How many jazz festivals take their name from a Greek vase? I bet not many, but this is the case for the Talos Jazz Festival, which takes place in the town of Ruvo, in Apulia. For the geographically challenged, this is the heel of the Italian boot, and a place with a cultural and musical history as multilayered and rich as its archeology.
Inhabited since prehistory – it’s the only Italian region with dolmens, menhirs and cave paintings – Apulia has rich Greek memories, in monument but also alive in the having Greek (Griko) speaking communities inland; in the cathedral of baritone the body of St. Nicholas is celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox alike, after being stolen from Mira in Anatolia in a small crusade of sorts. The interexchange with the Balkans has been continuous through the ages, while Svevian and Spanish domination left their important traces, among them the amazing and still mysterious Castel del Monte.
Before Italy was unified in a single country, the envoys of European museums and the antique traders would stay in Naples enjoying their pleasures there, while paisanos were digging in the fields night and day all over the region to find items to sell. They figured out that coins were the thing, so they were breaking the painted Greek earthenware to see if there were treasuries inside. A family of Ruvo intellectuals – the Jatta were doctors, lawyers, priests – could not bear the massacre anymore, and offered to beat the prices of the foreign buyers.
So they amassed – to the astonishment of the community – a huge collection of old vases and craters, displaying them in a wing of their town mansion. Nowadays their role has been aknowledged as major preservers of cultural identity, and their collection allows scholars to locate vases that are found in London, Berlin and Paris museums deprived of any link to their original context. The most precious vase bears an illustration of the Talos giant myth, and it gives the name to many things in town, including its jazz festival.
Apulia is a very musical region. If you associate Italy in music with Tarantella, “Volare” by Domenico Modugno, or the theme songs for Fellini movies, your associations all have Apulian roots. The remnants of the Greek and Albanian music are in the process of receiving new blood from the continuous wave of immigration. The folk music and dance is experiencing a wide revival, from the work of serious ethnomusicologists and traditional musicians through the exciting contaminations by younger groups to pop mass rallies.
The Eastern look of this region was one of the motifs of this year’s Talos Festival, with Croatian, Greek and Turkish groups using a varying measure of folk influences. But the program included a major event with one of the most important figures of Eurojazz, the baritonist John Surman who played his music in the Ruvo cathedral and then played a duo with long time friend, pianist John Taylor.
Also featured were young Apulian jazz players like trumpeter Vincenzo De Luci and pianist Mirko Signorile who are carrying forward the tradition established in the '80s by an extraordinary cluster of talents that flourished – not without internecine contrasts – around baritone at that time: Pino Minafra, Roberto Ottaviano, Nicola Pisani, Gianni Lenoci to name but a few. Minafra was in fact the initiator of the festival, as he was at the start of the Italian Instabile Orchestra, but due to disagreement with the town council left the festival.
The final three days of the festival were opened by Anima, a new project by musicologist and producer Gianfranco Salvatore, whose credits include several excellent CD (Steve Lacy, Sonora Art Quartet) and the stunning duet between Dave Liebman and Sardinian “launeddas.” Anima is a bridge between the Taranta traditional dance and electronic rock, drawing inspiration from jazz improvisation and classical modern music. Its strenghth lies in how the seven musicians brilliantly give life to Salvatore’s project.
In the same evening Croatian singer Tamara Obrovac fronted her Transhistria Ensemble. Istria is a small peninsula between Italy and ex-Yugoslavia, and the group itself is multinational, Simone Zanchini on accordion was especially impressive along with the voice and stage personality of the leader who approaches original material based on folk roots with the improvising openness of a jazz musician.
Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger’s zany brand of musical humor seems a strange choice for a duo with the studious-looking Franco D’Andrea, whose harmonic knowledge makes him one of the accompanists most favored by Lee Konitz when he’s on tour in Italy. On the contrary, the combination works perfectly, D’Andrea impassibly answering with great sensitivity to Reijseger’s musical antics. A sense of fun and freedom pervaded the enthusiastic audience.