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February 13, 2007

Shortcuts—Stefano Bollani's Piano Solo

Stefano Bollani’s Piano Solo might be the most lushly recorded album ever produced. Each time Bollani strokes a note, it glows with dark timbre, lingering with haunting resonance as it fades to silence. Every sound on Piano Solo has the fullness and arc of a miniature composition. The album is a triumph of ECM’s audio engineering prowess and Bollani’s exquisite keyboard touch.

Yet Piano Solo is hardly a triumph of solo jazz piano. It’s as if Bollani became so intoxicated with the beauty of these pure sounds that he forgot to develop them into a musical whole. He wanders through the music, so focused on taking the perfect step that he rarely looks up to make sure that he hasn’t lost the trail. On most of the album’s 16 tracks, Bollani’s wandering leads him in circles. His sparse, deliberate playing returns to the same spots again and again, creating a repetitive texture that haunts, but ultimately bores. Bollani’s left hand is especially repetitive—the same arpeggios and chord patterns played over and over again lead to a harmonic malaise that weighs down the entire project. The music remains shackled to the languid repetitions of beautiful sounds. Piano Solo is a lyrical tone poem undone by a sagging rhythm and a harmonic sameness that causes the tracks to blend together into an elegant mush.

While most of this ethereal music fails to spring to life, a few of the later tracks possess more vitality. Bollani gives Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” an exacting treatment that trims away the excesses of ragtime piano but retains the music’s rollicking spirit. Bollani’s composition “Sarcasmi,” the album’s penultimate track, has the kind of focused spontaneity that the earlier tracks lacked, retaining the glorious purity of sound while constructing a dense and fulfilling improvisatory arc. These two tracks demonstrate the illuminating possibilities inherent in Bollani’s approach. Most improvisers use compositions as a launching pad, exploring each potential harmonic and melodic path with eager abandon. Bollani isn’t concerned with exploring these branching paths. Rather, he distills songs to their bare essence, letting the beauty of the underlying structure come to the forefront. This approach produces very fulfilling results on a few tracks on Piano Solo, but on the whole, Bollani’s austere deconstructions leave the music with sound but no snap.