Umbria Jazz: Days 1-3, July 10-12, 2009
Key to the international popularity of Umbria Jazz is its daily schedule of free concerts. The bands, each of which performs a one-hour set daily at the Giardini Carducci, comprise mostly roots-music that's related to, but isn't, jazzpar for the course at 21st century jazz festivals, but an undeniable crowd pleaser (and, surprisingly, a moneymaker, since snacks and beer are sold alongside the stage). Besides, complaining about the lack of purity seems a little petty: The music is not only free, but also very good, and a lot of fun to boot.
For proof, look no further than the first band of the afternoon, Guido Pistocchi's Dixieland Band. Pistocchi, a trumpeter from the Italian state of Romagna, does a pretty credible impression of Louis Armstrongon his horn, and leads a sextet with a sound like Satchmo's later, New Orleans revivalist groups: trombone, clarinet, piano, bass, and drums. The ensemble is spit-and-polish, even in their boisterous takes on trad polyphony. But they're not quite "authentic"---certainly not in the selection of material, which included a slow but indeed, decidedly Dixieland, rendition of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo": right era, wrong style. Yet it was beautifully played and as moving as ever. Pistocchi's heart clearly lies with Armstrong, however; for the band's closer, they played his arrangement of "Mack the Knife," with the leader this time imitating Armstrong on vocal; he had the voice itself right, but couldn't completely disguise his Italian accent, which made the performance enjoyable but weird.
Likewise, the following King Pleasure & the Biscuit Boys band were excellent and fun musicians...but with the emphasis heavily on the "fun" part. A jump blues/R&B quintet from Britain, these guys acted out the part of 1950s bands like Louis Prima's and Bill Haley's) with gusto, down to the slicked-back hair and matching royal blue suits. Pleasure, the band's stout singer and baritone saxophonist, even adopted a foghorn voice with a gleeful Southern (U.S.) drawl. "This is a SHUUH-ffle fer yer dancin' pleasure," he boomed at the start of the band's original "Don't Remember Me Baby"; later, when he asked "Are y'all ready to rock & roll?" and received a lukewarm response, he shouted, "THE KING CAYN'T HEEEEAR YOU!"
For all his outsize personality, however, Pleasure wasn't the star of his own bandat least not musically. The tenor saxophonist, "Big John" Eastman, tore through everything he touched, growling and moaning through hearty blues and rock & roll rhythms with wild melodies that avoided cliché, even when they were little more than beefed-up riffs. When Pleasure left the stage for Eastman's instrumental feature "Parking Lot Blues," the sax's hot-sauce sound nearly burned holes in the audience's ears. Also threatening to steal the show was the clear comedian of the group, bassist Shark von Schtoop (almost a clone of actor/nerd icon John Hodgeman), who might have been a show all his own. He literally shook at the refrain of "Shake, Rattle and Roll"; he pretended Eastman was kicking him on "Kiss Me Once, Kiss Me Twice"; he sat down and played the bass over his knees like a guitar on "Parking Lot Blues." With players like these, every second of the set was a great time.
Then came singer KJ Denhert, who was something else again. Her sound while unique, is closely related to the broadly used term of "roots music": an adult-contemporary sensibility that mixes in pop, folk, soul, and world, accented by light jazz touches. But Denhert's music also packs some surprises: on two songs ("What's My Name" and "Little Problems"), drummer Ray LeVier and percussionist "Bujo" Kevin Johnson brew up the hard-edged rhythms of go-go, the party music indigenous to African-American Washington, D.C.but their version is less about dancing and shouting, subsumed in Denhert's sweet melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Elsewhere, she mixed in reggae ("Choose Your Weapon"), African inflections ("He's Not Coming Home") courtesy of bassist Mamadou Ba, and classic rock via an acoustic cover of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" (which also featured a ripping alto sax solo from Aaron Heck). When Denhert's set was finished she was cheered as powerfully as the other acts, but there was a different sense to it: this was music where meaning had the most effect.
