While The Third Man is a skeletal, live-in-the-studio duo recording between pianist Stefano Bollani and Italian treasure, trumpeter Enrico Rava, its sound moves far beyond the intimacy that such a pairing would normally warrant. Bollani and Rava have been playing together for over a decade, and these 12 pieces reflect the deep communication that exists as a result of that working relationship. According to Bollani, they have worked as a duo in concert settings before and on record, but never like this. What this means is that both the recording studio -- the Auditorio Radio Svizzera in Lugano, Italy, and Manfred Eicher's recording process for ECM that allows recording without headphones in direct communication -- played a unique and powerful role, as well as an informative one in the process of making the record. The title of the disc references Eicher as a collaborator, as well as referring good-naturedly to Orson Welles and the film noir tradition.
Rava composed six of the album's tracks, Bollani one, and the pair freely improvised the hauntingly beautiful and melodically compelling title cut. There are all sorts of nods here. For openers, there's Bruno Martino's "Estate," a Neapolitan folk song, which was extrapolated upon by Antonio Carlos Jobim for "Retrato Em Branco y Preto." The original plus two versions of the Jobim tune are here. This track and its evolution marks passage through the set at beginning, middle, and the final variant, right near the end.
Then there is the magnificently tender reading of "Felipe," by one of Brazil's greatest composers, Moacir Santos. (Check out his Blue Note sides, which are available as inexpensive imports from Europe at good online retailers.) Its open, reverie-like character is brought into the present by Rava's deeply expressive take on the melody, as Bollani offers augmented chords that enhance and deepen it. When he takes his solo, he uses the melody as a way inside the character of the tune, making it a bittersweet cavern of memory. "Cumpari," by Rava, is a fine and strangely complex lyrical approach to modern composition. The contrapuntal pianism of Bollani as he uses three different scalar approaches to the motifs in the structure nod to everyone from Stravinsky, Bartók, and even Lutoslawski, but they echo Bernard Hermann, Umiliani, and Morricone, as well. Rava engages a more dimensional and textural approach in his solo, where he adds vanguard and modal jazz to the mix. This is the only "remotely" outside thing here. At just under five minutes, it is still a delight, and melds well with the more deeply and consciously melodic pieces here. It's a wonder that "The Third Man" is so near the beginning, because it is arguably the best thing here. That said, it doesn't detract from the rest as much as it provides an aural view into the deeply conversational and historically rich sound world being so poetically explored between this pair. While it's also true that it is indeed the Italians who have put such a lyrical, emotionally honest stamp on jazz since the '60s and are indeed involved in a tremendous period of creativity with it since the '70s that shows no sign of slowing down (no matter which subgenre of the music being made), these two are among its most expressive and communicative, making them ambassadors. The Third Man is a brilliant collaboration and a beautifully accessible as well as adventurous offering.