Before he mined the rich tonal terrain afforded by improvisation, Milan’s Stefano Battaglia gained international notice as a classical pianist, building his reputation through the European festival circuit. The musical approaches of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett opened up his ears to the possibilities inherent in spontaneity, but Battaglia’s uniqueness resides in that chamber music background, which can explain his innate ability to pace a song with an organic flow and a gentle undercurrent that rises and recedes like the tide.
Songways is his fifth ECM album, his first coming in 2006 (Raccolto) but the first time on ECM he’s repeating a format; Songways, is like 2011′s The River of Anyder a trio album comprised of Salvatore Maiore on double bass and Roberto Dani on drums. This trio is also a vehicle for Battaglia’s latest stage in his musical development, representing, in his own words, “a new harmonic balance between archaic modal pre-tonal chant and dances, pure tonal songs and hymns and abstract texture.” To my ears, it means a priority on discreet melodic development, using groups of chords that loosely define the melody, and music that moves freely in an avant-garde way but with highly lyrical chord sequences. Maiore’s role is to give shape to the melodies, but as economically as possible.
Battaglia takes his time in harmonic development, as evidenced by the extended melodies found on arpeggio-rich “Euphonia Elegy” and the spare “Armonia.” There are times where jazz is not even the primary component in a song, such as the Old World folk melody that graces “Ismaro,” where Battaglia is content to showcase the charming strain than dilute its impact with too much improvisation. On tracks such as “Vondervotteimittis” and “Monte Analago,” Battaglia will begin the song virtually alone with a string of chords that’s dark, almost dissonant, but evolves into something more defined as Maiore nudges his way in to fill in the gaps.
Dani’s role is primary a colorist, as he is barely keeping time on a couple of tracks and doesn’t bother with that task at all for the rest of the album. The emphasis he places on cymbals and chimes draws comparison to Norwegian great Jon Christensen, but is even more abstract. The closing track “Babel Hymn” stands out for his use of tom-toms, which is his first extensive use of them the entire album, and he displays a soft sophistication with those parts of the kit, too.
The deeply expressionistic style that Stefano Battaglia and his trio pursue for Songways should be attractive for anyone who is drawn to the classically-tinged but open-ended European jazz aside of ECM Records.