Call that a temporary change of pace, though; it was followed by Ezra Charles' Texas Blues Band, who brought whooping, hollering, and dancing back to the crowd. The pianist's sextet is a civic treasure in their hometown of Houston, and they brought with them to Italy a hefty stew of musical traditions from the American south. Blues was the base, of course, but there was no shortage of boogie-woogie, country, western swing, jazz, and rock & roll of all kinds, especially Chuck Berrywho speaks through many of Michael Seybold's guitar solosand rockabillyCharles is nothing if not a disciple of Jerry Lee Lewis, with his blond hair sticking straight up, the his nasal twang in his vocal shout, and both his hands and feet running wild on the keyboard. But the dominant flavor in the band is southern soul, courtesy of his three-person horn section: trumpeter Rachelle Akpanumoh, trombonist Nancy Dalbey, and tenor saxophonist Damon Sonnier. Every tune, from Willie Nelson's "Night Life" to Charles' urban original "88 Answers," had tasty horn licks of the Stax-Volt variety running through it. If there were exceptions, they were so not because they didn't have great horn charts but because they gave the tunes a different feel; "Drive Time," for example, couldn't be called anything but rock 'n' roll, and "So Many Women, So Little Time" is as pure as the blues gets. Still, Charles, for all his talent and devotion to the blues, couldn't help but sound a little hokey and anachronisticlike a cranky old guy playing sounds from a world long gonebut the way he and his musicians used the horns refreshed the music.
Alas, at this point it was time to explore elsewhere.
And now for the real stuff.
Even if you didn't know that Freddy Colewas Nat "King" Cole's brother, you'd have drawn a connection between them. The younger Cole shares the elder's knowing, pliant singing voice (if a bit gruffer); the astonishing piano chops; even the instrumentation: Freddy's quartet includes Randy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass, and Curtis Boyd on drums. Their most prominent common trait, though, is the elegance of their music: Cole's pre-dinner performance at a small banquet hall in the Hotel Brufani was an understated set of standard love songs, played and sung with deceptive simplicity.
When Cole opened with "If I Had You," his voice betrayed a sly confidence that comes only with age and experienceand from knowing one's own abilities. Just how good he is, however, didn't become apparent until the next song, "As Far As Love." His vocal chorus was as smartly delivered as before, but this time led into a brightly colored piano solo full of effortless Tin Pan Alley-esque phrases; Cole Porter would have stolen all of them. Equally impressive was a double-quick rendition of "Them There Eyes," seemingly tossed off solely to inject its upbeat energy into the setbut it also happened to show off Boyd's chops by giving him just enough space for stunning fills. Boyd took the spotlight in the set's encore, when he played a mad hand-drumming solo on the Latin-tinged "Let There Be Love."
The other two musicians also got their chances to shine. Cole introduced "Love Walked In" specifically as a feature for Elias Bailey, who fired off a hyper-staccato bass solo to begin the tuneand also demonstrated a sharp ear for very subtle but sophisticated harmony. Guitarist Randy Napoleon, on the other hand, didn't get one featurehe simply got a solo on every tune. But on the band's first instrumental, "Among My Souvenirs," he began to take over the show: Napoleon's light touch got caught up in a whirl of lightning-fast technique. His solos then became the ones to watch for: golden lyricism on "If I Love Again"; sweet, happy variations on "Getting Some Fun Out of Life"; plainspoken, chromatic nostalgia on "Funny How I've Stopped Loving You" (on which his bandmates also took some bows, Boyd with beautiful brushwork and Bailey with imaginative eighth-note accents). He outdid himself during the set's encore with a concise but brilliant submission on "I Was Wrong."
Not that Cole yielded command to Napoleon or anyone else. He sang merrily and sagely on "Something Happens to Me" and "You're Sensational," and the latter contained the longest and most melodically intelligent solo of the evening. But he really let himself go on the final two celebratory tunes, "South Side of Chicago" and "Send for Me," belting out the vocals like a nightclub showoff while playing hard-driving triplet rhythms on the piano.
