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