Enrico Pieranunzi: the man, the music and beyond, by Gilbert Mathieu
Birdland, New York, 2008 October


Under the capable hands of producer Enzo Capra, last October, for almost a week Birdland treated packed audiences to the magic and artistry of Enrico Pieranunzi in the company of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian.

To better appreciate the portent of this stellar “triangle” one has to dwell albeit succinctly, on Maestro Pieranunzi himself, the most multi-faceted artist on the music scene today.

Indeed, where does one begin to describe the Man behind and in front of the Music? Apart from being steeped in jazz since his early childhood (his father was a guitarist), Roman-born Pieranunzi received a thoroughly classical training which led to a fully-fledged professorship at the Frosinone Conservatory of Music in Rome. This exposure is well in evidence in both his compositions and his playing, where the likes of Debussy, Schumann, Ravel, Bartok, Fauré, Stravinsky (whom he salutes with “Blue Igor” in the album Yellow and Blue Suites, with Marc Johnson) and others, which gives them their very special quality, density and textures.

His classical training did not prevent him from nurturing his passion for jazz and initially paying his dues as sideman, with luminaries such as Kenny Clarke, Frank Rosolino, Sal Nistico, Chet Baker, Charlie Haden (First Song is an absolute masterpiece), or leader and co-leader with Lee Konitz, Art Famer and Phil Woods, and other pillars of the jazz community. Until recently, he led a superlative trio with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron that has given birth to countless superlative albums, both in live and studio settings.

Pieranunzi, in true Renaissance fashion has recorded a host of solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet albums, and even put out an album with a string quartet (Les Amants). He has been sought by jazz singers to accompany them, Ada Montellanico (Ma l’Amore No, Danza di una Ninfa), French songstress Anne Ducros, and Elisabeth Kontomanou. In fact, in an recording entitled Meridies, Pieranunzi even scats with aplomb in two tracks (“What is this thing called love” and “Tenderly”)!

Pieranunzi was and remains an avowed admirer of Bill Evans (about whom he wrote a seminal book, Bill Evans, The Pianist as an Artist, and was initially influenced by pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell, et al.), the genius of the man is to have absorbed and assimilated these various styles and added his own particular and inimitable harmonic syntax and vocabulary to them. This explains why the “Pieranunzi sound” is so unique, and recognizable from the very first note or chord he “drops” on his instrument. His classical training, his early exposure to bebop, his musical and inner “geographical” history have made him the musically ubiquitous and eclectic persona he is. Who else would dare record Scarlatti’s sonatas, adding his own delicate and respectful improvisations (Enrico Pieranunzi Plays Scarlatti, Camjazz) with the same ease as his interpretations of Theloneous Monk’s “Blue Monk”, Charlie Parker’s “Si Si” or Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies”, not to mention a brilliant album devoted solely to the music of Wayne Shorter (Plays the Music of Wayne Shorter)? Which other “jazz” artist could imbue so many Ennio Morricone movie soundtracks with their ethereal and haunting dimension, or devote three albums to the music of Fellini and Morricone (with his mates Marc Johnson and Joey Baron)?

Everything about Pieranunzi’s artistry is in a class of its own. He does not just “play” a song. Rather, he takes the listener along a musical journey, with the prerequisites of all good story telling omnipresent: clear elocution, precise articulation, and the avoidance of clichés and sameness. This explains why any standard tunes the maestro takes on have their indelible imprimatur and trademark in the form of rhythmic displacements, breathing spaces, an immense but not flaunted technique and…, last but not least, a romantic Latin temperament! It is that very temperament that may explain the intimacy, nostalgia, gloominess, darkness, poignancy, romanticism, and chiaroscuros that permeate his work. The musical and narrative voyages he shares with his listeners are built on an itinerary encompassing his emotions, his psyche, his immense intellect, and his musical fecundity. Pieranunzi never seems embarrassed to bare his soul, not only in his playing but also through the title of his songs: the poet’ s sense of longing for the night, solitude, loneliness is evident in pieces such as “A Solitary Song”, “Elegos”, “The Night Gone By”, “Canto de la Sera” and in compositions with ladies in mind: “Milady”, “Chiara”, “Coralie”. From Pieranunzi the philologist in his own right we have “Miradas”, “l’Heure Oblique”, “the Chant of Time”, amongst a host of other titles derived from poems or his own penmanship. The same applies to his choice of album titles, each bringing to the fore the man’s inner soul and most intimate feelings. Suffice it to mention NewLands, Deep Down, Solitudes, The Dream Before Us, Nausicaa, Untold Story, Flux and Change, etc.

