Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Enrico Pieranunzi: Part 3 – Solo Piano & The Italian Film Composers [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Pieranunzi is not an extravagant virtuoso; his self-effacing manner recalls something of Hancock, but he uses all the ground-breaking modern discoveries in modality, rhythm and the broadening of pianistic devices to his own ends.”

- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“…a luminously lyrical pianist, with a constant flow of ideas.”

– Nat Hentoff

Spending time with the music of Enrico Pieranunzi while preparing this retrospective, one is amazed at its range. Perhaps diversity would be a more accurate term.  It is a though he is constantly challenging himself with new quests in search of some kind of Holy Grail of Improvisation.

Changing musical formats, performing with a wide-variety of different cohorts, composing original compositions, adapting music from other sources into Jazz; Pieranunzi’s music is always fresh and full of surprises.

In more recent years, two themes have become central to Enrico’s music: [1] he has added more solo piano to his repertoire and in a sense returned to his roots by [2] adapting the work of Italian film composers to a Jazz context.

In this concluding segment of our three-part feature on Pieranunzi, we will briefly highlight each of these focuses.

© -Laurent Poiget, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Laurent Poiget, writing in French on his www.citizenjazz.com blog, and very freely translated into English for our purposes, had this to say about the 2007 release of Pieranunzi’s  Parisian Portraits, solo piano CD [EGEA 137]:

“Enrico Pieranunzi has been called ‘The European answer to Bill Evans,’ and while there is some truth to this stereotype, as there is in all stereotypes, this effort to typecast only offers one aspect of the total ouevre of his musicianship.

Because of their unadorned and unaccompanied nature, the eight original compositions and four standards that make-up Parisian Portraits allow the listener entry into Pieranunzi’s complex musical world and a basis for judging whether he is but a replica.

As an example, one could use Bill Evans' treatment of Cole Porter’s What is This Thing Called Love from the 1959 Portrait in Jazz album and compare it to Pieranunzi’s version on this recording. 

In doing so, the listener will no doubt hear in the Evans treatment, a more traditional rendering with Porter’s theme expressed faithfully and in an immediate recognizable manner from the start.

With the Pieranunzi interpretation, over forty years later, it is as if a century of the music has been crossed. We are in the presence of the musical equivalent of a Cubist, déconstruite; one must concentrate to perceive traces of the tune as the melody is never clearly exposed.

In the Pieranunzi adaptation, the Porter standard is little more than a vehicle upon which to base an improvisation; one that is filled with an increasingly rich and dark tension that concludes with a contrasting series of soft phrases.

I went on to listened to recordings of this tune by fifteen, different pianists made over the past forty years and none of them compared to Pieranunzi’s re-creation.

With What is This Thing Called Love and the “charms” of other music from Parisian Portraits in mind [like many Italian musicians, Pieranunzi is a great “seducer],” I wonder how he could ever be viewed as merely a clone of Bill Evans?

While listening to Pieranunzi’s music, one feels the quality of touching that allows for the exploration of nuances; the richness of the harmonies; the absence of chattering; the compactness of the musical statements.

This is a disc that you will return to your CD player on many, future occasions.”

With apologies for the somewhat flowery translation, in this review, Poigret makes the important point that with Pieranunzi, we are in the presence of a unique and mature musical mind.

His is ability is such that he is able to go anywhere he wants to in the music.

Another example of Pieranunzi’s, at times, astonishing musical acumen can be heard in what he does on Parisian Portraits with My Funny Valentine. What he manages to do here is create a melody that is almost as gorgeous as the original theme – which he never plays! You can hear this superb creation on the video at the end of this feature.

Taking music from one context while making it his own in another is also evident in Enrico’s Jazz adaptations of the music from Italian film scores.

Pieranunzi Johnson Baron Play Morricone  [CamJazz 7750-2]

“The expression ‘special project’ is now a very fashionable term, and not only in jazz. Well then, to carry out this project has truly represented something special for me.  During the 1970s and 1980s, I indeed had a very close encounter with Ennio Morricone’s music, playing as a studio man in dozens in films whose soundtracks were composed by him. To find myself now arranging that music, and structuring it so that it could work as an extemporization vehicle for the trio has been, as is easily understandable, a very special experience, a breathtaking full immersion. It has represented the opportunity of blending my musical world with that of a musician whose sonic world is full of suggestions and mastery, able to create and enormous range of emotions. The other reason that makes this CD very special to me is that I realized it with two great musicians like [bassist] Marc Johnson and [drummer] Joey Baron, extraordinary for sensitivity, feeling and fantasy. Those passionately fond of jazz already know something about our past in common (this is the fourth CD we record together). Marc, Joey and I have been sharing, over time, a long and important musical path. Well, once again, thanks to the music put together for this CD, the ‘miracle’ has happened again. What I like to call ‘the trio of my heart’ allow me to again experience … some of the most intense and profound moments that a musician could live.”  – Enrico Pieranunzi 2001

You can sample of the music from the Morricone CD on the video at the end of this feature.

