Umbria Jazz: Days 7-10, July 16-19, 2009
The final days of the 2009 Umbria Jazz Festival were an extravaganza of sorts for lovers of the piano. Topping the must-see list was avant-garde innovator Cecil Taylor, giving a solo concert on Friday at Teatro Morlacchi; but Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner also appeared, and for those with an ear to sophisticated pop music, Burt Bacharach also performed his compositions on piano.
The AACM Great Black Music Ensemble performed its last two concerts on Thursday evening, and George Benson, James Taylor Quartet, and B.B. King made appearances at Arena Santa Giuliana. Teatro Morlacchi featured such major figures as Roy Haynes, Dave Douglas, and John Scofield.
- July 16AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, Program 5
- July 16Burt Bacharach
- July 17Cecil Taylor
- July 17George Benson's "Unforgettable Tribute to Nat 'King' Cole"
- July 17Ahmad Jamal
- July 18McCoy Tyner Trio with Gary Bartz and Bill Frisell
- July 18James Taylor
- July 19Roy Haynes Trio
- July 19B.B. King
The fifth and penultimate GBME concert featured two showcases. The first was for the Vocal Ensembleat last!whose work has had such a defining impact on their music. The second was the compositions of ensemble director Mwata Bowden, whose splendid ability to write and arrange for the full ensemble suggested a primary reason why he's its leader.
This time upon introduction, two additional musicians appeared: cellist Tomeka Reid, and singer Dee Alexander. Reid initiated a pizzicato walk on her axe, and Alexander dove into a song entitled "Beautiful Bird," with two long scatsone of which included Alexander doing bird songs (driving the point home by punctuating the line with "tweets"). When finished she introduced Saalir Ziyad, who did his own percussive scat (with lots of tongue-clicks) a capella. He then introduced Ann Ward, who hummed into the lyrics of "Blues in the Spirit," asked for audience fingersnaps, and introduced Taalib-Din Ziyad. He began with a drone that sounded like a didgeridoo, and moved into lyrics: "Peace is our natural state of being/happiness is our birth right... The beauty of life is from within, the beauty of life is all around."
The two bassists and percussionist Art Turk Burton soon took the stage, and as they joined Reid's comp, the vocalists began singing, "I'm calling, I'm calling you to join us." Upon which the entire band emerged in line from one of the side exits, playing their way up to their places and joining the vocalists on the same melody. The newly full arrangement was hyper-energetic, and its polyrhythms were intoxicating and genuinely excitingfeet were seen tapping throughout the audience.
The remainder of the show was Bowden's. At his command, trombones and flutist Nicole Mitchellbegan rumbling, with trumpets commenting atop, then two magnificent and melodic solos from trombonist George Lewis and tenor Edward House. The Ziyads also took solos, Saalik accompanied by piano and Taalib-Din by the trumpetswhich then veered elsewhere, poking and prodding each other as basses and drums established a funky, aggressive rhythm. Slowly other sections joined: trombones, strings, and flute; vocalists; trumpets. Mitchell soon stood for a featured solo on the flute that flat-out rocked. Next came violinist Renee Baker, playing in an entirely different key than the band; she was joined by the voices, who chanted "Are you getting caught up in the maze factor?" as the orchestra began a stop-and-start accompaniment.
As in Wednesday's midnight show, Bowden's work was a long one that could have been one piece or several; later movements featured Douglas Ewart with strings, an extraordinary feature for all three trumpets, and a polyphonic structure for the entire saxophone section. Concluding the concert, Bowden brought the entire orchestra to a crescendo and only then thanked the audience.
This afternoon concert had a difficulty that's been common to all the performances: The piano, violin, and cello were frequently lost in the ensemble roar. More attention can be paid to the sound balance. Nonetheless, this was likely the GBME's finest effort yet.
Burt Bacharachhas always dwelled on the border of respectability and kitsch. Musicians, and jazz musicians in particular, always knew he was a great composer, but '60s and '70s audiences often regarded him as elevator music; it didn't help that his favorite lyricist, Hal David, was more often ridiculous ("What the World Needs Now is Love") than sublime ("Walk on By").
Hipsters have rediscovered Bacharach in recent years, introducing the venerable songwriter to a new generation. Yet Bacharach's packed-house concert Thursday night at the Arena Santa Giuliana made clear that he hasn't lost his kitschy taste over the years. As his opening act, for example, Bacharach selected Karima Ammar, a young Italian singer and erstwhile reality-TV star famous enough to drive the crowd wild without an introduction. Beautifully and unquestionably talented, Ammar nevertheless purveyed bland, soul-tinged pop with maximum histrionics. She sang Brian McKnight's "Should Have Been Loving You" and Michael Jackson's most saccharine ballad, "You Are Not Alone," though she did manage a credible performance of Billie Holiday's "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Still, it was not an auspicious beginning.
Nor did the cheese end there. Bacharach himself used a live violinist (Eliza Taylor), saxophonist (Dennis Wilson), and of course his trademark trumpet/flugelhorn (Tom Ehlen) against synthesized orchestra and godawful digitized hornsthe recent tune "Go Ask Shakespeare" was the worst offender in the use of these. Taylor was the worst victim, since the synthesizers' use nearly always coincided with her parts. Bacharach also employed three vocalists; two, Josie James and Donna Taylor, were quite good, but John Paganoexcept when singing backupwas far too slick and contrived, the kind of singer who might win American Idol. When taking the lead on "God Give Me Strength," "On My Own," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," he always began with enormous potential that he then squandered by oversinging.
In spite of all this, however, the greatness of Bacharach's music was not to be overshadowed. Nor was its cultural pervasiveness: So many of the man's compositions are hugely successful that he was able to build two 15-minute medleys around them, plus another short medley of his first four (obscure) hits. The longer medleys featured his pop hits ("Walk On By," "This Guy's In Love," "Always Something There To Remind Me"), the second his songs for films ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," "Alfie," "Best That You Can Do (Arthur's Theme)"). In between came a mix of older songs, like "Make It Easy on Yourself," and newer, like "In Our Time." Bacharach is not one of the best in his own bandhe plays arranger's piano and sings in a wavering, gravelly voicebut the glories of his compositions overcame the worst of those hurdles.