Review: Kekko Fornarelli at Ellington Jazz Club
Kekko Fornarelli at Ellington Jazz Club
Sunday, October 22, 2023
All music is magic but some is more magic than others.
There’s something about solo piano played with great sensitivity that both haunts and soothes the human soul. To experience someone doing it live is a sensation beyond words. Italian, Kekko Fornarelli delivered such a show at the Ellington last Sunday night, a prelude to the Perth International Jazz Festival.
Finally something truly magnificent has come from covid. After a frantic ten years performing more than 400 concerts in some sixty countries, come lockdown, Fornarelli didn’t know what to do with himself. He was lost without his ensemble and audiences. For the first two months, stuck in his apartment with his wife and cats, he forgot completely what it was to be a musician but then he decided to compose ‘naked’ music just on his piano. The result is the album Naked, which Fornarelli performed pretty well in full at the third and final concert of his Australian tour.
During the soundcheck, when he tested the synth sampler sitting on the lip of the Yamaha grand, a woman at a table up the front pulled a face.
“This doesn’t sound like my kind of jazz,” she said. “Forgive me if I walk out.”
Little did she realise what she was in for. As soon as Fornarelli played the plaintive first notes of The Flame, she closed her eyes and a look of sheer wonder spread over her face. It was obvious she wouldn’t be going anywhere before the last bars of the night were played.
Fornarelli describes his compositions as writing from his life, his performances as conversations, a way to talk about his life with his audience. As such, the music he performed, although very close, was not exactly the same as the recording. Pieces extended, moved back and forth through special passages that built in intensity and sensitivity in response to the audience’s reaction while the cello on the recording was replaced by the synth. This very personal and reflective style resonated deeply with the full house at the Ellington. At the end of each piece, there was a pause that was sometimes accompanied by a collective sigh, once a softly spoke ‘bravo,’ before the room erupted into ecstatic applause.
About half way through the second piece, S.U.D. (both ‘south’ in Spanish and an acronym of ‘sturm und drang,’ German: storm and stress), which started out as more classically classical, the audience enraptured in their attention, he reached up to the synth. After a long, sustained, electronic note, he turned to his laptop and flicked on the beats.
At first it seemed to jar, more dance-club than concert hall, too electric for the warm acoustics of Graham Wood’s aged piano, but, as the storm gathered in intensity, the two styles merged into a near perfect synthesis. The beats blended in. When he stood to dance to a melodic synth line, it felt completely natural, fully integrated. The room began to sway in time, people closed their eyes and sunk deeply into themselves. Reaching a plateau of warm major chords, the smiles spread wide. It takes a special kind of magic to do that.
Fornarelli hails from the Lecce province, the heel of Italy’s boot, while Naked was recorded in Milan in the north. His second time in Australia, this tour included concerts in Melbourne and Adelaide. Sponsored by the Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Institute in Melbourne, the Perth show was also supported by the Perth International Jazz Festival and The Ellington.
His third piece, which he described as his Batman tribute, was again solo piano. Ethereal, the gasp at its end was almost as loud as the soft closing note. This was followed by a medley: I Can’t Sleep, Bitter Blood and Playing In My Head. Once again, half way through, he introduced the beats and synth in a mesmerising way.
He closed with Fairy Lullaby, a homage to an un-named Italian actress. Solo piano, loveliness interlaced with darkness, by the end the audience felt stripped bare, emotionally naked.
The applause rang out long and hard. A few stood up. More bravos peppered the room.
Most left the Club with a visceral sense of wonder akin to what the audience at the Köln Concert Hall must have felt around midnight on Friday, January 24, 1975 after hearing Keith Jarrett unleash his spontaneous masterwork on the world. It was that kind of show.
Fornarelli is looking forward to reforming his ensemble, again touring the world with them and also to immersing himself in his newly acquired position composing film scores, something he has long dreamed of. Let’s hope he also continues to compose and perform these naked piano conversations. They are an exquisite delight ripe for concert halls and jazz clubs the world over.
Photos by Alan Holbrook