01/03/07

Lew Soloff Quartet in Italy

Carlo Pagnotta’s Umbria Jazz organization is becoming an empire. It started 33 years ago with a small festival that has now become a vast 11-day, July bacchanal that takes over the Italian hill town of Perugia. But Umbria Jazz has also administered events in Melbourne, Australia and Birdland in New York and even Slovenia. There will be an Umbria presentation at the Blue Note in Tokyo in May of 2007. And, for 14 years, there has been a winter festival in the ancient tabletop hill town of Orvieto.

For five days and nights over New Year’s 2007, the Orvieto festival observed the well-established Umbria Jazz formula: street parades; concerts in various venues starting before noon and ending at 2 or 3 a.m.; jazz lunches and dinners in well-chosen restaurants; special projects. A broad representation of the strongest Italian players appeared, including pianists Stefano Bollani and Danilo Rea, trumpeters Paolo Fresu and Fabrizio Bosso, tenor saxophonists Daniele Scannapieco and Gianni Basso, and vocalist Roberta Gambarini.

Unlike the big Perugia festival, the Orvieto lineup did not contain a major American star. But there was first-rate talent like Joel Frahm, Roy Hargrove and Uri Caine. And there was one American band that was fascinating to follow during the festival, as four exceptional players worked through their concepts of brand new material. The Lew Soloff Quartet, with Joe Locke on vibes, Francois Moutin on bass and Billy Hart on drums, had never played together as a unit before Orvieto (although Soloff, Locke and Moutin had made a few gigs in New York as a trio).

In every one of their four concerts they played five tunes, four of which were performed publicly for the first time: Joe Locke’s “Sword of Whispers” and “Appointment in Orvieto,” and Francois Moutin’s “MRC” and “Surrendering.” The fifth piece was Soloff’s eerie, exotic “Istanbul,” co-written several years ago with Rob Mounsey. In the first concert, at midnight in the Palazzo del Popolo, the band sometimes sounded tentative. But two reasons to be interested in this group immediately became apparent. One was the opportunity to hear Lew Soloff as the leader of a small ensemble. The other was the fact that these four are what too many jazz artists are not: genuine entertainers.

Most jazz fans know Soloff as a featured soloist in large ensembles, from Blood Sweat & Tears in the late ’60s, through Gil Evans and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, to presently, Carla Bley. Orvieto provided a rare chance to hear the Soloff trumpet in unrationed quantities. His flair for the dramatic created one adrenalin rush after another as his signature high notes shattered the air.

Joe Locke is fun to hear and watch. His solos in Orvieto were huge wheeling spirals, and he leapt around his instrument like an acrobat. He swept to crescendos with his arms raised in triumph, and sometimes dropped his mallets after a solo as if they had become too hot to hold. Locke was so wired that sometimes he ran in place when he was not playing. It would not have been terribly surprising to see him end a solo with a standing back flip.

Francois Moutin is one of the quickest bassists anywhere, plucking so fast that his fingers blur like the wings of a hummingbird. He plays with frantic passion, plunging and flailing, hair whipping, sweat dripping. With Moutin, it is not so much a question of where his solo might go as whether he will survive it.

It was also vastly entertaining to observe Billy Hart, one of the greatest living drummers, working his magic. His complex, varied designs infused Soloff’s ensemble with both electric energy and high intelligence. Hart is a drummer who understands musical space. His eruptions are exhilarating because they often explode out of silence.

As for “Luigi” Soloff (as he identified himself in his introductions), he stared into the distance between solos, looking, in his black suit, like a stockbroker contemplating quarterly dividend yields and price/earnings ratios. Then he put his horn to his lips and showed everyone why trumpets (as opposed to, say, electric guitars or saxophones) were used to blow down the walls of Jericho.

The band’s second concert, also in the Palazzo del Popolo, was tighter. On “Surrendering” (a ballad revealing that the maniacal Moutin is a closet romantic), Soloff played a long coda, the richness of his trumpet sound reverberating off the old stones of the palazzo. Rosario Giuliani, one of Italy’s best alto saxophone players, sat in on two numbers. One of them was the encore, “A Night in Tunisia,” an absolute ass-kicker.

The third concert, in the festival’s big venue, Teatro Mancinelli, with its five tiers of opera boxes, was cut short to turn the stage over to Italian trumpet hero Paolo Fresu. The fourth and final performance of the Soloff Quartet was the best. It took place on New Year’s Day, in a smaller space within Palazzo del Popolo, the Sala Expo. The standing-room-only crowd flowed into the aisles and out the door. The band executed the complexity of “MRC” (for “Minor Rhythm Changes”) with high-speed exactitude. “Sword of Whispers,” a graceful, hovering song based on an incantatory vibes ostinato, had to be delayed to allow a street parade outside to pass before it cast a spell. “Appointment in Orvieto” was fiercer and cleaner than before. It hit double-time for Soloff’s solo of precisely spattered staccatos. They did “A Night in Tunisia” again, Soloff launching pieces of it skyward. The throbbing encore was “Little Wing.” Soloff had played it at Umbria festivals in the 1980s with Gil Evans, when the great arranger was doing Jimi Hendrix songs.

Lew Soloff has had a long, distinguished career in music, but very little of it has been as a leader. In a perfect world, this quartet would become a working band. In the world we live in, it should at least make a record.

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