Summer Nights

Between the JVC Jazz Festival in New York and Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy, there was much to treasure and contemplate, including a few surprises mixed in with the anticipated highs. Having set out not to take notes at events I initially had no intention of reviewing, I rely here on the failings and advantages of memory. The failings are obvious: holes like Swiss cheese into which events and nights disappear. Yet the advantages are not to be denied—chiefly an automatic filter that cuts to the chase and eradicates the merely ordinary.

The first surprise loomed on the first night of JVC, in a tribute to Alice Coltrane, organized by Ravi Coltrane, with a harpist named Brandee Younger, and a rhythm team that ought to be revived for its own night: Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette. It was a surprise because, while I don’t much love the multicultural spiritualism and unilateral modes of Alice Coltrane’s recordings, I was enchanted by this evening, disappointed only by Allen’s strangely unassertive performance. Ravi played with focus, building to a breakout finish; the swirling harp and harplike piano arpeggios added agreeable colors; and DeJohnette was as attentive as a surgeon. Especially affecting was a reel of home movies that transferred John Coltrane from the realm of mythology to the hearth of family life. I hope Ravi incorporates them into a CD/DVD.

A João Gilberto recital is never to be missed, and this one was characteristically mesmerizing; the only surprise was that instead of his one English song, “’S Wonderful,” he offered a Portuguese version of “God Bless America.” There aren’t many chances to hear an artist who invented an idiom; in this, the 50th anniversary of bossa nova, Gilberto remains the foremost interpreter of Jobim and a sui generis singer-guitarist who keeps the candle barely flickering while unfolding reels of meditative melody. In contrast, Dianne Reeves prepared one of the most exuberant and meticulously judged sets I’ve heard from her. Opening for Al Green, who likes to play the fool and conduct sing-alongs as much as sing, she outmaneuvered him by doing things—Motown’s “Just My Imagination” and an a cappella spiritual (“If I Can Help Somebody”: Carnegie Hall was so rapt that a sneeze would have sounded like an explosion)—Green patented. She also revived Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call,” and encouraged guitarist Russell Malone to investigate his deep blues instincts.

Most memorable was the piano bill shared by George Cables and Cecil Taylor, the former interpreting originals and standards with a filigree delicacy at the bounding line between Tatum and Powell. In 1984, George Wein presented a double bill of Taylor and Oscar Peterson, and many of Peterson’s fans noisily exited as Taylor played. There were no walkouts this time, but there were plenty of remarks from those who had not followed Taylor for a while suggesting that he had mellowed, grown lyrical, accessible. No: Taylor is Taylor and Taylor. He doesn’t stoop to conquer, but he raises the recalcitrant to share his vision. His performance, cued by the arcane graphs that he uses as scores, unfolded as a sonata—rigorous, compelling, gorgeous, thrilling.

Perugia is an incomparable setting for a jazz festival, with its acoustically marvelous 18th-century theaters (the Morlacchi is a giant jewel box); the grand Corso Vannucci with its brightly lit piazzas, where free concerts helped to attract a reported 400,000 visitors; and alleyways and hilly staircases that can lead you as far back in history as an Etruscan arch; not to mention stadium concerts with giant screens projecting the views from multiple cameras and a sound system that confidently balances and projects every note. There were daily pleasures, including sets by Allan Harris, in a charmingly mimetic salute to Nat Cole as pop singer, and the preternaturally cool Pat Martino, who, with little physical exertion beyond his hands and nary a word, stands at center stage, backed by a rhythm section alert to his every gesture, and drives deeply into each piece, his superb technique animated by a narrative logic that is intolerant of fakery or excessive ornamentation.

Cassandra Wilson, with her exceptional band directed by Marvin Sewell, another miraculous guitarist, who travels the byways from the deep, dark Delta to Mars, and featuring the remarkable young pianist Jonathan Batiste, a month after his graduation from Juilliard, performed a rhythmically vivacious and broad repertoire from Loverly and earlier recordings. The glory days of Ella and Sarah are gone. The glory days of Dianne and Cassandra are now. Miles Evans rocked the Morlacchi with a much too infrequent reunion of the Gil Evans band—Lew Soloff, Chris Hunter, Conrad Herwig, Kenwood Denard, Delmar Brown—that turned out to be a farewell performance by Hiram Bullock, playing with bemused aggression, peaking with the band on “Little Wing.” Are there no Monday nights left in New York for this intoxicating ensemble?

For me, the most rewarding discovery of Umbria was the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, whose octet performed his Brazilian tribute album, Carioca, including his stunning keyboard arrangement of “Tico Tico.” He revealed something rarer than a conservatory technique (I mean, who doesn’t have that these days?): a distinctive touch, supple and pointed, that, especially after hearing his other recordings (seek out Jazz Italiano Live 2006), I suspect I would recognize amid a mob of pianists.

Still, the highlight of Umbria was no surprise at all. Sonny Rollins, closing a long international tour, attracted some 4,000 people to the Arena Santa Giuliana, and extended a two-hour (no break) invitation to exultation. A couple of critics, as ever, declined, but the crowd roared, especially after a few encores, including “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and the sublime “Serenade,” at which point the barriers were taken down and the audience was allowed to rush the stage, where it remained long after the stage was bare, unwilling to let go of the moment. The set was given over to originals, not least the lyrical calypso “Nice Lady,” and standards—“In a Sentimental Mood,” “Someday I’ll Find You,” and in a pièce de résistance, “They Say It’s Wonderful.” You can surmise when Rollins is happy with what he plays and hears by his dancing, which doesn’t come as easy these days. This night he wriggled a lot, shifting weight from one leg to the other, caught in a rhythm that he, like the audience, was reluctant to let go of. The great days of Sonny are now.

Originally published in October 2008

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