“Surprised!  I was very surprised on first impact when I listened to the beautiful elaborations by my dear and esteemed friend Enrico Pieranunzi, of Marc Johnson, and of Joey Baron. Surprised, in admiration, euphoric about the positive performances where the original pieces, rediscovered and respected, have a new physiognomy, and the jazz interpretation of these three great soloists doesn’t destroy the pieces, but values them. I can only dearly thank Enrico for all that he has included in this CD, for his musical culture and for his greatness. I shall listen to this brilliant endeavor with much joy, again and again. – Ennio Morricone 2001

Although, strictly speaking, Doorways [CamJazz Cam 5001] is not an adaptation of film music to Jazz, Ira Gitler’s review of it does relate to his subsequent insert notes to Fellini Jazz [CamJazz 5002] and is included here for purposes of continuity.

“In the space of a couple of days last November, I received two e-mails, one from SantiagoChile and the other from London. Both of them were in praise of Enrico Pieranunzi’s Fellini Jazz. In of itself it was not surprising that two knowledgeable jazz observers recognized the singular experience of this CD but to hear from both of them in such a small window of time was unusual. It was gratifying to know that Enrico and CamJazz were reaching foreign shores. The few reviews I saw here in the United States were laudatory but too many people outside of Italy (where, in Musica’s Jazz critics’ poll, he was voted Musician of the Year and Fellini Jazz was named #2 Record of the Year) are asleep on Pieranunzi.

Many young musicians are trying to put a personal stamp in their interpretations in the long and varied tradition of the jazz mainstream but so are some older masters and we should listen to them well. Pieranunzi is one who has absorbed the music of Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans (who himself listened beneficially to Tristano) and internalized it within his Italian heart and soul: an intellect that never forgets to feel.  Anyway from the piano he can talk about music insightfully but he doesn’t just ‘talk a good game,’ he plays one as well. By using varied contexts and instrumental combinations of different sizes Pieranunzi continues to stimulate his imagination and ours as well. Basically, Doorways  is a series of duets between Pieranunzi and drummer Paul Motian with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter making a trio on three numbers.

‘All the material included here,’ says Pieranunzi, ‘was conceived and composed especially for this session.  Nothing was a previously composed piece, re-arranged for the duo or the trio. Every tune was written, having in mind the combination of piano and drums, a sound I had already experienced with Paul (a live concert performed in 1992 and issued on CD by Soul Note as Flux and Change in ’95) or the combination with Paul and Chris, a young musician of whom I have the highest opinion because of his ability to combine the tradition with a very, open-minded improvisational approach.

I’d also like to remark here, as a pianist, that this kind of music is possible with a very few drummers in the world and Paul Motian is among these. He widened the conception of drumming. Showing how to make the instrument a perfectly melodic one, able to play “lines” that perfectly interact with the ones played by other instruments.’

Each “Double Excursion,” 1,2, and 3 is totally improvised and different from its mates in length and detail. Motian shares co-composer credit with Pieranunzi. Their telepathy is evident throughout the three versions and in #3 Paul sets the table.

Enrico named “No Waltz for Paul” to ‘ironically stress the original, unique way Paul plays a waltz. It’s so special that sometimes a waltz played by him doesn’t even sound like a waltz. The title is also a tribute to his artistry.’

“No Waltz for Paul” and the other material, more ‘charted’ by Enrico than “Double Excursion,” will, no doubt, yield new improvisatory shapes and sounds in any given future performances. The two versions of “Utre” give more than a hint of this. The title, as Pieranunzi explains it, ‘comes from combining the first two musical notes. These notes, are, in fact the two notes on which the main motif is based. Actually, in Italian these notes are named “do” and “re.” I preferred to use the old Latin name of the first note,”ut.” Hence, “Utre.”

Walk through these Doorways and discover for yourself one of the world’s true musicians and highly talented cohorts, stretching boundaries without neglecting form and (as Pieranunzi always does), giving us foord for the mind and balm for the soul, although not necessarily in the same composition. Enrico the Enricher!  
– Ira Gitler 2002

Fellini Jazz [CamJazz 5002]

“In the period following World War II there was a renaissance in the film industry of Italy. Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, citta - aperta (1945) and Paisa` (1946) – known respectively, in the United States as Open City and Paisan – heralded the arrival of Italian neo-realism and were artistic and commercial successes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Frederico Fellini, then in his mid-20’s, served as a screenwriter on the first of the two films and as an assistant director on the second. In the 1950’s he blossomed as his own as a director.  I remember well the impact I Vitelloni had on me (and my friends) when I first saw it. I had been attending foreign films in my pre-teen years and was not intimidated by reading the subtitles. (This was far better than the later alternative of dubbing. I unequivocally boycotted all dubbed foreign films.) Although I was looking at images and simultaneously reading titles I was also hearing the actors. Even if, for the most part, I didn’t understand the language, the very sound of it and the expressiveness of the actors voices added to the total experience. The, of course, there was the universal language – music.

