Umbria Jazz: Days 1-3, July 10-12, 2009
It's to the band's credit that they understood. Their concert at the mainstage of Arena Santa Giuliana began with only the backup band, all accomplished jazz musicians, performing a sizzling hard bop number. Each of the hornsbaritone sax (Roger Rosenberg), tenor sax (Walt Weiskopf), trumpet (Marvin Stamm), and trombone (Jim Pugh)took a solo turn, Rosenberg and Pugh earning extra credit for tasty performances, followed by a Keith Carlock drum solo. Not too many rock acts begin their gigs that way.
There was never any doubt that once Fagen and Becker hit the stage, the concert would coalesce into a Steely Dan career retrospective. That made it all the more enjoyable when their first tune was a completely new arrangement of their hit "Reelin' in the Years." This time it was a slow funk jam, ultra-loungey and oily; only the familiar opening lyric tipped off the crowd to what song this was.
The remainder of the show was, indeed, a nostalgia trip, with hits and album staples from their 1972 debut to their 2000 Grammy-winner Two Against Nature: "Bodhisattva," "Show Biz Kids," "Bad Sneakers," "Two Against Nature," "Peg." Most of the performances were close recreations of the studio recordings, although some dated synthesizers were replaced with real horns; Fagen presented another surprise, replacing others with a melodica on "Time Out of Mind" and "Aja."
Becker was on a roll, ripping out great and...well, Becker-esque guitar solos on "Show Biz Kids" and "Home at Last." But he also pulled out a lead vocalhe had sung for the first time on the Dan's most recent album, 2003's Everything Must Go, but here he sang the 1975 deep cut "Daddy Don't Live in New York City No More." But his most interesting stage business was a monologue on the band's sleaziest tune, "Hey Nineteen," ramblingly introducing the Cuervo Gold and its sidekick, the fine Colombian. (This writer thanks Fagen for avoiding his old line "Skate a little lower now," which always made this writer uncomfortable.)
These were mostly superficially new touches, but the concert wasn't about breaking new ground anyway. The crowd was expecting, and received, favorite songs by a great old rock band who also kept feet in the jazz world, and dirty-old-man-dom. To drive the latter point home, when Fagen and Becker left the stage, the backup band played another jazz tunethe theme from Last Tango in Paris. If that ain't apropos...
The Bottega del Vino isn't an arena, theater, patio, or hotel ballroom; it isn't even a jazz club. It's a small wine bar that sits on Perugia's main public square, the Piazza IV Novembre, and during the Umbria Jazz festival just happens to host one of the finest interpretive jazz pianists in the world.
Eighty-three-year-old Renato Sellani, "Il Maestro," performs every afternoon at 1:00 during the festival (including this Sunday, when the bar is otherwise closed) with Massimo Moriconi, a celebrated Roman bassist. Moriconi also acted as an emceeprobably because there wasn't anyone elsewho introduced Sellani to the audience and promptly disappeared, leaving the pianist to a solo romantic ballad that sounded faintly like a slow "Witchcraft." Initially he played at a whisper level, suggesting that he was a very meek player. That wasn't the case; when needed, Sellani was more than willing to rise in an impassioned surge. In either case, the music was heartbreakingly pretty.
That's when Moriconi reappeared out of thin air and grabbed an upright from behind the piano. The next two tunes were upbeat and fairly kicky, though both had slow, sensitive intro passages. The first, "Summertime," ran on a four-note vamp from the bassist, while Sellani played at a foot-tapping pace that was lively and even exciting. (In an odd moment, the patrons at a nearby table had a crinkling plastic bag that sounded a bit like a drummer with brushes.) The second had an extraordinary bass solo in which Moriconi quickly ascended into his axe's highest register while Sellani played beautiful pianistic inventions on top. The tune was familiar, but unplaceable; later I realized it was the old folk song "We Shall Not Be Moved."
Henceforth, the duo entered a pattern of slow, romantic ballads followed by livelier numbers. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" stated its A theme primarily on the bass, with the piano comping even softer than the intro on the first tune; on the B section, Sellani took over, playing tender but complex harmonies on a slightly Latin rhythm. "Besame Mucho, on the other hand, was of course entirely Latin in its groove, played with spectacular syncopation and a sly bass quote from "Smoke on the Water." Here, Sellani soloed via a series of descending trills, then upward-clambering chords against Moriconi's broken-time double stops; the bassist then built a solo on lengthy, elastic pitch bends that culminated in a nifty fast roll. And on it went.
It was astonishing to think that these two extraordinary musicians were working together in such a low-profile setting, not in one of the theaters or a more formal venue. Sellani and Moriconi are two of the most esteemed jazz musicians in Italy. But perhaps the wondrous beauty of their set would not work anywhere but in a small, intimate setting, with good wine and rich food. This mellow lunch hour was ultimately one of the highest points of the festival so far.
Music historian and NYU professor Ashley Kahn's most critically acclaimed book, 2001's Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, is being newly published for the album's 50th anniversary. To publicize the new release, Kahn brought his expertise on the album ("Fifteen years in the making") to Perugia's Hotel Burfani for a multimedia seminar.
To provide some context, Kahn made a request of the audience. "In this age of the iPod, I'm going to ask that we do something that's increasingly rare: Let's listen together to 'So What,' from Kind of Blue." Afterward, Kahn switched into professor mode, presenting a series of study questions:
- Why are we still talking about Kind of Blue after 50 years?
- Why, out of tens of thousands of jazz albums, is this the one that sells 5,000 copies a week?
- Why does it sell so well without any promotion or marketing?
- Why, out of over 40 Miles Davis albums, do we go to this one first?
And like a good professor, Kahn had some possible answers ready. Kind of Blue does all of these things, he suggested, because it's so accessible: rather than challenging the ear, the album seduces it. Because of the once-in-a-lifetime combo of Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly. Because of great songs, but more to the point great improvisations that are as studied as the tunes themselves. Finally, said Kahn, because Kind of Blue has for so long been a doorway to jazz for people who don't like jazz. "It's the first taste of a new cuisine," he said, "the first step into a new world."
Questions thus (possibly) dispatched, Kahn turned to Miles' artistic evolution, starting with his famous 45-second solo on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" in 1945proof that from the beginning, the 19-year-old trumpeter was hearing something different than his bebop mentors. From here, history advanced through Claude Thornhill's 1941 recording "Snowfall," arranged by Gil Evans, which Kahn tied easily to the 1949 Birth of the Cool sessions; he did the same with Gene Ammons' blues side "Gravy" and Miles' classic "Walkin,'" and with the respective Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis versions of "I Don't Want to Be Kissed by Anyone But You."
The fascinating part of the history lesson, however, was an illustration of where Miles got the melodies for Kind of Blue. Khan played versions of the standard "Soft Winds" alongside "Freddie Freeloader," and paired Oscar Peterson's "Bohemia After Dark" with "So What"followed by Peterson's 1960 response "Why Not? That's What!" The comparisons were instructive even for the seasoned jazz listener.
Even at the presentation's end, when Kahn screened his documentary Kind of Blue: Made in Heaven, there were no definitive explanations for the album's timeless allure. Maybe that's for the bestwhy take all the mystery from the myth? What he did do was bring yet another new perspective to Kind of Blue. For an album so frequently heard, that's a monumental achievement.