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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.

The #2 jazz album in the Downbeat Critics Poll was The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note, 2014), by Ambrose Akinmusire. In 2012, his quintet gave one of the most powerful concerts at Umbria in recent memory. His 2014 appearance was not burned into a Morlacchi midnight with quite the same focus and force, but it was very fine. He played with his working quintet (Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Sam Harris, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Justin Brown, drums) plus vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who is in the expanded ensemble on the new album. Akinmusire was the #1 trumpet player in that same Critics Poll, and his work on his instrument was dramatic and fearless. But an Akinmusire performance (especially since his new album) is about deeply conceived and spontaneously elucidated ensemble form. It is about a whole, not parts. That said, the parts were often brilliant: Akinmusire's flares and firestorms; Harris' beautifully irrational chordal patterns; Bleckman's haunting calls. They played earlier material like "Regret No More," a ballad, but with dangerous jagged edges. They played new headlong free-bop like "Trumpet Sketch." They did pieces from the new album like "Vartha" and "Rollcall for Those Absent." Raghavan and Brown are so prominent in this ensemble, so far forward, that the spikes of Akinmusire and the fierce runs of Smith are contained within the rhythm section's dense clouds of energy.

One of the important events at this year's festival was the unveiling of an ambitious new project by Francesco Cafiso. A trilogy of recordings is scheduled for release in October on the Artist First label. Material from one of the three was presented at Umbria, with only part of the personnel that will appear on the album. What was heard in Perugia suggested that Cafiso has found a new direction in his art and his career.

He was a child prodigy who toured Europe with Wynton Marsalis when he was 14. The question with child prodigies is always whether they will keep growing as adults. In the last few years, there has been concern in some quarters that Cafiso was stuck. He seemed happy playing bebop and his virtuosity as an alto saxophonist did not extend to composition. He is now 25, and he recently took several months away from his busy touring schedule to stay home in Sicily and compose the material for three albums. Each has a theme. At Umbria, he played pieces from one inspired by his native Sicily, written for Sicilian marching band and jazz quintet. Only the quintet appeared: Humberto Amesquita, trombone; Mauro Schiavone, piano; Giuseppe Bassi, bass; Roberto Pistolesi, drums. The other two albums were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Cafiso) and a New York ensemble with people like Linda May Han Oh and Marcus Gilmore.

What Cafiso played in the Morlacchi was completely different from anything ever heard from him. They were tightly arranged, often through-composed pieces, wildly colorful, intense and ethnic. It sometimes sounded like rarefied Sicilian circus music, or perhaps a score for a clown scene in a Federico Fellini film. In fact, Nino Rota, Fellini's composer, had to have been one of Cafiso's inspirations, conscious or not. The combination of wit, sophistication and poignance also made you think of Carla Bley. But no jazz has ever sounded quite like this folkloric suite by Cafiso. There were slow, sad dirges, and joyful portrayals of Sicilian landscapes, and also wheeling, antic ceremonies. Cafiso sometimes soloed last, or not at all. When he did solo, it was on a new level, in a new language, one that depended more on the alto's lower register. It sounded directly driven by emotion, and was therefore more impulsive and diverse. Based on the glimpse provided in Perugia, the trilogy could be a breakthrough for Cafiso.

Snarky Puppy is a little big band for Millennials: blaring, technological, twisted, clever, deadpan and hilarious. Their name is perfect. They love you like a puppy but they always turn snarky. The amplitude generated by three keyboards, two drum sets, electric guitar and electric bass (plus trumpet, trombone and saxophone) was confrontational, yet the band's complex arrangements contained genuine dynamic contrast. Attack angles varied: crashing anthems subsided for solos, then resumed as body-slamming raunch. When they got their own moments, trumpeter Justin Stanton, guitarist Bob Lanzetti and bassist Michael League lit up the Morlacchi. They incited the already rowdy midnight crowd.

That crowd was news in itself. The Morlacchi was rarely full at this festival, especially at midnight, but Snarky Puppy packed the house. The theater was jammed to the fifth tier of opera boxes. And it was a completely different, much younger audience than the usual suspects seen at the jazz concerts. Not many bands so successfully combine mayhem and intelligence, yet the importance of Snarky Puppy may be as much cultural as musical. These badasses are good news for the future of jazz.

On the last day of the festival, a very good band from Rome, The Dino & Franco Piana Jazz Orchestra, performed a "Homage to Armando Trovajoli." Four of the leading figures in Italian jazz made guest appearances: Enrico Rava, Enrico Pieranunzi, Danilo Rea and Roberto Gatto. In the United States Trovajoli (who died at 95 in 2013) is not nearly as well known as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. But he is a revered film composer in Italy and many songs from his scores have survived as stand-alone hits. The orchestra had strong soloists like alto saxophonist Ferruccio Corsi and soprano saxophonist Sandro Deidda. They rendered Trovajoli's elegant melodies like they had heard them all their lives, which they probably had. The guests rocked. Danilo Rea's solo piano interpretation of "Roma Nun Fa' Stupida Stasera" was quintessential Rea: turbulent or ephemeral but always melodic.



There was so much good stuff at the Morlacchi this year that John Scofield's Überjam and the Christian McBride Trio did not even make the top nine. Überjam is a misnomer. They played accomplished, civilized groove music, intellectual boogie. They should be called Mitteljam. McBride's trio (Christian Sands, piano; Rodney Green, drums) is conventional and conservative except for one feature: the degree to which it is bass-centric. McBride is the most skilled bassist in jazz. Pizzicato, his huge hands, with their rubber fingers, overwhelm a piece like "Footprints" with intricate content. Arco, he can tug at your heartstrings with a piece like "Who Can I Turn To?" No one told him that an acoustic bass is not an orchestra. In the first day or two following a McBride concert, solos by other bassists feel somewhat superfluous.

