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Pieranunzi must be seen to be heard

April 03, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The thought that kept coming to mind Saturday night while listening to the extraordinary piano playing of Enrico Pieranunzi was the question of why this remarkable player has been so little known to the larger American jazz audience.

Part of the problem undoubtedly traces to the relative rarity of his appearances in the U.S. -- compounded for Southern California listeners by his program at the Rising Jazz Stars Foundation in Beverly Hills being the first Los Angeles appearance for the 56-year-old Roman artist.

Performing with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, Pieranunzi immediately established his credentials as a world-class jazz player with an impressive rendering of "Someday My Prince Will Come." Here, as in several other ballads (most notably "Autumn Leaves"), he offered postmodern deconstructions of the songs, beginning with the disassembled pieces, examining and evaluating their elements, gradually pulling them together into his own illuminating musical visions of the material.

Other pieces (especially "Body and Soul" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints") revealed other aspects of Pieranunzi's art -- an irrepressible sense of swing and an inventive, be-bop-saturated approach to improvised, up-tempo melodies.

Add to that a subtle harmonic imagination, a feel for piano tone and, perhaps most important of all, a capacity to maintain the cultural lyricism of the Italian canzone within the framework of propulsive, straight-ahead jazz.

He was aided immensely by Johnson and Baron, who have made a long string of albums with Pieranunzi. Johnson, a veteran associate of Bill Evans, is particularly sensitive to the piano trio format. And Baron is one of the short list of drummers (think Bill Stewart, Brian Blade, Billy Kilson and Jack DeJohnette) who approach the drum kit as a complex, multitimbered instrument of sound and musicality.

It's hard to imagine why a player such as Pieranunzi -- one who has made dozens of recordings and performed with everyone from Chet Baker and Art Farmer to Charlie Haden, Kenny Clarke and Phil Woods -- has never previously been booked in the Southland.

So all the more credit to the nonprofit Rising Jazz Stars Foundation for having showcased such a worthy talent. One hopes Saturday night's appearance will be the first of many more Pieranunzi performances.

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