The primary focus of the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival in Orvietonow in its 14th yearis the country's solid jazz tradition, arguably the best example of jazz having come of age as a global music artform. From such Italian living legends as pianist Renato Sellani and saxophonist Gianni Basso, whose recordings both go back to the '50s with Chet Baker and Swedish baritonist Lars Gullin, to the new generation which is without better representation than pianist Stefano Bollanithe Umbria Festival organizers, headed by producer and Artistic Director Carlo Pagnotta (affectionately referred to by some as the "Italian George Wein"), fully showcase their country's jazz treasures.
With music starting at noon and continuing through the early morning hours, part of what makes this five-day festival so unique is the fact that most artists perform throughout its duration (in some cases at more than one venue, too). Concert-goers are afforded ample opportunity to pick and choose from each day's activities (there are occasional overlapping showtimes) and to catch a group or musician one otherwise may regret having missed. The programming also allows for return listens to musicians and groups that one might have a particular fondness for and prefer to hear more than once. Also, unlike many so-called "jazz" festivals (particularly here stateside), only a limited number of non-jazz acts perform, and rarely as headliners.
Opening night featured vocalist Roberta Gambariniundoubtedly one of today's finest. Pianist Gerald Clayton's trio (with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Karriem Riggins) accompanied the Italian singer (a US resident since 1998) at the largest of the town's nine festival venues, the visually stunning Teatro Mancinelli. With its dazzling ceiling art and horseshoe cake-like design of multi-tiered boxes, this wonderful venue immediately creates a magical atmosphere for its near-capacity 600-person full house. Gambarini demonstrated an astonishing, seemingly supernatural vocal range with an improvisational-based delivery rich in scatting acrobatics and perfected diction, each syllable ringing with instrumental vibrato and bravado.
Having learned her trade by records and experience versus formal lessons, Gambarini recalls without overtly borrowing from or imitating Ella and Sarah; also at times she taps into a blues delivery reminiscent of Carmen and Dinah. She breathes new life into a wide range of standard repertoire, regardless of and perhaps inspired by the fact that most have been performed countless times over, from "Poor Butterfly" (during which she showcased a breathtaking extended opening a cappella) and "Good Morning Heartache" to "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (the latter two featured trumpeter Roy Hargrove who added lively, conversing back-and-forth vocals with Gambarini for their rendition of "On the Sunny Side...").
Renato Sellani's many highlights in various contexts occurred at the Museo Emilio Greco's afternoon shows of classic jazz. Located in the 14th Century Palazzo Soliano adjacent to what is Orvieto's most significant landmarkthe Duomo Gothic Cathedral (circa 1290!)the venue's stage (found in the rear of the museum gallery) is flanked on the surrounding walls by over thirty bronze statues and nearly sixty graphic works of etchings, prints and drawings donated by Greco (the famed Olympic commemorative medal designer and sculptor). Audience members quite literally would take over most of the museum's space, crowding halfway back towards the entrance to get a listen and glimpse of the classic straight-ahead jazz performed by one of their country's living legends and other significant contributors.
For one concert Sellani played musical chairs with pianist Danilo Rea, a generation younger than the octogenarian. Both mixed and matched bassists and alternated (and shared) the piano stool from one selection to the next. While Roberto Gatto (known stateside for his work with trumpeter Enrico Rava) remained a constant on drums, Enzo Pietropaoli (whose unaccompanied solo feature rendition of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" served as a festival highpoint in its jazzed-up context) and veteran Giovanni Tommaso took turns on bass with each pianist. The set, which included renditions of "Summertime," "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "A Child is Born" (dedicated to Rea's day-previous newborn baby) culminated in a jam session piano-for-four-hands with Sellani working the treble while Rea provided the bass end, with a double double-bass backing!
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