ECM’s entire history is one day taken into account. Levels of phrasing, immediate structure, and narrative in this 2014 live recording are no less indicative of genius.

Battaglia Trio
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)

Wilder was proficient across genres, composing not only popular but also art songs, opera, musicals, film scores, and chamber music. If any claim to eclecticism can be read into his oeuvre, it will also be found in Battaglia’s approach to interpretation. His enchantment translates into an enchantment all its own. Such is obvious in the title track alone, which links the first in the concert’s chain of exquisite realizations. With its arid and rolling heartbeat, this morning song proceeds evenly for the most part, though half-step dissonances add a feeling of recoil and the sweet pain of trekking through uncharted improvisation. This tune also shows the trio at its most egalitarian. Even the bass solo seems to arise from among like elements in a slowly churning pool of energies—a matter of focus over form.

“River Run” opens with bass harmonics, shallow percussion, and dampened piano, all working a spidery craft into focus until botanical artistries emerge. Battaglia opens the keyboard like a book whose pages are thumb-worn by former journeys yet whose ink still glistens with the musings of this one. And while each album has shown the evolution of the trio as a unit, Dani in particular has grown into a master colorist. The way he wanders while sharing the spirit of Battaglia and Maiore’s interlock is astonishing here, perhaps more the result of committing to the moment than of arbitrary forethought.

At just over four minutes, “When I Am Dead My Dearest” occupies the least space of the set list, but with no loss of scope. Of all the tracks it is the most songlike, an etude of quality over quantity. From the shortest the trio moves to the longest. “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” is an album unto itself, a dramatic piece that moves from abstraction to photorealism over the course of 16 minutes. The center cushions a bass monologue in the attention of an audience so rapt it hardly seems to be there. Battaglia’s re-entry is as drum-like as Dani’s is pianistic as both work these waters into a foam, exhaled along the shoreline through malleted cymbals.

“Where Do You Go?” is another beauty, swimming with ideas beneath its combination skin. Battaglia gives fullness to every utterance and allows the trio to land as surely as it takes off. Last is “Chick Lorimer,” which rearranges Wilder’s setting of Carl Sandburg into a wordless but no-less-poetic expression of freer textures. The trio closes the door with magic, leaving us spellbound for having partaken of its affinity.

(To hear samples of In The Morning, please click here.)

Stefano Battaglia Trio: Songways (ECM 2286)

Songways

Stefano Battaglia Trio
Songways

Stefano Battaglia piano
Salvator Maiore bass
Roberto Dani drums
Recorded April 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When Italo Calvino writes in Invisible Cities, “And when my spirit wants no stimulus or nourishment save music,” one might finish: that music comes from the pen of Stefano Battaglia. Following 2011’s The River of Anyder, it was difficult to imagine that the Italian pianist’s trio with bassist Salvator Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani could ever yield a more delicate creation, but with Songways the band has done just that. It is one of the most sensitive jazz experiences available on ECM, rivaling even Tord Gustavsen’s inward glances in scope. Much of that scope has to do with Battaglia, who imbues his compositions with a characteristic wealth of literary allusions.

The album’s title track, in fact, pays homage to the same Calvino fable, and like it tells stories from different perspectives, only to realize that the language and the environments it describes are one and the same. Groovy shadings make it no less contemplative, and Maiore’s archaeological bassing assures that every melodic artifact is polished and museum ready. Maiore, in fact, glows noticeably throughout the album’s dreamiest passages, as those taken through the capital of Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput in “Mildendo Wide Song” or the twisted streets of Alfred Kubin’s “Perla.” As much a listener as a speaker, his erosions are so subtle that before you know it a river flows before you.

Battaglia Trio

Battaglia, for his part, stands out in the philosophical (“Armonia,” inspired by Charles Fourier) and the surreal (“Monte Analogo,” from the book by Renée Daumal). Weaving through frames and brushes, he mines every artistic impulse until minerals have been exhausted. With increasing fervor, he paves avenues of abstract impressions. Yet the most rewarding gift of Songways is Dani. Whether brushing through Homer’s Odyssey in “Ismaro” in the wake of Battaglia’s footfalls, evoking the clock of Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional town “Vondervotteimittis” (hats off to engineer Stefano Amerio here for his miking of Dani’s cymbals), or transitioning from hands to sticks in “Babel Hymn,” his feel for tuning is ever on point.

Not only is this a brilliant album and the trio’s most thoughtful work to date; it is an experience that is sure to grow with you. This is jazz as alchemy, turning not lead into gold but gold into song.

(To hear samples of Songways, click here.)

