“Music has something to do with the body; it is much more physical than people think.”
On a cool, but quite humid Autumn Equinox day in Tokyo last September 23rd, the formidable maestro Enrico Pieranunzi stood by the door of the interview room—clad in a dark grey cotton cardigan, grey collar golf shirt, jeans; with sharp, penetrating eyes behind clear spectacles that have mirrored hundreds of delightful tunes next to Chet Baker, Phil Woods, Billy Higgins, Lee Konitz, and more, at the same time, echoing Bill Evans and Domenico Scarlatti in one immense universe called Music.
Playing on his third lyrical journey to Japan since 2004 at the Cotton Club Japan in Tokyo, Enrico’s virtuosity requires no elaborate ornamentation or logical explanation as to what makes a piano performance so enthralling it carves in your innocent heart. The mystery of sound dissolves itself between your ears, and with eyes shut as I did during his concert, the notes pour out of Enrico’s fingers so luminously clear as river water in spring. Anne Blomster Sang, the opening track of his 2015 album Double Circle, for instance, ensues such a deep, moving experience.
As I myself had learned playing the piano from five years old, I grew up perpetually awed by the rhythm of Bach’s distinct melodies both on the bass and treble clefs. Both music rotations are inseparable. I had not encountered such vibrancy and precise balance of melodies by both hands in a long time until I sat before Enrico’s heart-gripping performance. One feels an almost perfect equilibrium of the weight of the piano keys where sharps and flats constantly roll without pause, painting that lasting, inevitable smile for the night. By the hit of the climax at the first encore from an audience request, Cinema Paradiso, which coincidentally Enrico played originally for Ennio Morricone for the recording of the album, the Japanese listeners fell to the ground. Bellissimo.
Like most foreigners who come to taste Japan for a short sip, Enrico has his own share of Japan impressions.
Enrico: In my eleven years of relationship with Japan and the Japanese people, I feel that there is a lot of patience and fondness for things in Japan. Japanese are absolutely and horribly so well informed about music, even more than me (laughs). They really follow your work. I continue to love Japanese culture and its concept of life—flowers, nature, and attention to detail, which are all very special to me. During concerts, the expression from the audience is very different from the U.S. and Europe because Japanese are much more discreet, but this silent communication can be very strong, and I am always struck by it.
Groomed in music from five and a half years old by his father, Alvaro Pieranunzi, wonderful guitar player, could Enrico’s pursuit of music be called “destiny?”
EP: Destiny is an interesting word. Since I started playing the piano as a small child, I could say music became second skin to me. But, I always thought that my relationship with music, not me as a performer, is a very private and intimate relationship with sound and creativity. True, that my father influenced me from the beginning because he bought the piano (laughs), gave me all the information about music, jazz, songs…then I did my own “decoding.” But, my true hero was Charlie Parker. My father had 1978 78 RPM recordings of Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz… and that became the ground for my language to decode, which took a long process to do. Therefore, I always related music with patience, rather than the desire to be on stage, which actually came late in my life.
With about 70 albums transcending over 40 years of intense collaboration with the world’s cradle of music legends, from Chet Baker, Kenny Clarke, Johnny Griffin, Joey Baron, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Marc Johnson, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Bill Smith, Charlie Haden, to Billy Higgins, and more, plus “decoding” of classics, such as Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas, Enrico has always viewed his approach to classics and jazz as one, and sharing such unified poetry with these incredible artists has always been the root of his enormous inspiration.
EP: There was never a transition from classics to jazz in my life. I played them together at the same time. When my father bought a piano, he also found a classical teacher, around 1955. I “decoded” to jazz but the two were always parallel. However, I can say that during my 20s, I lived in a great period sharing music with all these great jazz players. During the 70s, jazz started to become “electrified,” being mixed with rock and all, especially in the U.S. Bebop players didn’t accept this change, so they moved to Europe, which was very lucky for us! Johnny Griffin moved to France; Dexter Gordon moved to Denmark; Chet Baker to Italy…so this was a great school for us in Europe. At 24, I first played with Johnny Griffin, and this had an immense impact on my music.
It would be worth to single out Chet Baker among the influential American musicians, and the significant light he shone on European players, such as Enrico. A man often called quiet but deep, Chet served as a pivotal turning point in Enrico’s career and personal life.
