Umbria Jazz: Days 1-3, July 10-12, 2009
For better or for worse, the highlight of the concert came earlyin the second song, "No Nonsense." After a tense, waltzing head, Pieranunzi played a variation on his part of the theme, merging with Beggia's nervous ticking and crashing to ratchet up its tensions with every four-bar phrase; Giuliani followed with a lament that would offer a promise of relief from the anxious harmonies, then slowly restore them before resolution could occur. Worrisome Boltro gave no such promises, hitting one, anomalous brief note of contentment, while Bulgarelli on his only solo outing dwelled directly inside the song's tension. By the time the head returned, "No Nonsense" was a cohesive story of anxiety without reprieve; it might have been an excellent suspense-movie theme.
More than displaying the variety of jazz available in this country, Pieranunzi served as a reminder of how exciting and exploratory straight-ahead can be, even weighed against Rava's nontraditional, "ECM sound" approach. The local program is suddenly as beckoning as the international stars.
The Arena Santa Giuliana has two stages: the mainstage, where the nightly headliners play, and the smaller Caffe HAG Stage, where husband-and-wife duo Tuck & Patti holds court every evening.
Guitarist Tuck Andress and vocalist Patti Cathcart have been together for 30 years, and throughout that time have been among the subtlest, most expressive artists in jazz. Indeed, Andress virtually redefines the role of accompanistthough he plays both bass lines and chords, it isn't a steady background; merely enough to make his point and stay out of Cathcart's way. But she's no showoff, either; she's a talented improviser with tremendous range, but shuns histrionics in favor of directness and charm.
On Saturday night's "Heaven Down Here," Cathcart reached down to a very low, warm registerthe Tracy Chapman registerand spent the song there, climbing upward only for an improv on the line "I don't want to wait for the angels." Andress, meanwhile, played short chords and made fascinating use of harmonics as accents. The duo also delivered a deep rendition of Rodgers & Hart's "My Romance" in which Andress relied more on resonance than on the few notes themselves, and Cathcart gave a quiet, confessional vocal that ranks with the song's most romantic, and most intimate, performances.
But Cathcart dropped out of "My Romance" for a guitar break that defied everything described above. Throttling speed, Andress inscribed broken, carefully staggered phrases onto the new rhythm. He began bending not only notes, but entire chords, settling once and for all any question of his chopshe's a fine guitaristthen dropped back to his gentle minimalism as suddenly as he'd risen from it for Cathcart's recapitulation.
Subtlety aside, however, both artists have impeccable rhythm, especially Cathcart. Bob Dorough's "I've Got Just About Everything" had a lively gait that the singer handled with ease, throwing in a little melodic variation at first, then scat, from low-grade grumbles to soaring, precise articulations that sounded much like Italian words (and may have been). And that was only a warm-up for the Cathcart original "Ain't Seen Nothing Yet." The story of an old woman giving advice to a young couple ("This is a true story," Cathcart promised) was in 4/4, Andress walking on the bass strings and sparking an establishing chord just before each "3" beat, when suddenly the vocal whipped into a frenzy of hearty, percussive mouth sounds in 6/8 that astonished the crowd before zooming into "Better Than Anything," also in 6/8 and breathlessly in the pocket.
Unfortunately, "Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" also underscored Tuck & Patti's biggest disappointment: the lack of Cathcart's accomplished songwriting. Granted, with a show every night they need to ration their repertoire, and they also accommodated a request (in this case their transcendent Jimi Hendrix medley, "Castles Made of Sand/Little Wing"), but one original in a set? Perhaps the intent is to lure them in with the classics, and thus bring them back for the originals; with their superb work Saturday, they've earned the repeat business.
Steely Dan has aged well; if anything, the core duo (singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen, guitarist Walter Becker) has only now realized the dirty-old-men personae they adopted nearly 40 years ago. Back then, they were also perhaps the most pedigreed and knowledgeable jazzmen on the rock side of the jazz-rock movement. (The distinctive piano/bass riff from their biggest hit, "Rikki Don't Lose that Number," was once the distinctive riff from Horace Silver's "Song for my Father.") So if Umbria Jazz were forced to bring in an arena-rock band to boost ticket sales, the Dan was an ideal choice.