Danilo Rea combines elements of jazz, classical, and pop into one wild ride

Momentum and fluidity

Acclaimed jazz pianist Danilo Rea guided his audience through an exciting musical journey on Wednesday afternoon during his solo debut at the Spoleto USA Festival. As one of the final acts of this years Wells Fargo Jazz Series, Rea’s set was a colorful, bouncy, and amusing ride that zig-zagged from genre to genre.

Born in Vicenza in 1957, Rea began his musical career in the 1970s with a healthy sense of versatility. He became fluent in classical, folk, pop, and jazz, and he studied at the Santa Cecilia music conservatory in Rome before embarking on a professional trek that leaned toward the progressive side of the Mediterranean jazz scene. Through the 1980s and ’90s, he developed an expressive technique and a uniquely dynamic style.

A decent crowd showed up at the Recital Hall in the College of Charleston’s Simons Center for the Arts for Rea’s early show, one of two evening recitals on Wednesday. The left side of the hall was crammed with attendees trying to secure a nice view of the keys on Rea’s grand piano.

After a warm introduction from jazz series director Michael Grofsorean, Rea practically bounded onto the stage, smile, bowed, and started plunking keys before he was even fully seated. There were no sheet music or charts on the piano. He simply started playing notes, melodies, and phrases, improvising whatever came to mind.

Rea demonstrated terrific technique and a great sense of fluidity in the rollicking opening piece, which kicked off like a lazy bicycle ride through the countryside but gradually accelerated into a stormy race home. He seemed to make up new melodies on the spot, but he cleverly worked around them and returned to them by way of delicate transitions, flowery flourishes, and, at times, thunderous and lumbering phrases that rattled the audience.

Some of the themes and pieces came from Rea’s latest studio release, Piano Works X: A Tribute to Fabrizio De André.

In a subtle, graceful way, Rea enveloped high-pitched melodies on one side while countering with walking bass lines and dense low-tone chordal patterns down below. He utilized the full range of the piano, whether with a feathery-light touch or a more percussive stroke (several runs resembled timpani rolls or vibraphone solos).

Rea’s enthusiasm was contagious. So was his sense of mischief, especially in the manner in which slipped away from a more classical style into a blues riff or a familiar be-bop-era theme. During the most rambunctious moments, Rea sounded like a Van Cliburn fan covering one of Charlie Parker’s complex saxophone runs. Occasionally, some intentional dissonance signaled dramatic melodic turning points during a piece. During the quieter, pastoral passages, Rea displayed some of his more unorthodox tricks, like his extravagant glissando in which he looked like he stirring keys with his right fist.

While a few Italian opera and symphonic themes popped up throughout the set, Rea also touched on popular tunes, improvising on the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” and “America” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. And he had a blast toying with Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” inverting the main riff and twisting new melodies along the way.

The audience responded approvingly throughout the performance. They gave Rea two standing ovations and enjoyed a full encore after the hour-long set.

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