Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto 2006-2007

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Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto
Orvieto, Italy
Dec. 29, 2006 to Jan. 2, 2007
Situated atop hundreds of underground passage ways and manmade caves upon a plateau of steep surrounding cliffs in Southwestern Umbria, Italy at an hour's train ride from Rome—the quaint, scenic and historic town of Orvieto hosts countless jazz festival goers the end of every year from late December through New Year's.

The primary focus of the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival in Orvieto—now in its 14th year—is 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 Bollani—the 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 Gambarini—undoubtedly 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 landmark—the 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!

Sellani and Rea also performed at the same location the following day in a magical pared down duo—for that occasion on separate pianos. Starting with a composition entitled "Sauro" in dedication to Sauro Brackets, one of the founders of Umbria Jazz who passed away earlier last year—the most intriguing aspect of this set, which proved to be a consistent thread through much of the festival, was the fact that Italian jazz musicians have their own standard repertoire in addition to the American jazz canon of standards as we know it. Aside from two familiar melodies to these stateside ears in "Autumn Leaves" ("Les Feuilles Nortes" for the Italian locals) and "Love is A Many Splendored Thing," Sellani and Rea improvised in solo and duo off of their country's heritage with melodies ranging from Rodugno's "Volare" (known as "Nel Blu Dipintodiblu") to Garinet/Giovanni's "Donna" and "Roma Non Facastupida."

The pianists' respectful father-son like musical (and seemingly otherwise) relationship allowed this special event to sidestep the context's common pitfalls of un-empathetic over-soloing and unmusical ego-tripping. Sometimes, as was the case here, the pairing is just a logical one, and all the elements of a successful piano duo fall right into place. Each piece came together instinctually; individually and collectively, the two dynamically exploited every possible aspect of this unique instrumentation, from intuitively starting and finishing one another's thoughts to comping, echoing, challenging and embellishing, as well as interchanging lead voice runs in split-second decisions, switching roles graciously from one moment to the next. Spur-of-the-moment improvisations were plentiful with nary a dull moment let alone hesitation from either. Their performances of each piece transformed into workouts for players and listeners alike, bringing standing ovations, roars and whistles from the packed space for additional encores at each sign of the concert's culmination. The musicians happily obliged.

Continuing down the generational ladder of the great Italian tradition of jazz pianists is none other than Stefano Bollani. Unaccompanied at the Teatro Mancinelli, his preview to the new release Piano Solo (ECM) featured an expectedly wide-ranging set list. From his medley of three Brazilian compositions to Prokofiev-like modern classical themes and even Les McCann-ish soul, Bollani's playing proved boundless. His free improv, based on various repeated lines and techniques, only served as an introduction to what he would accomplish on the well-known "On The Street Where You Live," in which he framed tempi with staccato right-hand lines while the left played a rapid—yet fluidly-stated—melody, creating a very personal interpretation that soon united both hands in shared concept, only to return back in blues-like repetitive fashion without once losing track of his compositional playing sense and melodic and/or rhythmic thread. My fingers hurt just looking and listening!

The encore consisted of audience tune suggestions (Bollani customarily and spontaneously creates a medley at concert's end of stringing together at least five to even ten melodies). Here's a first: "Misty"/ "Desafinado"/ "(theme from) Popeye"/ "(theme from) Heidi"/ "Luglio (July)" (the latter being a famous '60s Italian pop song). As with "On The Street Where You Live," this concept says more than enough about Bollani's virtuosity let alone sheer knowledge of music repertoire, jazz and non-jazz alike.

The pianist would perform three other days, all at the long rectangular upstairs space of the Palazzo del Popolo, for a midnight and two afternoon sets, with his longtime Danish trio: Jesper Bodilsen (bass) and Morten Lund (drums). Bodilsen showed a youthful but certainly well-rounded approach to his instrument, revealing a direct and deep appreciation of Denmark's own well-respected jazz tradition in the countless Danish bass greats from Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on down the line; his maturity at such a young age was made clear in his attack, both in solo and group interplay. Drummer Lund, similarly, was also "guilty" of encouraging and facilitating Bollani's daring proclivities and strengths.

