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Bergamo Jazz Festival 2017

Bergamo Jazz Festival 2017

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Four intense days full of music in beautiful settings with plenty of discoveries and some music for everyone’s taste: you cannot ask much more than that to a festival
Bergamo Jazz Festival
Bergamo, Italy
March 19-26, 2017

The Bergamo Jazz Festival, one of the most long-lived and prestigious Italian festivals, celebrated in 2017 its 39th edition. Since about ten years the Town of Bergamo nominates a musician as artistic director, and the 2017 edition has been the second under of the tenure of Dave Douglas, whose constant presence to all concerts, introducing bands and checking that everything was running as smooth as possible, showed a great deal of attention and care for the job and was very appreciated by musicians and audiences alike. The program this year was quite packed, taking place in several different locations in the two different main areas of the city, the historical center up on the hill—Città Alta—and in the more modern downtown, or Città Bassa, where the Donizetti theatre, the main and monumental venue, is located.

The final four days of the festival brought capacity audiences to all venues proving that intelligent programming can keep interest in jazz from different audiences. I heard more than once people on public transportation and on the street discussing the concerts, both locals with pride for such an internationally qualified event and visitors who took the chance to visit the beautiful city, rich in beautifully preserved heritage but at the same time willing to take a chance with contemporary artforms: an excellent sign.

The program of the festival included morning concerts where the Europe Big Band, formed by the faculty with the best pupils of the local jazz school CDpM, presented the music of Duke Ellington in over three concerts to more than 1500 young students, a major and successful effort to ensure the future of the music, and a photo exhibition of Riccardo Schwamenthal, a major Italian jazz photographer and author from Bergamo, recently deceased and much missed by all.

After a joint event with the Bergamo Film Meeting, a sort of symbolic relay between the two festivals, including a live soundtrack to the movie Paris Qui Dort by René Clair improvised by the trio Drops (Tino Tracanna, Roberto Cecchetto and Walter "Bonnot" Buonanno) the final days of the festival opened with a concert in the quaint Café of the Funicolare—the wire railway that brings up to the old city: Tri(o)ttico. The band was selected by saxophonist Tino Tracanna, well-known for his tenure in Paolo Fresu's Quintet but a major musician and teacher on his own, to open the sub- program "Scintille di Jazz/Jazz Sparks" devoted to the presentation in various venues around the city of young jazz musicians. Led by bass clarinetist Federico Calcagno the trio presented in difficult conditions a delicate and well played chamber jazz in the style of Jimmy Giuffre and Chico Hamilton.

Later in the Teatro Sociale the trio OriOn led by the texan drummer Rudy Royston opened the evening concert. Growing in a house full of music toys brought by his father and then playing for the church, this inhexaustible source of African-American music, Royston is definitely his own man on the trapset, which he plays with great timbric richness and drive. His compositions seemed to try and include all the different strains of black music, aptly aided by the saxophone improvisation by Jon Irabagon, another master of the timbral variation. Not always able to successfully join the different strains of inspiration, the set after a brilliant, torrential opening seemed however to lose momentum. The following band was Giovanni Falzone on trumpet, Danilo Gallo on bass and Zeno De Rossi on drums, in a project dedicated to the memory of Woody Guthrie. Active for the past ten years, this is a well oiled machine, and when they take speed like a steamtrain they're really bound for glory, hell bent and no prisoners taken: Falzone's playing is full of fireworks, the leader energetic on reeds, and the rhythm section masters the furious groove. Maintaining the same intensity in a ballad at low volume proved somehow more difficult, and the final song with involvement of the audience an anticlimax.

A weary reviewer after many hours of travel and music made it to a cave under a pub where the quartet "About Silence" led by local double bassist Roberto Frassini Moneta performed in an environment where silence was quite hard to find. Against the odds this was a brilliant concert of finely chiseled sounds with Francesco Ganassin on clarinet—an instrument which is decidedly, and rightly, back at the center of the jazz scene—Gabriele Mitelli on trumpet and Nelide Bandello on drums. With the same instrumentation of Tinissima—or thereabout—it was an exercise in contrast and I'm looking forward to the forthcoming Cd to listen more closely to the music.

Friday opened with another major event: the solo performance by Evan Parker in the august hall of the town's library, the Biblioteca Angelo Maj. Surrounded by ancient books a totally silent and focused audience was lifted on another plane by more half an hour of soprano solo, played with circular breathing. Parker kept introducing and variating new ideas in fascinating developments, and closed with a short tribute to Steve Lacy, introducing the book presentation I was honoured to perform after his concert, of my Italian translation of Conversations with Steve Lacy, edited in the original by Jason Weiss.

