Enrico Rava's 2004 outing, Easy Living, marked not only his return to the ECM label after a 17-year absence, but the complete maturation of his quintet, which at that time had been gigging together for four years. The Words and the Days sees most of the same band return with one major chair: Rava's great foil, pianist Stefano Bollani who released his acclaimed solo piano album on the label, has been replaced by the fluid, more percussive Andrea Pozza. The program consists of seven Rava originals, a cover of Don Cherry's "Art Deco" performed as a wonderfully warm and spirited duet with trombonist Gianluca Petrella, one each by drummer Roberto Gatto ("Traps"), and bassist Rosario Bonaccorso ("Sogni Proibiti" ["Forbidden Dreams"]), and a version of Russ Freeman's "The Wind," written as a vehicle for the late Chet Baker. Typical of this quintet recording, Rava digs into the jazz tradition and brings to it his lyrical gift as a composer, an improvising soloist and an arranger. His reading of "The Wind" is a fine example. Keeping Baker's sparseness in phrase, he infuses it with the echoing presence of Petrella, playing just a shade behind the melody, and then playing only parts of it and adding a bit of humor and drama to the work to make it a bit noir-ish rather than a straight nostalgia piece. Gatto's dancing brush work adds to the present tense understanding of the tune and is underscored by Pozza's painterly piano lines. Only the bassline by Bonaccorso keeps the tune rooted in history.
Conversely, "Echoes of Duke," which immediately proceeds from it, is a firm case in point of Rava's view of jazz tradition as living in the present and pointing to the future. Using the scuttlebutt rhythmic impulses of the Jimmy Blanton-Ben Webster band and the lyric improvisation of Ellington's great brass frontliners, Rava nonetheless moves the tune just outside enough to be a new and sprightly read on the blues. "Serpent" is an abstract piece that roots itself in the skeletal remnants of Miles Davis' modal period in the mid- to late '60s. The blues are everywhere present, but they are stretched almost to the breaking point, and Pozza's commanding, empathic solo here is nearly breathtaking. The final piece, the nine-minute "Dr. Ra and Mr. Va," is the best example of the ensemble's inner dialogue, wrapping a minimal chart in grand poetic designs. Rava's solo offers hints as to where he wants the band to go, and they don't just follow, they end up on the frontline with him. It begins so warm and leisurely it's deceptive. There is a lot of spatial organizing going on here. Despite the chart, there are moments of improvisation happening in the lyric, and in its harmonic interpolation by Pozza and then Petrella. The tune is like a Möbius strip, changing places with itself throughout its length. Once more, Rava dazzles with his grasp of the languages of jazz: its textures, its rhythms, its dynamics and above all, of course, its secretive and inventive melodic improvisation. There is no let down here from Easy Living; The Words and the Days is a worthy companion that confidently stands not in the previous recording's shadow, but on a ledge of its own.