Stefano Battaglia ‘Pelagos’ 2CD (ECM) 4/5

Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia has gradually made the transition from classical pianist to one who devotes himself to improvisational music, sometimes if not always, with a jazz connection. On this new recording that comprises both live performance and a studio setting (or at least with no audience present) from the same Fazioli concert venue in Sacile, Italy, Battaglia has as an underlying theme that of movement, and explores this with elements of classical, jazz and even world roots references. All but two of the compositions are originals, with the former two variations on the same traditional folk theme.

Two of the most successful pieces are focused on peoples or music from outside the European continent. The chugging percussive approach to ‘Dogon’ conveys the people of the same name from West Africa, Mali in particular. An interest in other world music traditions seems to have inspired ‘Halap’, which is a word that has several meanings including that of a name, and perhaps is deliberately (or not) vague in sense here, and Battaglia attempts to replicate the up and down scale that Indian classical music is famed for. This writer would like to hear more of the pianist in this vein and the combination of influences works extremely well and suits Battaglia.

There is a simplicity to Battaglia’s playing that is amply illustrated on a piece such as ‘Lamma Bada Yatathama’, which is heard in two separate interpretations on either CD. If anything, the second is the superior version and has a lovely melodic quality. Classical influences are inevitable given the pianist’s early education and the title track has all the feel of a Satie composition. Of particular note and a personal favourite is the Schubertian straightforwardness of a piece such as ‘Life’.

Improvisational inspirations are evident on, ‘Destino’, in which the inner piano is made to chime like a clock, with a slight blues feel, and more experimental formats are explored further on, ‘Exilium’, where the intro has a sound akin to that of Big Ben sounding. Elsewhere, a metallic sound is created on the inner piano with ‘Heron’, another improvised number.

It should be stated that the improvisation rarely gets in the way of the music itself. On other pieces, a film soundtrack ambience is present as on the sparse minimalist approach to ‘Lampedusa’, another reference possibly to the current migration crisis facing Italy and this theme is reinforced by ‘Migration Mantra’, which has a quiet simplicity to it and is one of the most beautiful of all themes on these recordings. All in all, reflective and well crafted album that showcases Battaglia’s versatility.

Tim Stenhouse