Enrico Pieranunzi (1949) is an Italian jazz pianist. When he was only five years old he began studying piano. From then on Enrico kept on following a double road in music. In fact he developed his jazz style while studying classical piano and fuses classical technique with jazz. He has performed with, among others, Frank Rosolino, Sal Nistico, Kenny Clarke, Johnny Griffin, Chet Baker, Joey Baron, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Marc Johnson, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Charlie Haden, Mads Vinding, and Billy Higgins. He issued his first LP in 1975. He has performed widely with his own group at European and American jazz festivals. Among pianists working in the harmonic tradition of the late Bill Evans, Enrico Pieranunzi has achieved a rare individuality, bringing unrivaled senses of line and sheer sonority to the style. Along with the advanced harmonic language, the Italian pianist belongs to a native bel canto tradition that extends to classical pianists as brilliant as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Maurizio Pollini and film composers like Nino Rota and Enrico Morricone. As leader of the Space Jazz Trio in the 1970s, he worked with some of the most lyrical musicians in jazz, including trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Lee Konitz and that too has contributed to his ability to be at once spare and rhapsodic. His teaching experience, both in jazz and classical field, is also noteworthy. He is currently full professor of piano at the “Conservatorio di Musica” in Frosinone. His discography covers more than 70 recordings under his own name. One of his latest cd is dedicated to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, combining jazz improvisation with classical music. Pieranunzi finds it almost his second nature to be partnered on some albums with the late drummer Paul Motian and bassist Marc Johnson, who played with Bill Evans (Album: Live at the Village Vanguard, Camjazz, 2013).
In 2001 he published a book on Bill Evans in Italian: “Bill Evans: Ritratto D’Artista Con Pianoforte” (Stampa Alternativa), later translated both in English “The Pianist as an Artist” (Continuum Books, 2004) and in French “Bill Evans : Portrait d’auteur de l’artiste au piano” (Rouge profond, 2004). The foreword and afterword are respectively written by Ira Gitler and Marc Johnson. Each edition of the book included a CD entitled “Evans Remembered” featuring Pieranunzi in solo piano settings, including a track featuring 6 variations of the Evans’ composition “Very Early” and four sextet tracks. Pieranunzi divides the book by tunes that Bill Evans wrote and discusses things that were happening in Bill’s life that may have contributed to the various compositions. Pieranunzi shows a great sensitivity to Bill’s music and life and speaks knowledgably about the melodies, harmonies and style. He recorded apart from that in 2000 a tribute album “Enrico Pieranunzi & Horns – Evans Remembered”.
Next with permission of Enrico Pieranunzi, an interview from the last chapter of his book by Gianfranco Salvatore and Vincenzo Martorella as to what his purpose was in writing this book.“What did it mean for you, as a jazz pianist, to write a book on Bill Evans?
I was very hesitant about doing it. In the early 1990s I had only recently succeeded in convincing both audiences and critics that playing jazz piano and having a trio did not automatically mean being a clone of Bill Evans. I had found my own, original way to make music, and Evans’ legacy was part of the past. So writing a book on him could have seemed a sort of step backwards. When I finally accepted I realized that maybe the real reason for my writing the book had not as much to do with music as it did with something else that concerned the creativity/self-destruction combination. I wanted to explore that aspect, to understand why, in order to be creative, in music and in other art forms, one should have to pay a price as high as the one Evans paid. I wanted to denounce that tragic, absurd clich that identifies being an artist with illness, or even madness.
Was it difficult for you, not being a professional writer, to undertake a task like this?
It was fascinating and tortuous at the same time. Writing words and composing music have something intangible in common: shaping a sentence is not so far from tracing the outline of a melody. It has to have song-quality, musicality and feeling. In a melody as in a story, the choice of a word or a note, their placement or movement have enormous impact and consequences.
Melody and story: are not perhaps these the most significant elements in the legacy of Bill Evans, as well as his relevance?
A melody has powerful narrative potential. One of the great mysteries of music is the possibility of breathing life into a story without needing to use words. It’s as if the melody had its own silent words that turn it into a song. But in order to get there you have to completely abandon yourself to it, and in this Bill Evans was clearly a master. It is no easy thing to make the piano sing the way he was able to.
