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Umbria Jazz Festival 2014

Umbria Jazz Festival 2014
Thomas Conrad By

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Umbria is for jazz junkies and also for diehard party animals who do well without sleep. It works best for those who are both.
Umbria Jazz Festival 2014
Perugia, Italy
July 11-20, 2014

There are many jazz festivals held in beautiful places. There are many festivals that run for 10 or more days and consistently offer first-rate programs. There are even a few that claim a history as long as 41 years. But there is nothing quite like the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.

What sets Umbria apart is the atmosphere, the interaction with a particular city. Among Italy's hundreds of hill towns, Perugia is unique. It is big enough to host a huge jazz festival, but small enough to be totally consumed by the event. Many festivals are series of concerts in cities that barely feel their presence. Umbria is a community bash. Festival posters are everywhere, even in the windows of tiny shops down steep, narrow cobblestone streets. The big stage for the free concerts is in the main town square, Piazza IV Novembre. The music goes all day and night. By 10 p.m. the main street, Corso Vannucci, is all but impassable with hordes of revelers. At the other end of Corso Vannucci is the second site for free concerts, Giardini Carducci, where there is "Non-Stop Music" for 12 hours a day. Down the hill from the Old Town is Arena Santa Giuliana, a sports stadium where the big acts play. Music happens in nine different venues holding 40 to 5000 people: old "teatros," palazzos, restaurants, museums and wine bars. There are photography exhibitions, panel discussions, book signings and CD release events. And, in addition to street acrobats and jugglers, unofficial buskers set themselves up all along Corso Vannucci and around every corner: lonely singer/songwriters with acoustic guitars and nonets blasting Monk. Umbria is for jazz junkies and also for diehard party animals who do well without sleep. It works best for those who are both.

The 41st edition of the Umbria Jazz Festival in July 2014 began in weather that was unrecognizable for an Italian summer. Friday July 11, opening night, was a wash-out. It rained hard during the Daptone Super Soul Revue featuring Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Thousands of chairs had been cleared away from the Arena Santa Giuliana floor, but almost no one felt like dancing in the cold wet wind. Only a few hundred of the faithful huddled together below the front of the stage. The ugly weather did not keep people like saxophonist Neal Sugarman and singers Charles Bradley and Starr Duncan Lowe from spilling their guts. It was after 11 when Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings appeared. She sang like her very short hair was on fire. When she did songs like "Retreat," about her recent battle with cancer, the raw passion of her will to live defied obstacles like rain and a small crowd.

For the second and third days also, rain killed attendance for the outdoor shows at the Arena. (They might not have drawn large crowds anyway: They were a "Techno-logical dance music festival" and Ray Gelato.) The weather also diminished the crowds for the free concerts and even the indoor events. On Sunday July 13, TV's were set up in many outdoor cafés for the World Cup soccer final. During the second half of the match, with Germany and Argentina still tied at nil, the skies opened up. Waiters quickly covered the TV's and carried them inside. Warren Wolf & Wolfpack played the "'Round Midnight" show at Teatro Morlacchi that night. It was a terrific set, but not many people ventured out to see it. (By Tuesday, the weather cleared and Italy reverted to form. In the afternoons the bricks and stones of Perugia's "Centro Storico" were bathed in golden sunlight, and the nights were balmy.)

At every Umbria festival, most of the memorable moments come from the five o'clock and "'Round Midnight" shows in the Morlacchi. It is a gorgeous, musty, well-worn U-shaped 18th-century theater. Five tiers of opera boxes reach to the ceiling, which is covered in frescoes. The Morlacchi dominated the 2014 festival even more than in most years, because the program in Arena Santa Giuliana was the weakest in at least a decade. (Only three of the ten nights in the Arena offered jazz.)

Warren Wolf is the most talented vibraphonist to enter jazz in a generation. He may have the fastest hands to ever play the instrument. But while his single mallets were a blur, the notes, torrential as the outside rain, were clear, and contained melodies within melodies. There was a substitution for Wolf's concert that worked out well. Gerald Clayton took the piano chair. On tunes like Bobby Hutcherson's "Montara," Clayton derived counterlines from Wolf's improvisations, then reshaped them for his own continuously surprising solos. He splashed new ideas in all directions. Wolf's Wolfpack included three of the best young players in jazz. The third was drummer Kendrick Scott, who does not keep time but generates free energy, wave upon wave. (The fourth member of the quartet, bassist Joe Sanders, is someone to watch.)