There is a certain oddity to the scenario: It's considered derogatory to refer to music as "cocktail jazz," but of course that's literally what Cole's "Jazz Aperitif" set was, and its soft character didn't elevate it. The difference is that the audience was listening, and occasionally giving attention to their drinks, not vice versaand we were well rewarded for it.
It's hard enough when the musicians give song titles and explanations to the audience in Italian, which I don't speak; then comes a musician who not only says nothing at all to the audience, but doesn't even pause between the tunes. Either that, or trumpeter Enrico Ravawithout question the first name in Italian jazzhis quartet and guest, sensational trombonist Gianluca Petrella, played several very long pieces that shifted direction multiple times. Either way, the music they presented in a midnight performance at Teatro Morlacchi would have been dense and extremely challenging even if they had paused more often.
As it happened, Rava merely introduced the musicians, and off they went into a slow-developing melodrama (appropriate in this centuries-old opera house) led by Rava and Petrella in a very vocal harmony. Bassist Pietro Leveratto carried most of the background with his heavy drones; pianist Giovanni Guidi, by contrast, played a few accent chords, but mostly frequent spurts of fancy fingerwork, and Fabrizio Sferra bashed away at the drums in an advanced, rock-ish groove. Rava and Petrella each took protracted solos, the trumpeter playing with operatic intensity and Petrella actually one-upping him with swooping lines and intense atonalities.
When they trailed off, Leveratto and Sferra did the same, leaving only Guidi to change course all by himself. The pianist slowed down some more and went into extremely dark modes, like the intro to some evil sonata; Sferra crept back in after several measures, keeping the slow pace, then came Leveratto, plucking menacing high notes. Then, with no warning, Sferra suddenly went into a devilish whirl of speedfrom 0 to 60, if you will, in a split secondleaving Guidi scrambling to keep up. That's when Rava (with his hand cupping the bell of his horn) and Petrella (with a plunger mute) re-entered and began a tough, ugly dialogue of broken dissonances.
Out of this came a surprise. Smack dab in the middle of their musical violence, Rava and Petrella suddenly led the whole band into a ragtime break, their timbres converging into the bouncy syncopations of the turn of the 20th century. It was a brief moment, perhaps four bars before the aggression resumed, but it changed the context of the music entirely: Though the band's music had been and would continue to be steeped in Italian opera, classical music, and modern art-song, from that point on it was impossible to miss its connection to jazz's ultimately American tradition.
At last some sunshine broke through, with a beautiful (and beautifully jazzy) theme on the horns, from which Rava launched another long solo, with Petrella offering strange squeaking sounds in accompaniment. Speaking of accompaniment, Guidi sat out this section of the performance, and by accident or design amazing lines and figures were suddenly audible from Leveratto. At the end of this tune, the band finally paused to a wild ovation from the house, then launched immediately into another thick, complex piece.
But Rava had more surprises in him. First, he closed the set proper by leading the band through a pure swinger, with a sweet melody and very low range in the rhythm section, which sped up mightily at the end like a Young Lions workout. Then, for the encore, they did their first ballad of the night, set on a cascading trombone descent, ticking drums, and a flugelhorn-like line on the trumpet. Leveratto's sound was the most moving, lumbering and exploiting the deep wood sound, while Guidi managed to sneak in some Bill Evans-like passages. But if this last piece was unique, its emotional payload was exactly in keeping with the full set: sublime, but troubled, as though celebrating a triumph but also realizing its unintended, undesirable consequences.
By its very nature, Umbria is an important showcase for the Italian jazz scene, and appropriately, Rava is the first entry point for any exploration of that scene. Yet the master trumpeter and adventurer set a very high bar for the countrymen who will follow him over the next nine days.
It was good fortune to follow Friday night's set by Enrico Rava with Saturday afternoon's, also at Teatro Morlacchi, by Enrico Pieranunzi. The 60-year-old pianist plays a more conventional, hard-boppish style than Ravaan excellent demonstration of just how broad the notion of "Italian jazz" really is.