Top Italian Jazz at Birdland: New York, NY, June 4-9, 2013

Top Italian Jazz at Birdland: New York, NY, June 4-9, 2013
Thomas Conrad By

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Top Italian Jazz at Birdland
New York, NY
June 4-9, 2013

Birdland is at 315 West 44th Street in Manhattan. Taxis can drop you at the door. But if you come by subway, you pass through Times Square, that outrageous canyon where night is bright as day, with its teeming, dazed multitudes. The assault on the senses that is Times Square makes Birdland feel like a cocoon, a safe haven. The lighting is subdued, and the vibe is discreet and refined. There are tables with candles and white tablecloths in concentric arcs around the stage. Birdland is neither as legendary as the Village Vanguard nor as entrepreneurial as the Blue Note. But it is one of the best places in the United States to hear music, with a history legitimately traceable to 1949.

Since 2005, there has been a week of "Top Italian Jazz" at Birdland every year. Most of these events have been presented by the Umbria Jazz Festival organization. Others were produced by Enzo Capua, the Umbria organization's U.S. representative. In July of 2013, the Umbria festival in Perugia, one of the largest in the world, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. The week of Italian jazz at Birdland was a precursor to the big party in Perugia.

Three ensembles each played two nights. The first was a duo of American pianist Uri Caine and trumpeter Paolo Fresu of Sardinia. On opening night the club was jammed and the atmosphere was electric. Birdland is never more elegant than during Italian Week. People dress up. The menu is different. Chef Claudio Brugalossi was brought in from Perugia to prepare special dishes like purée of lentil with rosemary infusion and wide tagliatelle in black truffle sauce. Each night featured a different Umbrian wine list.

The Caine/Fresu duo is a marriage founded on contrast. Caine is precise and erudite, with a hard, percussive touch on the keyboard. Fresu is a heart-on-sleeve romantic. The first piece was "Dear Old Stockholm," and it set the rules of engagement. Caine got a brilliant, steely sound from Birdland's Yamaha. His intricate lines provided a grid wherein Fresu, on flugelhorn, pursued subtle melodic variations on the old Swedish folk song. Fresu's sound, especially on flugelhorn, is so gentle and luminous you can lose yourself in its sensual gratifications. Then you may not immediately notice how, prodded by Caine, he has been ratcheting up the intensity. Fast tunes like "Cheek to Cheek" and "A Night in Tunisia" were contrapuntal mazes. Many piano/horn duos become busy and overwrought when the two players, faced with so much open space, rush frantically to fill it. Caine and Fresu mostly avoided this pitfall. Caine stayed faithful to his own strict language, a postmodern concept containing classical formalism, witty stride and jolting syncopations, and Fresu played all around and through Caine without colliding.

But the sweet spot of this duo is ballads. Fresu usually played them muted. On "I Loves You Porgy," his long lines were fervent whispers of passion and pain. Eventually the emotion became too intense to permit variation, and single held notes hung forever in the night air(the extension of these notes was facilitated by electronics, which Fresu uses subtly and selectively). Another ballad came from 17th century Venice, "L'Amante Bugiardo" by Barbara Strozzi. It was pristine, solemn and stately.

Given that Caine and Fresu have been playing together for over a decade, it was surprising that the second set contained the same repertoire as the first. But there was one exception, and it was the highlight of the night. "I Thought About You," the most permanent collaboration of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer, was first portrayed on muted trumpet, then on open flugelhorn. Fresu is not an innovator. He comes out of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. But he plays true to his soul, with unerring grace. On "I Thought About You" he did what he does best, which is weave a spell. Caine was right there with him, in stark distillations of the storyline. What makes this duo work is that there is a zone where they overlap, where you hear the lyricism in Caine's austerity, and the well formed ideas at the core of Fresu's romanticism.

The third and fourth nights of "Italian Week" were the most anticipated. In the last two or three years, the realization has spread through the world jazz community, even reaching its most culturally isolated and ethnocentric regions, like the United States, that Stefano Bollani is one of our greatest living pianists. He appeared at Birdland with what he calls his Danish Trio, because bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund are from Denmark. For the first set on the first night, there was a completely full house and Birdland was buzzing.


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