07/27/09

Umbria Jazz '09

Perugia, Umbria, Italy; July 10-19, 2009

Perugia, with its predominance of medieval and baroque design, is an unlikely locale for a festival of all-too-American, all-too-modern jazz music. The small central Italian city should, instead, be the setting for a period film on the life of Scarlatti or some long-forgotten Papal intrigue. And yet its most important civic event each summer is Umbria Jazz, a 10-day extravaganza of musical greats from across the world—special emphasis, of course, on the United States (being jazz’s homeland) and Italy (being Umbria’s).

During that time even Perugia’s most picturesque scenery was occupied by the music; Corso Vannucci, its grand thoroughfare, was filled daily with a street parade by the aptly named Funk-Off and appreciative mobs, not to mention the guitar- and saxophone-wielding buskers who serenaded café patrons with “Pent-Up House” and “Impressions.” Meanwhile, at either end of the plaza sat large stages to accommodate the daily schedules of free music, highlighted by the jump-blues burlesque of Britain’s surprisingly authentic King Pleasure & the Biscuit Boys and Chip Wilson, a New Orleanian guitar aficionado whose fingerpicked acoustic and high, gravelly voice imprinted his haunting American folk and roots music on the evenings at Giardini Carducci.

This year’s crown jewel was a series of six concerts by the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, a 20-strong band drawn from the members of Chicago’s legendary avant-garde music organization. Each performance showcased a different AACM composer (save trombonist George Lewis, whose music both opened and closed the series). Lewis’ sets were extraordinary but exhausting in their sheer density and unrelenting violence; most enjoyable was the diorama for multi-reedist Mwata Bowden, which also included a feature for the ensemble’s phenomenal vocal section (singers Dee Alexander and Saalik and Taalib Din-Ziyad, plus pianist Ann Ward and flutist Nicole Mitchell), the ensemble’s most consistently interesting section.

Elsewhere were rare opportunities to see Wynton Marsalis and Cecil Taylor in the same program. Marsalis brought the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to the outdoor Arena Santa Giuliana in a replication of his January concert for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. With a repertoire of originals and standards (typically varied, though heavy on Thelonious Monk), the orchestra once again demonstrated the trumpeter and leader’s keen eye for talent—although its featured guest, 19-year-old Italian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso, is gifted yet still rather green.

Taylor, on the other hand, was not green at all: The 80-year-old pianist was featured in solo performance at the ornate neoclassical Teatro Morlacchi, roaring, coaxing, prodding and slamming his way through six lengthy compositions. Each included a surprising quotient of lyricism; conventional notions of listening fly out the window with Taylor, so it’s difficult to know whether the avant-garde titan has mellowed with age or this writer has simply become acclimated enough to hear more nuance (or both). Certainly the pianist was as intense as a blizzard, and as mesmerizing.

Interestingly, one of the two highlights of the festival was not a bandleader but a sideman for two others. Rosario Giuliani has worked as a leader before, but at Umbria the alto saxophonist worked for both Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, in concert at Teatro Morlacchi, and American vibraphonist Joe Locke on a live-audience recording session at Oratorio Santa Cecilia. Exhibiting a full, rich tone, Giuliani has also developed a sound that is entirely his own—equal parts lyricism, muscle and downright passion. He showed his bottomless well of emotion in ballad features for both combos (“With My Heart in a Song” for Pieranunzi, “Beatrice Rose” for Locke) and sometimes even managed to steal the other musicians’ spotlights with his unbridled energy (particularly in Pieranunzi’s quintet, where his frontline partner was the superb but more restrained trumpeter Flavio Boltro). Giuliani is a major figure in Italy and parts of Europe but deserves recognition as one of the top alto saxophonists worldwide.

The other star of the festival was Roy Haynes, leading a trio with pianist David Kikoski and bassist John Patitucci at the Morlacchi on a stopover during their European tour. Though Kikoski is a substitute for regular trio member Danilo Perez (sidelined from travel by an injury), the ensemble had such gleeful chemistry that Haynes chuckled audibly as the pianist comped the theme on Kikoski’s own “Inner Trust.” They were tight and inspired on the closing afternoon of the festival; Kikoski stretched the harmonies to the breaking point with monster chords and arpeggios, and did Monk proud with his aeronautic dissonances on “Trinkle Tinkle,” while Patitucci went thoughtful and conversational—and attained as close to perfection as I’ve yet heard in a bass solo on Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ “James.”

As for Haynes, the excitement of his famous snap-crackle snare can obscure just how musical the drummer is: Surely if an award were given for the world’s singing-est ride cymbal, Haynes would take it every year, and the kettle-drum sound of his mallets on the toms in “Easy to Remember” is not easily forgotten. He even managed to state the melody on his kit in several tunes, positively glorying in the triplets of the encore “Blues on the Corner.”

One does not have to go to Umbria Jazz to see Roy, of course—but if the festival brings forth this kind of zeal from its performers, by God, we should all start booking reservations for next year.

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