As I continued to view Fellini’s films I came to know the memorable themes which complemented the cinematic necromancy of the director and learn the name of his chief musical collaborator, Nino Rota.

While in the midst of writing these notes I happen to come across a documentary about Fellini on the Sundance television channel. In it there is a section devoted to the relationship between Fellini and Rota: the ambiguous requests to Rota (“Give me a happy song but make it sad” and so forth); and Fellini calling Rota “a magician … the melodies are already out there in the air and he finds them. He’s like those people who find water with a stick.

In one scene Rota is seated at the piano. Fellini has told him that he needs music for a new film. Rota begins playing a melody, expansively, its bittersweet nostalgia sweeping up and down the keyboard. “That’s it,” he says to Rota, and there he has the theme song [to the film] Amarcord.

Enrico Pieranunzi considers this project “one of the most exciting and challenging in my musical life, both for the musicians involved and for the music I was asked to arrange.” First of all, Pieranunzi pointed chose Chris Potter, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Hayden and Paul Motian. He and producer Ermano Basso agreed, as Enrico explains it, that “these musicians were the best actors for such a difficult musical, film. “I tried to conceive these arrangements by relating them to the specific peculiarities of the players … when I heard them in the studio it was a dream coming true.  “

Pieranunzi draws an analogy between how jazz musicians play and a director such as Fellini shaped his films. “There is in common the tendency to always look beyond, for what is under such things,” he says, “a constant, tireless effort to express the mysterious, hidden areas of ourselves that have their roots in the subconscious, human reality.”

You will notice that all the movies from which the music derives (save Amarcord and La Citta` Delle Donne/City  of Women, both of the 1970s), are from the 1950s. These are Pieranunzi’s favorites. “I think that these movies bear a perfect balance between realism and the introspection of the characters: realism and imagination.”

“These movies remind me a lot of my childhood. Atmosphere – moods that these movies show are still inside me. Incidentally,” he continues, “I was three years old when I Vitelloni was made and at that point I had already been well-nourished with a lot of Charlie Parker, Django and Lennie Tristano whose music my father used to play on his 78s.”

It would be a hollow experience for me to attempt to describe the feeling that … [Pieranunzi and his colleagues] bring to these recordings, whether playing themes or improvising on them. I must, however, stress how everyone immersed themselves in the music, sonically and ‘wig-wise.’

As I implied earlier, after experiencing Fellini’s films not only the images but the music remained in my head; now these themes and the brilliant interpretations resonate in a new way as I sit in the darkened theater/illuminated screen of my mind.”  – Ira Gitler 2004

Hopefully, this three-part feature will have served as a beginning or an entrée into the music world that is Enrico Pieranunzi.

Here are a few other Pieranunzi CD's that have come out since this multi-part feature first posted to the blog in 2009/2010.


Samuel Chell … allaboutjazz… his voice-leading …  is complex and masterful, making the most unexpected harmonic progressions seem inevitable. The other strength of the Italian pianist is the singing, aria-like quality of the tone he is able to extract from his percussive instrument.

John Kelman …allaboutjazz …The simplest stories often reveal the greatest depth. So, too, can the simplest songs yield richer meaning. Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi makes that abundantly clear with Ballads, an album so gentle it can almost pass by unnoticed. But pay attention and what may appear to be a collection of easy-on-the-ears songs prove to be much more.

Alone Together

Dave Nathan… allaboutjazz…The pianist, like one of his influences Bill Evans, manages to combine elegance with thoughtful demeanor.

Dream Dancing

John Kelman … allaboutjazz … Pieranunzi has yet to attain …  iconic status, but as the years pass he's becoming increasingly influential


Thomas Conrad … The recent Ballads and the double album Live in Paris (on Challenge) are among the essential piano-trio recordings of the new millennium, because Pieranunzi’s vast technical expertise is creatively informed by a single purpose: to make the piano sing.

The following video features Enrico Pieranunzi's solo piano version of My Funny Valentine:

Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Joey Baron performing Ennio Morricone's Il Clan Dei Siciliani.

A tribute to film director Frederico Fellini and composer Nino Rota by pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's quintet featuring Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums in performance of the theme from Il Bidone and Fellini's Waltz.

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