The set fired up appropriately with an introductory medley of an "Untitled" piece (composed by Lund) into "Dansen Og Valsen" and "Moder" (the latter two-thirds can be found on the trio's Gleda: Songs from Scandinavia, 2005). Starting on hand- played cymbals and drumheads, Lund eventually worked his way to sticks, naturally segueing into the group's trio concept of sharing momentum without necessarily relying on any one aspect or player, moving rather as a single entity.

Bollani, the "leader" of the trio of equal parts, thrived off of the multi-textural chord voicings, threading together various related (and unrelated) melodies and moods. For "How Deep is The Ocean," his choice of note-to-note accentuation always retained the element of surprise, avoiding predictability at all cost. Spontaneity is obviously the focal point of Bollani's musical essence, not to mention this trio's. And their stop-time false endings conversely and intentionally sped up towards their rendition's closing coda(s), building momentum to the point of a means to an inevitable end. Their timely rendition of what might have been the greatest and most unique rendition of "Jingle Bells" ever heard is what holiday collections should be made of. Hardly recognizable at first, the up-tempo rendition swung like crazy. The note placements within the dazzling runs led to a comical grunting, moaning improv initiated by Bollani when notes were no longer enough to get the group's message across.

A daily event full of potential but never quite achieving it was the "Suite for Lennie" multi- media presentation of video and music in tribute to the late great pianist, composer and teacher Lennie Tristano (1919-'78) at Sala del Carmine. With Gerardo Iacoucci (piano) and Stefano Cantarano (bass), Massimo Achilli created a video background serving as a collage that very rarely actually synched up with the music being performed (most intriguing actually was the altogether separate Tristano live solo piano concert film that preceded the concert itself while the audience took their seats). The limited relation of video to the suite of music (and vice versa)—excepting occasional segment pauses and starting and stopping points—was distracting. In addition there were plenty of recycled images over- utilized through the lengthy presentation and performance, which further dulled the senses. The lack of an evident chronological development in the video, which rather randomly skipped back and forth between black and white historic shots of New York and '70s shots of New Yorkers crossing the street with knee-high tube socks, soured the artistically intriguing melange of images. Its efforts at trying to communicate a story or any sort of momentum fell far short and seemed trite and far-reaching to say the least.

When the concert began, it soon became obvious that, with the use of overdubbed material accompanying the visuals, much of the creativity came from what was prerecorded, and not from the piano-bass duo onstage. The program of originals was book-ended by Tristano originals "Descent Into the Maelstrom" and "Lennie's Pennie's," with one other Tristano composition ("Requiem") inserted towards the middle. The opening portion preceding "Descent Into the Maelstrom" wound up being an extra-curricular, unrelated exercise to what followed, though the alternating images of Tristano and Edgar Allan Poe proved the artists had done some homework.

"Descent Into the Maelstrom" was a 1953 recorded piano solo by Tristano, which is a remarkable sound structure based on Poe's story and evidently one of his poems. Though it is fairly devoid of melody or thematic material, odd for jazz particularly at the time (given, Tristano was one of free jazz' pioneers and one of jazz' first modernist classical-influenced composers and players), it is based on a tonal center and fixed meter. For such swinging music throughout the suite that was either Tristano or Tristano-related, it was amazing how little movement came from Iacoucci's feet! That said, Iacoucci is exacting in his Tristano influence, which can only be a good thing since there is such a limited number of pianists today who openly claim Tristano in any manner of influence, amongst them two Americans: Tristano's famed student Sal Mosca and Mosca's one-time student Billy Lester.

