Umbria Jazz: Days 1-3, July 10-12, 2009
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.