Later on the festivities moved to the Donizetti opera theatre, a venerable and beautiful venue which will undergo much needed restauration works soon and will be unavailable for next year's festival. Bill Frisell opened the evening in duo with his trusted partner Kenny Wollesen in duo. We are talking world-class masters here, going through a repertory ranging from Bacharach to Dylan via Monk and Ellington, but after a while the duo format seemed to offer no more stymuli to the musicians; while remaining a pleasure to hear, the feeling of being on the edge of something new happening was not there. And it was unfortunately mostly absent from Regina Carter's set dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald: a very polite, controlled way of music making, where the excellent sidemen -Reggie Washington on bass, guitarist Marvin Sewell, Alvester Garnett on drums—kept a subdued atmosphere. Every time Carter's bow touches the violin the sound is startling for the beauty of its rich tone, but despite the occasional slur and glissando not too much happens after the stately exposition of the theme. Best discovery of the set Imagine My Frustration, an Ellington composition for Ella. The readers will forgive the poor reviewer that could not manage to listen to the late set by Tommaso Lando Trio in the Jazz Sparks series but tiredness, and a crowded space without seating, did not allow it.

Saturday has maybe been the most satisfactory day. It started with a memorable cello solo by Dutch master Ernst Reijseger in the middle of the precious works of art of the Accademia Carrara: Veronese, El Greco, Jacopo Bassano, Palma il Giovane and others from the 16th century. The cellist displayed his trademark zany brand of humour with moments of deep musical meditation on European traditions, maybe inspired by the surroundings, and the relationship between player, audience and instrument, at some point sounding like a diary in music, a day in the life of the traveling cellist—which in fact was. Huge crowd for a local hero—the Clusone trio with Bennink and Moore was named after the festival held for a long time in the nearby village—and deserved success.

In the afternoon the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble performed in the not too comfortable Auditorium, and the music was also meant to move the audience outside of their comfort zone, expanding their listening. Played without PA, with the obvious gain in quality of the sound, the leader compositions explored slowness, silence and the mysterious relationship between composition and improvisation, not without a lyrical strain surfacing here and there. Performed with great care and emotion with the author by Eivind Lønning on trumpet, Espen Reinertsen on tenor saxophone, Katrine Schiøtt on cello and Per Oddvar Johansen on various percussion, the music kept the attention awake with subtle changes and internal tension. Clearly Wallumrød has his own voice and is a composer to be reckoned with. (The jazz border police came up with the usual recriminations, but by now it's a kind of quality certification).

William Parker's Organ Quartet with Cooper Moore at the organ and Hamid Drake on drums generated much expectation because of the collaboration with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, whose recent concerts with his own trio received rave reviews. The music ebbed and tided, always with power but not always with clarity; at worst magmatic without clear direction, at best full of tension and energy especially in the leader solos both arco and pizzicato, and his dialogues with the saxophone, while Cooper-Moore at the organ kept himself functional to the concept of the group.

A tough act to follow, but Marilyn Mazur's Shamania, 10 female musicians and a dancer, at its first concert outside Scandinavia rose to the occasion with a totally different atmosphere. Well assisted visually by the original dances the band kept the music flowing across purely rhythmic passages and captivating melodies, creating a magic atmosphere: brilliant contributions by Mazur herself, by saxophonist Lotte Anker, keyboardist Makiko Hirabayashi but above all altosaxophone player Sissel Vera Pettersen displaying impressive vocal skills that definitively added a special color to the set. A welcome discovery. Again the reviewer felt his ears sort of overcharged and in need of some rest, so had to miss some more Jazz Sparks concerts by Andrea Andreoli quintet, Gianluca Di Ienno quartet and Camilla Battaglia quintet: a pity but it's impossible to follow all of 30 events in four days. Reactions by colleagues who managed to hear these concerts were quite positive.

The final day of the festival opened for me in the Old City again at the Teatro Sociale, a favorite space for listening, with British saxophonist Andy Sheppard's quartet including electronic guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Michel Benita (bothered by some amplification problems) and Sebastian Rochford on drums, all musicians I hold in great esteem, but it was rather unsatisfactory, due to excessive uniformity in the tunes and lack of risk-taking by the players. The final Beatles tune sounded like the never ending high school party.

The evening at the Donizetti was opened by Melissa Aldana trio, and for me it was the first time listening to the young Chilean musician, winner of the Thelonious Monk Competition. I honestly failed to see why all the hubbub. It opened with some (too) complex originals that generated disjointed phrasing on the solos over static accompaniment, with some sort of mannered bending of the notes; it got slowly a little more together towards what I perceived as a minimum level of cohesion, but all considered I heard in many festivals students bands that were more exciting than this. Maybe a bad night, but there are happenings in the jazz field that escape me completely, and I guess again that everyone can't like everything. Not my cup of tea, anyway.

The well-known Brussels Big Band, a shining Belgian organization, has been invited to close the festivities playing arrangements by leader trumpeter Bert Joris of Enrico Pieranunzi's tunes with the maestro himself as a piano soloist. Faultless, spectacular playing by all concerned but I cannot say that Pieranunzi's book demonstrated a special affinity with the big band sound—still solo piano or one of his trios seem to me are more suitable vehicles. Pieranunzi was a genial host, presenting the compositions with humility and humor in fluent English but also in Italian—a very welcome change since I have the impression that the continuous English speaking by all international musicians was understood only up to a point by the Italian audience.

Four intense days full of music in beautiful settings with plenty of discoveries and some music for everyone's taste: you cannot ask much more than that to a festival, so let's applaud once again the conscientious efforts by director Dave Douglas and the support to such an event coming from the local institutions of Bergamo.

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