EP: While in Rome, my promoter called me to play with Chet Baker in a small town two hours from Rome. After the concert, I asked Chet, “Why don’t we record together?” And it happened. We recorded our first album together, Soft Journey in 1979. This encounter changed my life, because before I met Chet, I used to play in the fashion of Chick Corea, very bubbly and strongly. But, when I met Chet, I thought, “Wait… he played so few notes, but it was so intense.” And, this changed the power of my approach to music. Most importantly, I started to appreciate the essence of melody. As you know, Chet played the trumpet like a singer, and sang like a trumpet player—they were exactly the same thing. He was so deep. We then, recorded three more albums, Silence with Charlie Haden in 1987, The Heart of the Ballad, and Little Girl Blue in 1988.
And, how does Bill Evans enter the picture?
EP: People always think that I am heavily influenced by Bill Evans. But, to be honest, in the beginning, I didn’t like him so much. I always preferred African-American players: Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, and so forth… But, when I met Chet Baker, everything changed. And, I rediscovered Bill Evans once more. If not for Chet, I would not have gone back to Bill. Chet truly empowered me with his melody and storytelling. He and I hardly exchanged so many words throughout the years of our relationship, but he was so intense. And if you are able to absorb this feeling, your life would change for sure.
In 2001, Enrico plunged almost haphazardly into one of his most challenging adventures, to publish a book on Bill Evans, Bill Evans: Ritratto D'Artista Con Pianoforte (The Pianist as an Artist). The most crucial element to understand about this book is that it does not simply grasp the life of the celebrated American jazz pianist as interpreted by the Italian maestro, but it interweaves the soul of the artist and the physical power of music that can virtually destroy him.
EP: I think that people associated me with Bill Evans because I played with many partners he played with. And, yes, I did write a book about him, but I thought about it for two months before accepting the offer from the publisher because I knew I would write the book not for music itself, but to better understand and explore the relation between talent, sensitivity, and self-destruction. As with Chet, he and I didn’t exchange a single word about his personal problems. But, he knew I knew. Our stream of communication was only through very deep music. When I was listening to Bill, I took some chords from him (as I did from Chet) to bring about the sensitivity of sound. Bill was so smart and cultured, but he destroyed himself. When I wrote the book, I myself was struggling with my own personal and psychological problems. Thus, I wanted to explore what happens when music is so deep in you that it can be part of a destructive process. This is the reason why I wrote the book. And, this understanding was very revealing to me.
Bill Evans once wrote, “People try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem; it's not—it's feeling." Enrico Pieranunzi, however, believes music is very much physical.
EP: Music has something to do with the body. It is much more physical than people think. Women for example, respond to music in a much stronger way than men because women are more physical than men. There is not much difference I think between the physical and emotional aspects in a woman; they come from the same body. But, men are more abstract—we can separate between body, mind and heart. A childhood experience, for example, can attack your body and make you abstract, and this can match with your music, because you have a very physical and sensitive part in you that music represents, but the rest is detached from the body, so there is a conflict. This element can be a moment of instability and can lead to destruction.
Could music have the magnetic power to save a musician?
EP: I believe so. The unbelievable thing I felt when I played with Chet, and when I listened to Bill, is how you can save music in such a self-destructive landscape. How is this possible? This is confirmed proof that music is so physically rooted in yourself, that as a musical person, you can actually destroy it and all that surrounds it, but not the music in yourself. Music can save you. It keeps your physical sensitivity on. In this sense, music is like poetry that can save you as well. If you are depressed, you discover something special in a poem. But, I share my music not to save people. I share a story; you take it in your pocket, then I become happy. I give you something; at the same time, you give something back to me. When this happens, it becomes magical.
That momentous stage performance in Tokyo and endearing personal encounter with Enrico Pieranunzi were more than “just” magical. If Chet Baker was sitting in that audience that night, he would have laid his trumpet on the stage as a gift, and Enrico would not even have noticed it amidst the full absorption of the sensitivity of sound lingering during that delicate moment. Yet, the physical intensity of the notes rushing out of that trumpet would have formed an encouraging cloud over Enrico, shrouding him with the same unsurpassable depth and gravity that have pulled him sturdily through over fifty years of pure, musical sublime.
With gratitude to Cotton Club Japan, Tokyo