Speaking of which, of the Americans invited, a fine sampling of talent was on hand this year. Veteran trumpeter Lew Soloff gathered together a rather unique quartet with Billy Hart (drums), Joe Locke (vibes), and Francois Moutin (bass). Though the members had for the most part been associated with one another in various other projects, this was a first-time gathering. Soloff had run into Locke in the Rochester airport a couple of years ago, and they expressed interest in playing together; the trumpeter had heard and sat in with Moutin when he played with Mike Stern at the 55Bar in New York and was, as he said, "knocked out with him." The three (Soloff, Locke, and Moutin) then played at a venue in the Meat Packing District in Manhattan with Soloff's good friend Jeff "Tain" Watts, and thus formed the initial configuration and personnel of a quartet that would perform at Ronnie Scott's in London. Umbria Artistic Director Carlo Pagnotta was in the audience on two occasions, liked what he heard and, subsequently, invited Soloff to bring the group to Orvieto (Hart, a longtime associate of Soloff's, filling the drum chair).

Of the group's fairly new repertoire that would mature throughout the week—much written specifically for debuting this tour—Moutin's "MRC" (Minor Rhythm Changes) and Soloff's "Istanbul" stuck out as vehicles that accentuated the band's up-tempo strengths, particularly because they featured Hart's prowess behind the kit, making his influence felt on the ensemble. Creating various complex and dynamic rhythmic multi-textural patterns under, around, and over his bandmates, the drummer pounded his kit at times with both sticks in one hand and, in essence, "soloed" throughout each piece, raising the level of interplay and interlocking particularly with the similarly rhythmic forces of Locke's vibes (somewhat in early experimental Dave Pike mode circa MPS-era) and Moutin's big toned, creative pizzicato playing on upright bass.

Soloff in awe and/or with pride stood to the side while creative musical tension mounted (in his own words, Soloff joked, "I make sure I don't have to play because I always make sure to have the greatest musicians I possibly can around me"). When the momentum summoned him to join in, he soared over the musical rumblings. Much of the remainder of the original material composed by the members of this group for this occasion unfortunately didn't reach such heights, as it was the energetic—not balladic pieces—performed that suited this group's strengths and potential.

Clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski brought a bi-coastal American group of three from the East (guitarist Howard Alden, pianist Ted Rosenthal, and himself) and two from the West (drummer Joe La Barbera and bassist Chuck Berghofer from L.A.). With two time slots each day to perform at the Palazzo Dei Sette (aka "The Meeting Point"), the sextet played straight-ahead swinging selections such as Cannonball Adderley's "Wabash" (featuring the leader on both reeds) and "Pow Wow" (guitarist Joe Puma's composition which borrows from the changes and song title of the better-known "Cherokee"). Peplowski is a fine player on both instruments, but he particularly shines on clarinet, and one afternoon's encore of an untitled blues in F showcased what a well- versed giant on the instrument he has been for several decades. Now he's the logical inheritor to the instrument's well-documented heritage, which most recently lost one of its greatest practitioners in the legendary Kenny Davern.

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Roy Hargrove borrowed back the Gerald Clayton trio from vocalist Gambarini and added altoist Justin Robinson for his quintet concerts. Karriem Riggins fiercely propelled the ensemble, though his ride cymbal's amplification started out rather faint at the group's big showcase at Teatro Mancinelli. The ensemble's double horn frontline recalled as much Miles and Cannonball's harmonic excursions as it did the even more venturesome Sonny Simmons and Barbara Donald. Robinson sped through Riggins' violent rhythms, reflecting a debt to Kenny Garrett's work with "Tain" Watts. Robinson's performance alongside Hargrove provided an intriguing contrast in that Garrett has never really had such a relationship with trumpeters in his own bands or recordings after having worked with Miles (other than perhaps his one- time boss Woody Shaw, who appeared on Garrett's debut recording as leader). On flugelhorn, Hargrove demonstrated he has achieved a strong, yet sensitively lyrical, tone and voice on the instrument, rivaling today's best on the warmer brass instrument. His hard driving mid-to-up-tempo hard bop-influenced sets of primarily original material were unquestionably received with utmost enthusiasm from one sold-out concert to the next.