For those who did not have a chance to see Enrico Pieranunzi in full action at New York’s Birdland last October, what follows should provide an overview of the opening evening with the maestro at the helm, together with his two cohorts, bass guitarist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian. 

To my knowledge Steve Swallow and Enrico Pieranunzi had not worked together before, contrary to Paul Motian with whom he had often collaborated in the past, both in the studio and “live”. Suffice it to mention albums such as Special Encounter (with the addition of Charlie Haden), and Flux and Change (piano and drums duet).

Going straight into business, the leader opened the set with “Permutations” introduced by a haunting four-note ostinato (C Bb Ab G) that served as the piece’s center of gravity for the next 11 minutes. More a melodic motif than a theme as such, the atmosphere set by the motivic cell was nothing short of mesmerizing, with its quasi-free modal approach instead of predictable chord progressions. Swallow’s single note constructions over Pieranunzi’s compelling voicings were given added momentum through Motian’s alternating between a steady 4/4 beat in tandem with the most compelling polyrhythmic and polyphonic patterns. A true “triologue” (as Pieranunzi would put it!), with the pianist constantly prodding, soaring and keeping the fires stoked from beginning to end.

The intensity of “Permutations” was mitigated by the intimacy of the next piece, also penned by the pianist, “Beneath the Lonely Night”(another nocturnal allusion), an enchanting waltz in Bb, with a sequence of minor chords and modulations in true Pieranunzi fashion! The piece put into focus the pianist’s oozing yet contained lyricism, his classical influences and his amazing mastery of time and space –all enhanced by Motian’s propulsive, punctuating “spraying” of colors over the piece through feather-light brushwork and the eschewing of mere time-keeping and clichés. This is the very essence of the freshness and appeal of his quasi-balletic approach to the drums.

It has almost become a Pieranunzi trademark to often intersperse his live performances (and studio recordings) with improvisational interludes to fit the context of a given performance. Depending on the situation, he either calls them “Imprologue” (Live in Switzerland), “Improlude” (Untold Story, with Marc Johnson Paul Motian), “Duologue” (from the eponymous duet album with Jim Hall), “Impronippo” (Live in Japan), and others. For the Birdland concert, the improvisatory interlude was aptly titled ”PS1” (“Post Scriptum 1”), to acknowledge the presence of his mates Paul and Steve! The piece was a perfect example of free collective improvisation and three-way musical interactive playing at its best. Nothing was either lacking or de trop: the shifting dynamics, the ethereal soundscapes, dissonances ebbing in and out, lightness, darkness, all prevalent on top of Pieranunzi’s ever-present walking bass lines moving the whole thing forward, and Motian’s cymbals in full multi-rhythmic action over Swallow’s serpentine lines, unhindered by the constraints of a time signature or a key center.

Reverting to the ballad form for which he has no peers, Pieranunzi engaged in another of his compositions, “Suspension Points” (originally featured in Pieranunzi’s album Doorwayswith Motian and saxophonist Chris Potter). The song was played rubato, initially over an F pedal (modulating into G), with the pianist’s accented piano interventions over Swallow’s repeated single note introduction and Motian joining in with his typical cymbal soundbursts and a lush palette of colors to underscore the “suspension points”. Leave it to Pieranunzi to build such a powerful opus over a repeated single note while exploiting all the permutations and circumvolutions it could lent itself to. The A section of the piece is played over a I-IV cadence, giving it its gospel tinge, while the B section is effectively constructed over a cycle of fifths.

