Italian pianist Stefano Travaglini's Ellipse, an hour-long real-time set free of cuts or edits, might at first appear to be an example of pure improvisation, and in one sense that's true: laid down in September 2016 at Oslo's Rainbow Studio (known for its close association with Manfred Eicher's ECM label), the recording captures exactly what went down in real time during that hour. Yet themes, quotations, and in some instances full compositions were referenced and invoked during the session, indicating that a judicious degree of planning and preparation preceded the recording process. All of which makes for a better result: in weaving together improvisation and formally composed elements, Travaglini achieves a thoroughly satisfying balance. Though the pieces as presented on the release were no doubt performed in the order in which they're presented, the particular sequence he presumably predetermined also strengthens its impact.
That balance is evident throughout the recording's nine pieces, from its opening exploration “The Importance of Fishing” to its lyrical closer “Good Bye, for Now (Meditation).” Travaglini's playing exemplifies both jazz and classical qualities, though they're blended seamlessly in these performances. (He's not only a pianist, by the way, but a multi-instrumentalist who's performed on oboe and bass guitar and studied with Estonian composer Arvo Part and American composer Vince Mendoza.) Certainly a Tristano-like swing permeates that opening setting, a rhythmic insistence that won't be denied no matter how abstract the directions pursued by the pianist. Some pieces, “Persistence” one example, develop methodically, their patient unfurl reflective of their origins in real-time creation. In such cases, Travaglini allows patterns to repeat until a composition-like structure comes into focus and themes acquire definition.
When familiar compositional details emerge within the playing, they seep into it subtly, as if the material, having been fully absorbed before the session, couldn't help but emerge as part of the stream of consciousness-like flow. It's with the medley “Monk's Mood / Presences” that the album really hits its stride. Monk's gorgeous piece emerges, well, elliptically, with fragments of its melody gradually elbowing their way in amongst Travaglini's extemporizations, after which the twelve-minute setting advances into the pianist's own freer “Presences” material. The album's other ‘cover,' “Softly, as in Morning Sunrise,” written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1928, also receives an affectionate makeover.As often is the case with solo piano recordings, it's the ballad settings that cast the musician's artistry in its most flattering light. In keeping with its title, “Looking Back” exudes a deeply nostalgic character that's handled by Travaglini with incredible delicacy and poise for the full measure of its eight minutes. Heartache is conveyed masterfully in this album standout, much as wistfulness is in the also gentle “Good Bye, for Now (Meditation).” No mention of the release would be complete without noting the pristine sound quality of the recording. With Travaglini improvising on a grand piano within the Rainbow Studio space, the material resonates with a degree of clarity that significantly enhances the impression made by the recording.