In addition to Hargrove and Peplowski's quintets and Soloff's quartet, Joel Frahm (one of NYC's best-kept secrets as a regular at Greenwich Village's Bar Next Door) led a bonafide international late-hours jam band consisting of Australian pianist Aaron Choulai and fellow tenor saxophonists Daniele Scannapieco and Max Ionata (both Italian) at the Palazzo Dei Sette with sets around 1 am, excepting New Year's at 2 am. The late hours would find many other musicians of the festival gathering to egg on the soloists and band, a comforting sight to witness and unquestionably inspiring for the musicians on the bandstand (particularly after New Year's with Billy Hart and Roy Hargrove taking to the stage).

Choulai's dynamic, rhythmic contributions and effective counter-melodies were best heard sans horns due to a deficiency in the house mix (a very rare exception to the festival's overall excellent sound board jobs and acoustics), though this would improve over the course of the week. The Italian hornmen had vastly different approaches: Scannapieco densely packed non-stop note-filled runs into his furious tempi of solos until red in the face, while Ionata patiently performed more melodic breathy lines. Frahm (though with somewhat lackluster contributions from his bassist Joe Martin and drummer Joe Campbell) took the strong suits of each saxophonist and in essence blew them off the bandstand with dominating technical proficiency and creative modal lines, all while maintaining a melodic thread, playing both with and against time.

Proof, however, that Italian jazz musicians are nothing if not on equal footing with their American counterparts (as has actually been the case for some time now) was displayed in the final evening of the festival for, yet again, another packed house at the Teatro Mancinelli. which witnessed telepathic give and take between one of Italy's most respected trumpeter/flugelhornists, Paolo Fresu, and pianist Uri Caine. The duo also exemplified a point made earlier: Italian jazz musicians have particularly come to utilize and exploit their country's pop material, which has adequately aged like a ripened grape being plucked and readied into a fine jazzed-up wine.

Fresu, slouching to the side in his seat, his rear barely planted, resembled a seven footer, sitting legs-stretched-out uncomfortably in economy versus business class and flying half-way around the world. Musically unaffected evidently, from the concert opener "Dear Old Stockholm" (a rendition that more insinuated the rhythm than spoon-fed it to listeners), "Night In Tunisia" and "I Loves You Porgy" (Fresu playing muted trumpet before switching to flugelhorn for the extended breath-heavy coda section), to Monteverdi's "Si dolce e il tormento" (on muted trumpet, revealing Fresu's preference for not playing an open horn trumpet, to maintain the mood of this set) and the trumpet-only encore "E Se Domani" (a famous '60s Italian pop song that Caine knew yet wisely decided to keep his hands off of)—the mix of American and Italian repertoire served as an elastic springboard for solo and duo improvisations.

The silence that followed Fresu's final notes that initially were meant to entice Caine to contribute still ring in these ears as the festival's official and more sensible end, even though Fresu's Devil Quartet closed the evening's second set in less sentimental fashion due to their overuse of un-acoustic "effects" (by both Fresu and his guitarist Bebo Ferra), serving up an extraneous fifth member to the ensemble and nearly erasing the beautiful tones that quite literally echoed throughout the previous set within the many musical spaces left by and between Caine, Fresu, the concert hall and the witnessing ears of those in attendance.

Photo Credit
Roberta Gambarini at Teatro Mancinelli by Giorgio Alto
Renato Sellani, Danilo Rea, Giovanni Tommaso, Enzo Pietropaoli at Museo Emilio Greco by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Stefano Bollani at Teatro Mancinelli by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Lew Soloff with Billy Hart at Palazzo del Popolo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Ken Peplowski at Palazzo Dei Sette by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Roy Hargrove at Teatro Mancinelli by Giorgio Alto
Paolo Fresu at Teatro Mancinelli by Giorgio Alto

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