The mood shifts yet again with the interpretation of another waltz, “NightSong”, replete with lyricism and graceful power (oxymoron intended!). The song is introduced by Pieranunzi’s piano and Motian’s cymbals, with all the spaces and “breath pauses” to impart it with its diaphanous and languorous mood. The minimalism of the accompaniment gives the song its poignant intimacy and romanticism. One could not help associate it with a theme in search of a movie! Maybe?

What followed was a very impressionistic interpretation of Theloneous Monk’s “Reflections”, the only non-original composition of the set. The harmonic richness of the piece made it hard to identify immediately. Again, it shows how much Pieranunzi’s music shuns facile harmonies and typifies cohesion, and coherence along with his knack at dilating and contracting time and space. Added to that is the “Pieranunzi sound”, at times lustrous, at times dark, at times soft, at times percussive and dissonant, at times lyrical and melancholic. He digs deep into the ballad, constructing and deconstructing, within the parameters of utmost elegance and beauty. Swallow almost sounded like Jim Hall-like through his weaving solos around the theme while Motian the colorist sprinkled his cymbals’ sounds all around. In this interpretation of “Reflections”, Theloneous Monk becomes Enrico Pieranunzi: the rhythmic shifts, the right hand delivery, the compelling left-hand and a proprietary musical vocabulary and harmonic syntax. For those interested in delving further into Pieranunzi’s ballad artistry, check out Pieranunzi Plays Ballads (with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron) and The Heart of the Ballad (with Chet Baker).

In closing the set, the maestro and his band mates offered us another virtually free-improvisational piece launched by a haunting chromatic E F F# G piano ostinato on the left hand with a steady and symmetrical 4/4 meter, with the right hand improvising freely and asymmetrically. Again, the piece had no theme to speak of; it was more rhythmic than harmonic or melodic. The pianist’s left hand seemed to play off against Swallow’s statements, with his right hand responding to Motian’s every move. The latter’s volcanic and hard swinging was mostly expressed through the use of toms. The piano and bass unison was still harmonically free, with Pieranunzi’s left hand 4/4 center of gravity throughout, keeping the piece in equilibrium in spite of the frenzied and stormy (but never chaotic) sound exchanges between the three musicians. Pieranunzi has no equals when it comes to simultaneously playing “inside” and “outside”. Also noted was his predilection for minor and major seconds (favored by Gil Evans in his orchestral arrangements), accelerating and decelerating tempi, crescendos and diminuendos. He can turn his piano from a string instrument to a percussion instrument, in the most seamless manner. The way he “constructs” his music is quasi-architectural, reminding one of Bruckner and his symphonic building blocks. Assisted by his “88 key orchestra” the pianist’s left hand seems to build symmetrical and solid foundations, while the right hand provides the asymmetry that makes his music so compelling, with contrapuntal phrases that seem to navigate forward and backward between each hand. Mention should be made of the Motian’s drum solo “cushioned” by Swallow playing the initial ostinato in almost hypnotic fashion and the piano and bass ending the piece in unison with Pieranunzi repeating the chromatic E F F# G ostinato in the left hand while playing a right hand descending counter-ostinato (Ab G Gb F)!

Yet to show how eclectic he is in leaving no style or musical format untouched and unturned, Pieranunzi was scheduled to perform with a Latin jazz quintet the same week following his trio concerts. Sadly, this writer could not be present for the event but all is not lost since a live recording will be issued by Camjazz in 2009.

Until the pleasure of seeing Enrico Pieranunzi on stage again, one can wholeheartedly assure him that, per his admonition, we shall not “forget the poet” (per the quintet CD bearing the same name) and refer to Glenn Gould’s view that “the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity”. This, in a nutshell, is what Enrico Pieranunzi is all about.