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."