Italian jazz pianist Rossano Sportiello was visiting Edinburgh from New York last night and I went to hear him. The jazz musicians in the audience ruefully acknowledged that Sportiello’s elegant appearance had put them to shame. Beautifully pressed grey suit, pink silk tie with matching silk handkerchief tucked in the jacket pocket, a gorgeous haircut … he looked like a wonderful Italian university professor.
After a first half consisting of improvisations based on ‘The Great American Songbook’, he opened the second half with some Duke Ellington, and then announced ‘Now I’d like to play some Chopin’. I imagined it would be an improvisation on a Chopin theme, but no: he played two wistful Mazurkas just as Chopin wrote them. I’m not sure I had ever heard classical pieces smoothly inserted into a jazz recital before, but it worked very well. All the preceding jazz served to focus our attention on Chopin’s way of leading a melodic line or a harmonic change as if it had only just occurred to him. I particularly enjoyed Sportiello’s way with the little ‘cadenzas’, passages of decoration usually printed in tiny notes to make it clear that they are an embellishment of the main line.
Often when teaching I have tried to explain that Chopin cannot have meant his decorative passages to sound wooden or stiff, no matter how intricate the fingering. They’re meant to sound like beautiful wisps of sound, prolonging a particular moment. But how rarely does one hear them played like that! Often they sound distressingly solid. When Rossano Sportiello played them, I realised that improvisation is the key. He made them sound effortless, turning them into delicate breaths of air. Chopin would have been pleased!