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Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy

Thomas Conrad By

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[Joe] Locke is known for his speed, energy and showmanship, but his secret weapon is his ballad playing.
Umbria Jazz Winter, 16th Edition
Orvieto, Italy
December 30, 2008 - January 4, 2009


Umbria Jazz Winter has a very different vibe from the huge Umbria Jazz summer festival in Perugia. It is too cold for all-night conga parties in the piazzas. There is more intimacy and more concentration on the music. The winter sunlight is pale but still fires the gold on the facade of the 13th century duomo, described by historian Jacob Burckhardt as "the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world."

The scheduled headliner was Joao Gilberto. His cancellation because of a hernia left the festival without a major international star, but had no adverse effect on attendance. Virtually every concert was near or at or overflowing capacity.

The festival may have been shy of big names, but not of talent. There were musicians from the U.S.A. (Joe Locke, the Harlem Jubilee Singers), France (Martial Solal) and the wider world (Duduka Da Fonseca and Claudio Roditi from Brazil, Anat Cohen from Israel, Lionel Loueke from Benin). There was also broad representation from Italy, including Stefano Bollani, Enrico Rava, Enrico Pieranunzi, Danilo Rea, Paolo Fresu, Antonello Salis, Dado Moroni, Renato Sellani and Gianni Basso. They were grouped (and regrouped) in a variety of ensemble configurations, but the format that dominated was the duo.

This reporter acknowledges that he rarely likes duos. The decision to present Stefano Bollani/ Antonello Salis and Bollani/Martial Solal in duos took great pianists and turned them into novelty acts. The conservatory-trained Bollani and Salis, the wild man from Sardinia who does not read music, are very different pianists, but share a manic sense of musical humor. In the joint general mayhem of forearm smashes on keys and metal discs thrown onto piano strings, "Caravan," "Something In The Way She Moves" and "Lady Madonna" became audible. Salis also leaped off his piano bench for a wheezing, soaring, free-form interlude on "fisarmonica," which is the lovely Italian word for accordion.

The scheduling of Martial Solal in duos for two of his three performances was even more of a lost opportunity. Only his solo concert provided a representative example of his mastery, unique among living pianists. Pieces like "In A Sentimental Mood" and "'Round Midnight" were camouflaged in astonishing embroidery and dizzying successions of digressions. In his duo with Bollani, Solal seemed a half-reluctant participant, serving as a muted voice of reason while Bollani pursued random keyboard impulses. In a later duo with vibraphonist Joe Locke, the two were tentative, seeking common ground for their dissimilar musical languages.

Another duo that didn't work was pianist Enrico Pieranunzi with alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani. Piano/alto duos often sound like gigs where half the band failed to show up.

But even the duo-averse must admit that sometimes duos rock. Pianist Helio Alves and vocalist Maucha Adnet gave a flawless recital of Brazilian songs at noon in the Museo Emilio Greco. The surface of the music was elegant but the sensuous undercurrents were passionate. Another successful duo combined the piano of Danilo Rea with the synthesizers of Martux_M. Their "Belle Epoque Suite" was a "concerto multimediale," with video by Massimo Achille. Although the visual imagery from turn-of-the-20th-century Europe was not memorable (it appeared that Achille had just discovered the filters in Photoshop), the music prevailed. It was not always apparent in Rea's suite where notation left off and improvisation began, but his towering, spilling, singing inventions all tied together.

Joe Locke played everyday at the Palazzo del Popolo with a quartet: pianist Dado Moroni, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Joe La Barbera. Locke has become a fixture at Umbria events, usually with more adventurous ensembles than this one, which stuck mostly to standards. No one complained. To be in the presence of this group working through timeless songs like Jimmy Van Heusen's "But Beautiful" was simultaneously reassuring and stimulating. Locke is known for his speed, energy and showmanship, but his secret weapon is his ballad playing.

Another band that played five times was a sextet led by drummer Duduka da Fonseca. All the members are from Brazil—trumpeter Claudio Roditi, guitarist Guilherme Monteiro, pianist Helio Alves, bassist Leonardo Cioglia—except for the reed player, whom da Fonseca introduced as "Anat Cohen, from Tel Aviv, Brazil." Da Fonseca's drumming and world-class soloists like Alves and Roditi and Cohen makes this band's version of 'samba jazz' special.

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