Stefano Battaglia: Raccolto (ECM 1933/34)

Raccolto

Stefano Battaglia
Raccolto

Stefano Battaglia piano
Giovanni Maier double bass
Michele Rabbia percussion
Dominique Pifarély violin
Recorded September/December 2003, Artesuono Recording Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Album produced by ECM

Raccolto is one of ECM’s most fascinating productions, though for some listeners surely also one of its most challenging. Significant enough for welcoming Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia to the label, it may be equally so for introducing percussionist Michele Rabbia, whose contributions are nothing short of revelatory throughout this double-disc effort. Battaglia and Rabbia are the common links to the album’s back-to-back trios, the first with bassist Giovanni Maier (better known as Triosonic) and the second with violinist Dominique Pifarély (a.k.a. Atem).

The standard jazz trio here is anything but in execution, as evidenced by the title track (meaning “harvest”), which opens the first session with Battaglia’s careful footsteps, joined by others in a dimly lit hall of mirrors. Striking here, aside from the rhythm section’s awakenings, are the Bach-like changes at play. It is as if the ensuing theatre of abstractions issues from the heart of history. With names like “All is language” and “In front of the fourth door,” it’s easy to get lost in each track’s spell, under which certainties become uncertainties and uncertainties become mantras. Motives seek rupture but find only a scrim of caution between them and full-on embodiment. And so, they dream of that embodiment instead, and this is the sound to which we are made privy, especially in the brief, and sometimes astonishing, culminations scattered throughout. Rhythms are thus implied more than they are directed, caught in virtuosic blips from the man at the keys or from Rabbia’s dustings of shrapnel and time. In these examples, as in “Our circular song,” the percussionist reveals worlds unto himself.

Not to be left behind, Maier grabs a lion’s share of spotlight in “L’osservanza,” which concludes the set in a vehicle of tender, lyric flashes. It’s a billowing weave that cups wind as a flower would sunlight. The bassist’s soloing in “Triangolazioni” adds depth to whispers and occupies a poetic center. He further inspires Battaglia to crystalline segues of call and response. “Coro,” then, can be nothing but a maze. Rabbia adds to it insect wings, hushes of children and slumber, of hiding and protection, so that Battaglia’s chording can find consummation only within. Hence, too, the two tracks marked “Triosonic,” in which the piano gives up its ghosts so that others might live.

Disc 2 swaps Maier for Pifarély for a dozen classically inflected improvisations built around abstract themes. As the go-to violinist of Louis Sclavis, Pifarély should surprise no one familiar with the violinist’s selective chamber appearances, each a window into another. His slippery playing recalls Luciano Berio’s Voci, especially in the folkish lilt of “Lys” and in the two “Cantos.” The latter feature prepared piano for a glassine effect, while Rabbia dips into more metallic streams of consciousness. And then, there is the obvious homage, “Recitativo in memoria di Luciano Berio,” which finds the trio mining the Italian landscape for ideas.

Surrounding moods range from frenetic to elegiac, achieving soul-digging brilliance in “Riconoscenza,” “Velario de marzo,” and “Pourquoi?” The last is tempered by Pifarély’s gravelly soothsaying in a showing of perfect restraint. Through various geometric configurations, the three musicians follow string paths as blood navigates veins until they reach the resonant frequency of “…Dulci declinant lumina somno…” It is the unforeseen view underlying everything, a vista within a vista, fragile as a moth’s wing.

It’s only appropriate that Battaglia should have found a home at ECM. The pianist cites Paul Bley’s Open, To Love and Keith Jarrett’s Facing You as defining encounters that pushed his classical rigor into dovetailed paths of improvisatory possibility. His Raccolto is one stubborn staircase, indeed, but well worth the climb. A debut to remember.

Stefano Battaglia: Re: Pasolini (ECM 1998/99)

Re Pasolini

Stefano Battaglia
Re: Pasolini

Stefano Battaglia piano, prepared piano
Michael Gassmann trumpet
Mirco Mariottini clarinets
Dominique Pifarély violin
Vincent Courtois cello
Aya Shimura cello
Salvatore Maiore double-bass
Bruno Chevillon double-bass
Roberto Dani drums
Michele Rabbia percussion
Recorded April and July 2005, Artesuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Stefano Battaglia

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was one of the twentieth century’s great auteurs. A true interdisciplinarian, he activated discourses of post-colonialism (The Savage Father), politics (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), and literature with comparable fervor. These honeycombs and more shaped the hive of his restless craft through an imagination of superimposition and mélange. In his book The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, scholar Sam Rohdie likens prototypical works such 1967’s Oedipus Rex (incidentally, my first experience of Pasolini as director) to archaeological sites. We do well to analyze them as such, brushing away the dirt of history ever so carefully so as not to damage a single bone. For pianist-composer Stefano Battaglia, the challenge of fleshing out this double album was therefore not to make him musical (Pasolini was notoriously meticulous about every aspect of his mise-en-scène, including sound) but to make him walk again. And surely, within the wide angle that is Re: Pasolini, we can sense his footsteps.