There were nine excellent shows in the Morlacchi. Doctor 3 appeared in a reunion concert. They are pianist Danilo Rea, bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and drummer Fabrizio Sferra. Between 1998 and 2007, Doctor 3 was one of the most popular jazz combos in Italy, won many polls and made eight albums. Then they went their separate ways. (Sferra, for example, joined Enrico Rava's quintet.) Recently they got back together and recorded their ninth album, Doctor 3 (Jando, 2014).

Doctor 3 does standards, by which they mean Irving Berlin and the Bee Gees. They played rock repertoire before The Bad Plus. When Danilo Rea applies his touch and his particular concept of intellectual romanticism to songs like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the outcome can be chilling. He is a pianist with world-class chops, a free imagination and an instinct for luminous melodicism. The trio played songs from the new album like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "How Deep Is Your Love" and "Moon River." Each was portrayed in fragments that touched intermittently on the song, then derived new lush content. Some tunes were more spare. "Unchained Melody" and "The Nearness of You" were quietly intense, brooded over, released almost reluctantly. Hopefully Doctor 3 will keep touring and recording. There are so many more songs embedded in the modern collective subconscious that this trio needs to transform.

Pietropaoli, Doctor 3's bassist, led his own project at Umbria, the Yatra Quartet: Fulvio Sigurta, trumpet; Julian Oliver Mazzariello, piano; Alessandro Paternesi, drums. Like Doctor 3, the Yatra Quartet is interested in exploring material from popular culture, but they cast a wider net. They opened with a gentle, fervent "Gracias a la Vida." They also played David Bowie's "Tonight." Their versions were crisp and fresh. An asset of Pietropaoli's band is that it contains one of the most creative bass soloists in Europe. Another asset is Sigurtá, a seductively lyrical trumpet player. He has a strong recent album, SPL (Cam Jazz, 2013).

If you have not seen Roberta Gambarini live in a while, she has evolved. She still does "Sunny Side of the Street" and wails the solos of Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins from the album Sonny Side Up (Verve, 1957). It is still a vocalese tour de force. But her repertoire now includes more ballads, and she makes creative choices for material. In the Morlacchi she did Cy Coleman's "With Every Breath I Take" (from the 1989 Broadway show City of Angels), Bill Evans' "The Two Lonely People" and "Without Song" by Jimmy Heath. Gambarini now appears more relaxed and confident than when she emerged eight years ago with her album Easy to Love (Groovin' High, 2006). She is now less obsessed with showing off her astonishing chops and more concerned with songs. When she gives herself to a ballad, it becomes possible to fully experience the beauty and purity of her vocal instrument, its operatic power. If she has not yet reached the level of the great jazz singers, it is because she is not yet a great actress. She no longer has that fixed smile that used to make her performances, for all their virtuosity, come off as mechanical. But she has not yet believably internalized the emotional messages of songs like "The Two Lonely People." Gambarini can blow your mind but not break your heart.

Gambarini was the first of two female vocalists to be anointed in the new millennium as the future of jazz vocal art. The second is Cecile McLorin Salvant. Umbria had them both. Salvant arrived in Perugia having just won four categories of the new Downbeat Critics Poll, including Jazz Album of the Year for her debut recording, WomanChild (Mack Avenue, 2013). Her concert got one of the loudest crowd reactions of anything in the Morlacchi. Like Gambarini, she possesses an extraordinary vocal instrument. She is a very different artist, mature for her 24 years, but still figuring things out.

Salvant draws her repertoire from the last century, like "John Henry." She announced that she sings Bert Williams' "Nobody" (from 1905) at every concert and, with her trio (Aaron Diehl, piano; Paul Sikivie, bass; Jamison Ross, drums), tries to do it differently every time. The way they did it in Perugia was high and low, fast and slow. To the song's series of questions, the answer, "nobody," was sometimes a bass rumble and sometimes a high treble keening. Salvant's range makes you think of Sarah Vaughan. But she takes liberties with her text that would not have occurred to Sarah. Salvant rewrites melodies, rephrases everything, and inserts internal caesuras and climaxes in unexpected places. Like Gambarini, Salvant did a Cy Coleman song. She killed "When in Rome," rendering it newly hip, inundating it with extravagant invention. Other singers may have to write off that song. Additional renditions may have become unnecessary. Considering her daring, it is notable that, in contrast to Gambarini, Salvant almost never scats.

Two reservations: Her affected, self-conscious stage mannerisms are sometimes off-putting. And if she is singing something like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," you may wonder what became of one of your favorite songs. She smeared it and jumped around in it so much that a great song was lost. When Carmen McRae sang it, it was about existential irony within the human condition. When Salvant sang it, it was about Salvant's chops.

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