Here comes some sun: the music of Enrico Rava

Last month saw the 83rd birthday of the great Italian trumpeter Enrco Rava. You’d think that he might have slowed down a little, but apparently not. Checking the ECM website, I just saw that he has nine gigs in Italy coming up over the next couple of months; what’s more, this week he has a new album out, less than a year after the release of Edizione Speciale, which was a live recording of a gig by his sextet of young Italian musicians. Most importantly, he’s still playing beautifully after all these years.

When I first heard Rava’s playing back in the late 1970s, I didn’t really take it in properly; that’s probably because it was on two albums by The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra – Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill and Roswell Rudd’s Numatik Swing Band – where Rava was just one of a large ensemble of musicians, some of them rather better known to me. Furthermore, I didn’t get to hear, during the 70s and 80s, any of the albums he made as leader at that time for ECM, after which he took a long break from the label, recording albums for other companies which were less readily available. So it was only with the release of Easy Living in 2004 – on which he led an all-Italian band which included the very fine pianist Stefano Bollani and the likewise excellent trombonist Gianluca Petrella – that I first became properly aware not only of Rava’s distinctive sound but also of his talents as a composer. I was immediately hooked, and have since acquired nine or ten of his subsequent albums.

They’ve featured a range of formats – duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets and larger, in which he’s focused either on assembling groups of upcoming Italians (Bollani’s replacement on piano since 2011’s Tribe has been the superb Giovanni Guidi) or on playing with Americans like the late great Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, Gerald Cleaver and Dezron Douglas. Rava’s equally at home with slow-tempo reveries and ballads and faster, funkier material (one of his albums, 2012’s Rava On the Dance Floor, found him performing arrangements of songs by Michael Jackson), but he’s particularly impressive when performing more contemplative material. Initially influenced by Miles Davis – though never a mere imitator – Rava has a style that often sounds faintly melancholy but never loses its fundamental warmth; it works marvellously on lyrical material and more abstract numbers alike. What I especially loved when I first heard Easy Living was the warm, rounded, golden tone of his playing; and now that summer seems to be coming to an end, Rava’s scintillating music may help to sustain some of that balmy mood.

Certainly, the new album, The Song Is You, is both a delight and, characteristically, a refreshing development. Rava clearly enjoys collaborating with different musicians from album to album (though certain favourites turn up frequently on the discs featuring larger ensembles), and his latest finds him duetting with the revered American pianist and composer Fred Hersch. Only one of Rava’s own compositions is included, the engagingly bright but brief The Trial; with the exception of Improvisation (which is precisely that) and Hersch’s own mid-tempo Child’s Song, the rest of the material consists of standards. The album kicks off with a wonderfully plaintive, thoughtful rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lovely Retrato em Branco e Preto (Portrait in Black and White); it’s evidently a Rava favourite, since it featured twice – in noticeably different accounts – on 2007’s The Third Man, a duo album with Bollani, whose playing was typically rather more rhapsodic than is Hersch’s on the new album. A fairly straightforward account of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You demonstrates the deft interplay between flugelhorn and piano, whereas Kern and Hammerstein’s titular tune is given a markedly different treatment, its melody only emerging belatedly from an opening that hardly hints at what will come. To finish we get two Monk classics: Misterioso, the quirkily angular theme gradually giving way to a more leisurely rhythm that feels pleasingly fluid; and ’Round Midnight, delivered as a solo by Hersch, whose subtle exploration of the familiar line discovers consistently surprising harmonies and textures.

The Song Is You is a terrific album, then, and if you don’t know Rava’s work it would serve as a good introduction; that said, if more upbeat material by a larger ensemble is your preference, an album like Tribe might be more appropriate. But all the albums I’ve mentioned are well worth investigating, as are those earlier releases like The Pilgrim and The Stars (1975) and Enrico Rava Quartet (1978) which I’ve only recently caught up with myself. Meanwhile, you can listen to the new studio version of Retrato em Branco e Preto here, and if you’re really keen on catching Rava and Hersch together, you’ll find below a live performance from last year, featuring more extended versions of some of the material on the album. (Ignore the preamble and start the piece as the pair come on to the stage around 3’30” into the video.) Apart from anything else, they kick off with that wonderful Jobim tune, and offer The Song Is You as an encore.

Enrico Rava and Fred Hersch’s The Song Is You is released by ECM on 9 September. The portrait photograph of Enrico Rava is by Robert Cifarelli, courtesy ECM.

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