On January 8, ECM will release a curious album by the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and the 11-piece Parco della Musica Jazz Lab. Titled Rava on the Dance Floor, the release is a live recording of eight songs plucked from the universe of the late pop god Michael Jackson. The album also includes a nice version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” a song Jackson much admired. This is no lark, as evidenced by Rava’s enthusiastic endorsement of the artist and the material—and his committed playing on the disc.
The trumpeter readily admits that he paid little attention to Jackson while the singer was alive. But in the days after Jackson’s death in June 2009, in the midst of the media circus that surrounded his passing, Rava began listening to his music in earnest. “What finally convinced me,” he says, “was the contagious riff of ‘Smooth Criminal.’ The fact is that, from a certain moment on, Michael Jackson simply invaded my life. My wife and I bought all the Jackson discs and videos we could find. And my long and dull road trips were transformed into enthusiastic listening sessions. It became clear to me that for years I had ignored one of the great protagonists of 20th-century music and dance. A total artist, a perfectionist, a genius. I was especially knocked out by the film This Is It, which documents the rehearsals for that extraordinary show. How amazing to see that 50-year-old Peter Pan, so fragile and vulnerable, transformed into a benevolent but absolute authority on stage, in control of every small detail, correcting a spotlight, the emphasis of a bass note, a dancer’s step or the length of a musical pause.
“I felt the necessity to delve deeper into Jackson’s music by adding something of myself to it,” Rava continues. “In Mauro Ottolini, I found the ideal partner for the arrangements. The band could only be the PMJL. And the place the Auditorium Parco della Musica di Roma, where everything got its start.” (It was after a concert at the Auditorium that Rava first learned of Jackson’s death.)
Rava on the Dance Floor breaks with the trumpeter’s long-established habit of setting his own compositions in the foreground of his many ECM releases. Here he delivers impassioned performances of Jackson’s material—“Speechless,” “Thriller,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Blood on the Dance Floor”—and it’s all very much worth hearing.