From Italy, a Pianistic Palette With Playful Dashes of Humor
American jazz audiences best know Stefano Bollani as the pianist of choice for the trumpeter Enrico Rava, Italy’s most accomplished jazz musician. In Italy Mr. Bollani is considerably more: a novelist, a media personality, almost a comedic brand. His first ECM album as a leader, “Piano Solo,” arrived in the United States this week; when it was released in his own country six months ago, it breached the Top 20 on the pop charts.
Mr. Bollani played a solo recital at the Teatro of the Italian Academy at Columbia University on Tuesday night, managing to fill the elegant room. His performance, which ranged from silvery balladry to antic effusion, offered a kaleidoscopic view of his talents. And partly because of his jocular presence onstage, the concert was a truer representation of his personality than the album.
He began with the same overture as on “Piano Solo,” a theme by the Italian songwriter Antonio Zambrini called “Antonia.” His articulation was pellucid, his cadence supple and judicious. The emotional undercurrent of the song suggested a particular species of bittersweet reflection, like the sober, self-aware moment in a riotous Fellini film.
As it often does in Fellini’s world, the moment faded. Mr. Bollani turned his attention to an undulant crescendo, hastening his tempo in kind. With his left hand he developed a motif around a fluttering triplet pattern. With his right he outlined a melody that was quickly recognizable as “Body and Soul.”
In the concert’s midsection Mr. Bollani offered some original compositions, including a pair of handsome but forgettable ballads, “Nostalgia di Futuro” and “Promenade.” An uptempo piece called “Buzzillare” was more effective, mainly for its rhythmic fluorescence.
For the most part Mr. Bollani’s celebrated comic sensibility showed itself in furtive flashes. He spiked “Maple Leaf Rag” with a sly stutter, and ended “On the Street Where You Live” on a conspicuously somber chord. But his version of “Frame by Frame,” an anthem for the prog-rock band King Crimson, felt serious; perhaps a bit too serious, though it was a clear feat of execution.
“A Media Luz,” a piece by Edgardo Donato, inspired Mr. Bollani’s most outwardly expressive performance. Over a fox trot cadence he played some dramatic flourishes; then he undercut the drama with a flicking index finger, a page from the pianistic playbook of Chico Marx. He evoked another Marx Brother, Harpo, when he reached into the piano to devise a jumble of harplike glissandi and percussive thwacks.
For his encore Mr. Bollani employed a trademark exercise: a medley of songs determined by audience request. There were 11 of them, including “Black Coffee,” “ ’Round Midnight” and “Un’estate Fa,” and he threw them all into a blender, producing a freakish song-stew. It was dazzlingly clever, and — during a mash-up of Billy Joel’s “My Life” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — downright hilarious. But you kind of had to be there.