The free concerts in Piazza IV Novembre and Giardini Carducci are crucial to the street ambience of an Umbria festival. This year had interesting new acts like the Viper Mad Trio of New Orleans and Umbria mainstays like Allan Harris and KJ Denhert. Denhert was back after a year's absence, and she was the life of the overall party. Denhert's crowd tends to start hitting the Peroni and Moretti early. Her band is as tight as a band can only be when the bassist (Mamadou Ba) has been there since 1996 and the drummer (Ray Levier) since 1997. Her guitarist, John Caban, is new and hot. Since Denhert herself plays a mean black Martin, she now leads a kick-ass guitar band. (Her new statement of faith is, "Guys like guitars.") Still, the strength of her urban/folk/blues is her literacy as a singer/songwriter. She always brings cool new songs to Umbria. This year's best was "I'm Sorry." You don't think of her for covers, but she did a version of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away" that was quintessential Denhert, tough as nails and tender.

Speaking of throwaways, that's what two of the three jazz concerts in the Arena were. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on the short list of the greatest living jazz musicians, but a ticket to a concert by either of them is no longer a sure thing. This year's duo presentation was odd and halting, ill-suited to a large outdoor arena (one that appeared less than half full). Shorter had difficulty getting started. Hancock would place a hopeful chord or two but Shorter, on soprano saxophone exclusively, would bleat one note, stop, repeat the note a few times, stop, then blast a quick shrieking run. Within the spasmodic outbursts and dangling fragments, snatches of known songs sometimes suggested themselves: "Memory of Enchantment." Perhaps "Little One." Perhaps "Diana." The evening often felt like a perverse refusal to fully engage in music. Hancock clambered. Shorter yelped. Top tickets cost 55 euros.

The Hiromi/Michel Camilo duo piano concert was worse, a night of wretched excess, record-setting notes-per-minute, pianistic athleticism in lieu of substance. They opened for Volcan, Gonzalo Rubalcaba's project with guitarist José Armando Gola and percussionists Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and Giovanni Hidalgo. Rubalcaba is a special pianist, but Volcan is a self-limiting operation. They are all about a sophisticated undercurrent of propulsion created by two exceptional drummers, with a pianist flowing over the top in pretty patterns. It was graceful and pleasant but never reached anything. It was like running in place.

The most meaningful Arena concert was Stefano Bollani/Hamilton de Holanda, with Anat Cohen as a guest. They are all virtuosos on their respective instruments (piano, bandolim and clarinet), and their dense layers of piercing treble sonorities were often stunning. But this particular iteration of "Jazz & Brasil" (as the festival program designated the evening) was niche music for specialized tastes. Bollani is rewarding in any format, but he is best with his own trio, where he can call the shots.

In 2013, the festival introduced an important new series, "Young Jazz," curated by 29-year-old pianist Giovanni Guidi. It was expanded for 2014. Concerts were held in several small venues within Palazzo Della Penna, just below the old city wall. Two of the most interesting were the solo piano recital of Giovanni di Domenico at noon, and a unique four-horn project, Ghost, led by Dan Kinzelman, at midnight. Di Domenico played in a brick and stone room with an arched ceiling. His music had dark gatherings at the left of the keyboard, interrupted by clangings on the right in irregular shapes that sometimes became chiming rain. It was fully improvised stream-of-consciousness, a little heavy for noon (when festival goers have only been awake long enough for one cappuccino), but stimulating. Ghost is Kinzelman, Manuele Morbidini and Rossano Emili on reeds and Mirco Rubegni on various brass (plus all four play percussion instruments and toys). They performed in the round, without amplification, in an exhibition space in the Palazzo. The lighting was dim, and the atmosphere was made more eery by the huge paintings of elderly nudes by Alessandro Papetti that adorned the walls. Ghost is a truly avant-garde project. They play dark chamber music from your nightmares and bright improvisations of joy. Sometimes the scary massed horns reminded you of John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse, 1966). More often they organized themselves in twos and threes, juxtaposing stark experiments. There were even interludes like an actual muted trumpet solo over a tight three-horn riff. The fact that Ghost could have become a train wreck at any moment but instead sought new forms of coherence placed their music on a knife-edge of invigorating creative uncertainty.

This year's attendance at the Arena Santa Giuliana concerts was way down. Last year they sold 31,000 tickets, this year 24,000. The festival had a couple of legitimate excuses: three nights of rain, and no jazz headliners like last year's Diana Krall and Keith Jarrett (who sold 7500 tickets between them). There were two sell-outs in the Arena this year, but not for jazz. Natalie Cole/Fiorella Mannoia and Al Jarreau/Mario Biondi sold 5000 tickets each. The good news is that attendance at the Morlacchi was up by 1200 tickets over last year, and the "Young Jazz" concerts were up 15%.

After a great festival like Umbria ends, you want to blow town quickly the next day. You don't want to stick around to see the stage in Piazza IV Novembre getting dismantled. It is too sad. Nothing is more forlorn and bereft than a town the day after a jazz festival. The party's over. The lonely streets have gone quiet. There is a huge void in the air where one day ago there was music.

Photo Credit: Andrea Rotili.
More photos from Umbria Jazz 2014.

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