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Live Reviews

Umbria Jazz: Days 7-10, July 16-19, 2009

By Published: July 27, 2009
Similarly, he moved through a battery of pianistic techniques: Taylor had the classic conservatory positioning, with graceful arms and wrists, but the fingers could move in elegant arcs, or pluck at the keys as though strings on a harp. He could also strike suddenly and quickly like a snake, mash five or six keys at once with the butt of his hands, or shake his arms and hands on the keyboard mightily as through engaged in a violent strangling. During the encore, he shaped his fingers into beaklike formations and drilled the middle range like a pair of angry woodpeckers.

There was no apparent rhyme or reason to what Taylor did, when. Yet there were countless genuinely melodic sections in these seemingly untamed pieces, tantalizing and supremely beautiful regardless of the level of noise within and around them.

Notably, though, this was not entirely improvised. Taylor had sheet music with him; indeed, the pauses between pieces were only long enough for Taylor to get out the next page. But this was not standard notation or anything like it; from the theater's floor seats, it appeared to be pages full of mad scribbling but surely had some sort of formal system. This man Taylor is not like you or me—thank God.

July 17—George Benson's "Unforgettable Tribute to Nat 'King' Cole"

The great jazz/jazz-pop guitarist George Benson has been touring his Nat "King" Cole

Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
tribute all year, but it's only half the story. "After we finish with the Nat Cole part of the evening," he promised at Arena Santa Giuliana, "We'll do a Benson party!" As a teaser, Benson opened the show with his instrumental hit "Breezin'"—which, in addition to being exactly what the title portends, is possibly the catchiest tune that anyone has yet played in any performance at Umbria Jazz.

Cole has long been a major force in Benson's musical life—and to prove it he played a tape of 7-year-old "Little Georgie Benson" singing "Mona Lisa" before grownup George delivered a rendition backed by his septet and the 27-member string section I Solisti di Perugia. Given the soulful yell on his pop records, it came as a shock that Benson does an uncanny impression of Cole. He even had the enunciaton down to a T, complete with the short vowel and long consonant in words like "men" ("Mona Lisa, mennnn have made you..."). It was eerie, made all the more a few songs later so when Cole's brother Freddy joined Benson onstage for a duet on "Biding My Time." He also duetted with Janey Clewer on "When I Fall in Love"; she was ever-so-slightly overwrought in her delivery, but made up for it with superlative command of a choir who backed him on "That Sunday, That Summer."

Benson worked through most of Cole's classics, including "Ramblin' Rose," "Smile," and "Nature Boy," which Benson himself hit with in 1977. (His own version would come in the "party" section.) Except for a slightly deeper tone in his voice, the performances were nearly flawless, "Too Young" a particular tearjerker. The orchestra somehow avoided the ever-present danger of schmaltz, too, and Benson even got to add in a boogie guitar solo on "Route 66."

Then, as promised, it was time to party. Benson brought out some slick jazz-funk stylings and his whining soul vocal for "Love X Love," "At the Mambo Inn," and "In Your Eyes," all big hits in the '70s and early '80s (particularly in Europe). A sea of heads and shoulders began undulating; Benson's Philadelphia-Soul-infected "Love Ballad" inspired one man in the front row to rush to the edge of the stage and begin dancing before security made him sit. In response, at the song's end, Benson announced that "you are allowed to get up and dance on this one. You hear me, my man?" he said directly to the dancer. The song was his biggest hit, "Give Me the Night," and brought everyone out of their seats. Benson even ripped a blues solo to end the tune. Of course he saved his signature song, "On Broadway," for the encore.

The Cole tribute was the superior portion of the set—beautiful, tasteful, and somehow, even with an orchestra, much less glossy than the jazz-pop. Still, even the slickest excuse to shake one's groove thing is handy.

July 17—Ahmad Jamal

Chicago pianist Ahmad Jamal is most renowned for his melodic innovations: substantial use of space, light melodic figures, and heavy and dominant left hand. Less discussed is his imaginative rhythmic conception—although it was on equally prominent display in Jamal's midnight concert at Teatro Morlacchi.

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