How do you mean?
Bringing out the expressiveness of which the human voice, or some wind instruments like the trumpet, are capable poses thorny problems for the pianist. Evans resolved them by making use of devices which originated partly in classical piano music, and in this way truly brought about a silent revolution. Phenomena like Jarrett or Mehldau would be unimaginable without Evans’ enormous achievements in the face of the technical/expressive problems of the piano.
What was your first contact with Evans?
Sometime between ’66 and ’68 I bought a weekly music magazine at a newsstand that cost more or less the equivalent of one dollar at the time. It had a record insert with three pieces played by Evans: “Tenderly”, “Blues in F” and “Peri-Scope”. I was deeply struck by “Blues in F”, and especially by his left hand work. At that time my playing was much in the style of Bud Powell, and even a little bit ala Erroll Garner, so when I heard Evans play a blues like that I wondered what on earth he was doing. It took me a long time to de-code the way he set up the left hand chords, and to figure out that famous voicing that nowadays is so much the norm for all young people learning to play jazz. I also think that the trio with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker was one of the best and most underestimated that Evans ever had. Israels had grown up a lot since 1962 when he replaced LaFaro. He was much more sure of himself and interacted magnificently with Evans. What’s more, he had a very profound and relaxed walk. As for Bunker, among other things, he had an extremely important gift: he knew how to play soft – not over but under the acoustic level of the piano.
You mean to say that others of Evans’ drummers weren’t able to do that?
Yes! The drummer is always a problem for the pianist, and the reason for this is simple: if he doesn’t listen to you, if he decides not to listen to you, he will inevitably play much louder than you, and so as the pianist you’re forced to change something touch, expression, phrasing. Evans was perfectly aware of this, to the extent that, according to him, the truly ideal trio was a piano/bass duet! even though at the same time, he was crazy about some drummers, first among whom was Philly Joe Jones.
You have played with three drummers, Motian, Zigmund and LaBarbera, who played at one time or another in Evans’ trio. How did it make you feel?
Very excited – my emotions ranged from the impact I felt when Motian told me that the cymbal he had used while we were playing together was the same one that he had used on “Spring Is Here”, with Evans and LaFaro, to some others more difficult to put into words. In reality, although I tried not to get labeled, a series of rather paradoxical coincidences very often led me into Evans’ orbit, through the musicians like those you have just mentioned. From the point of view of my own identity I knew perfectly well that I was running a big risk, but I think I have met the challenge.
On the other hand, you have established a collaborative artistic relationship with Marc Johnson that has lasted for sixteen years now!
My musical relationship with him is based on an instinctive and deep mutual understanding which, I believe, goes beyond any form of “Evansism”; we have recorded a lot of CDs together and done lots of concerts. We have, also, made several recordings and tours with Motian, so when people hear us play together, it’s almost inevitable that the ghost of Bill Evans, to some extent, is evoked. But in reality our music is completely original and goes its own way.
What is Evans relevance?
It’s two-fold. On the one hand, there is that marvelous piano “vocabulary’ that, before Evans, had never been heard in jazz, and which is destined to remain the fundamental nucleus of any study of this language form. The other, more specifically artistic one lies in the beauty of his music, a shadowy beauty concealing an obscure, gnawing anxiety – that death-wish which played a decisive role in the attraction that drew people to Evans’ music. No wonder Gene Lees defined it as “Love-letters written to the world from some prison of the heart.” This is, briefly, the relevance of a Caravaggio or a Van Gogh, or of all great artists who succeed in giving us a glimpse into corners of human reality that are usually invisible, but who deny us, perhaps, the hope that the beauty of their art would seem to promise.
If I were to ask you to write another book on the subject of jazz, would you accept?
If it were a book that gathered many of my personal memories in true narrative form: in other words, a story made up of stories. I would prefer this to a monograph on this or that jazz personality since that assonance between writing and composing music which I mentioned earlier could grow even stronger. Despite the incredible transformations in communications that we are currently witnessing, I still believe very much in the power, and in the necessity, of telling a story either in words or in song.”
Copyright Enrico Pieranunzi from “Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist” (Continuum Books).