For the first half of the program, Battaglia is joined by Michael Gassmann (trumpet), Mirco Mariottini (clarinets), Aya Shimura (cello), Salvatore Maiore (double-bass), and Roberto Dani (drums), with whom he spins a veritably orchestral web in “Canzone di Laura Betti.” Like the album as a whole, it is a love song (in this case, to the eponymous actress and filmmaker) that unfolds compact wisdom. At its heart is a jazz trio, around which trumpet and cello spin their filaments—interpreters between worlds. As the first of many nods to the silver screen, it sets in motion Battaglia’s greatest strength: namely, his instinct for development. Like a film itself, the program has a beginning, middle, and end, and opens on this facial close-up with all the possibility in the world at its feet.

One face becomes two in “Totò e Ninetto,” a sonic fable in which clarinet carries with it the fragrance of a cutting room. The intonation and togetherness of the musicians here are such that one feels them to have arisen from the ground fully ripe. Two faces become many in “Canto popolare,” a nod to the Italian folk traditions that Pasolini so adored and the recession of which he lamented. For these few minutes, at least, their spirit flourishes anew. All the more appropriate that this should be the trio, unmasked. Maiore’s bassing is particularly gorgeous, at once anchoring and decorating the pianism with undulating care.

Gassmann’s trumpet, sounding like Enrico Rava’s, piles on the nostalgia in “Cosa sono le nuvole,” a song co-written by Pasolini and Domenico Modugno (of “Volare” fame) that sets up the poetics of “Fevrar.” Maiore again astonishes, content as he is to blend into the background, building off Battaglia’s lines in shadowy emphasis, sometimes surfacing as he does here with quivering little cries that seem to say, “I am here and my melody is now.” Chromatic shifts in the surrounding terrain catch us just before we fall off the edge. Literary impulses continue with “Il sogno di una cosa” (named for Pasolini’s sub-proletarian novel) and flit once again in “Teorema,” a plodding and morose twist of emotional lemon.

Act I ends with “Callas” and “Pietra lata,” the former of which brings heartfelt undercurrents to glowing fruition. A tribute in both feeling and practicality, it comes to us revised from an earlier, 1984 piece (in Battaglia’s words: “a simple music box melody inspired by the ascending vocal exercises used daily by singers”). The final tune is a chorale for Rome, a cave where shadows do not move, frozen in time like the stalactites of Battaglia’s slow-forming crystal.

The second disc shuffles personnel, Battaglia now flanked by Dominique Pifarély (violin), Vincent Courtois (cello), Bruno Chevillon (double-bass), and Michele Rabbia (percussion). The bulk of this parallel chamber setting consists of eight “Lyra” pieces, all of which deepen Battaglia’s engagement with Pasolini the poet. In various combinations of violin, cello, and piano (plus the occasional percussive spotlight), they build a storehouse of freely improvised mementos. Like an attic, they grow darker as more memories are poured into it. The string players tend toward the outer edges of their instruments, while Battaglia treads the middle path, forging music that sees itself reflected but does not recognize its own face.

These pieces, scattered throughout, give context to the weighty impressionism of “Meditazione orale” and “Scritti corsari,” both attuned to an adamant politic. Another diptych of sorts (if not for “Lyra VI” between them), in the form of Battaglia’s solo pieces “Epigrammi” and “Setaccio,” tells the story of Pasolini’s formative years. The dialogic elements implied therein flourish tenfold in “Mimesis, divina mimesis,” melting down Apollo and Dionysus in a crucible of prepared piano and percussion. Yet another pairing rolls the end credits. “Ostia” names the town where Pasolini was murdered in 1975 and evokes his last moments before slippage. It expands the molecules of the “Lyra” pieces to planetary scale, drawing wobbling arcs in a surreal yet naked comprehensibility. All of which brings us to the beginning, as it were, with “Pasolini.” As the first piece Battaglia ever composed in this vein, it is the seed of all that precedes it. On its tomb: a bouquet of black roses, each petal forged of gut and flesh and fronded with lens flares of the soul.

It would be easy to say that Re: Pasolini defies description, when in fact it yearns for it, if only because its honoree built a life around speech, character, and action—vital aspects each to our shaping of words. Despite, if not because of, its elegiac finish, the album confirms of all that is good and beautiful in life. It is the comfort of humanity, of communication, of sounds and the inclinations behind them, an all-encompassing embrace of something invisible yet common to it all. No small feat, to be sure, in light of Pasolini’s psychological knots. Battaglia and his allies have crafted a genre unto itself, a paragon of audio cinema that was a classic before it was even recorded. It is a pair of lips that passes us in the night like a kiss that might have been, but which instead hobbles on crutches of wordless keep.