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Hiromi, Christian Scott at JVC Newport

Carlos Santana

In Perugia: City Of Art, Franesco Dufour writes, “Perugia is…best described as an emotion rather than a true place.” Every July, when the Umbria Jazz festival overruns this beautiful medieval hill town, Perugia’s primary emotion is euphoria. Other sensations include exhaustion and a surreal sensory overload.

This year, each day kicked off at 11:30 a.m., when the New Wave Brass Band of New Orleans made a raucous march down Corso Vannucci. The final shows ended sometime after 2 a.m., when the calls for encores at the midnight concerts finally died away. Even then, the night wasn’t over. The crowds that emerged from the concerts found the Corso Vannucci still teeming with young, photogenic Italian humanity, while huge projected iconic still images (Miles, Louis, Coltrane) moved slowly across the sides of buildings and city walls. Umbria Jazz is, among many other things, a world-class street party. (On July 9, when Italy won the World Cup in soccer, the party went on through the night.)

Free music was available at both ends of the Corso Vannucci, at the huge stage in the main square, Piazza IV Novembre (every night), and at the public gardens, Giardini Carducci (every day and night). The big names (this year including more rock and pop stars than ever before) played the sports stadium, Arena Santa Giuliana, which holds over 5,000 people for music. The best jazz happened in two 18th century opera houses, Teatro Morlacchi and Teatro Pavone (magnificent ornate horseshoe-shaped spaces with five and four stories of boxes, respectively, and high, domed ceilings covered in painted idylls) and in Rocca Paolina, the small Cannon Room, or “Sala Cannoniera,” of a 16th-century fortress. Several restaurants and hotels around town also served as venues, but music still spilled out into the streets, where small groups and even large ensembles set up shop on the cobblestones.

It is impossible to get your arms around a festival this vast. It can only be suggested (and remembered) episodically, in vivid snatches of music and selective flashback vignettes:

The Arena Santa Giuliana: Bad News/Good News

Sitting out under the stars on Italian summer nights, with the Arena stage in front of you and the illuminated orange steeple of the Chiesa di Santa Giuliana behind you and excellent espresso available at concession stands to the side, it is hard not to feel that life is sweet. La dolce vita prevailed even though many of the performances at the Arena were undistinguished. Diana Krall (pictured), on opening night, seemed rather perfunctory. There is a fine line, of course, between Diana being the Princess Of Cool and being perfunctory. Nevertheless, Krall melted hearts with ballads like “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)” and “Little Girl Blue.”

Wayne Shorter’s marathon free medley was futile and indulgent. John Patitucci, with his circular, powerful, hypnotic bass rituals, and Brian Blade, with his frightening drum explosions, created anticipation that Shorter never fulfilled. He would put his soprano to his mouth, play eight notes to himself, take it out, look confused, switch to tenor, trill for 10 seconds, then stop and look pained. Roughly 200 people walked out.

James Brown was embarrassing, legalized theft of the 40 Euro admission price. He can no longer remember his lines-which are essentially variations of “Yeah!”-or the names of his band members. While it was fun to hear Carlos Santana bend those notes on “Oye Como Va” in person, his set was by-the-numbers.

But there was also great stuff at the Arena, mostly in the opening acts. Jamie Cullum opened for Herbie Hancock and absolutely stole the evening. He is an irresistible ragamuffin shock-and-awe entertainment assault, dashing across the stage, leaping clean over the piano to his bench, spilling his guts on every song. When he got serious with “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” the pain and ragged passion were real.

Edmar Castaneda’s short opening set took Diana Krall’s mellow crowd by surprise. Castaneda plays the arpa llanera, or Colombian harp, a diatonic instrument from which he snatches twanging, sweet, twittering, chiming, dense sonorities like nothing else in contemporary music. Castaneda’s trio with drummer David C. Silliman and trombonist Marshall Gilkes included the “resident artists” at Umbria Jazz, performed nine times, and were among the revelations of the festival.

Brad Mehldau’s trio opened for Wayne Shorter and offered a set of focused, meaningful virtuosity, with tunes by Oasis, Soundgarden and Mehldau, and a “Secret Love” to die for. Under a full moon, Eric Clapton’s concert was ferocious and efficient. Four guitarists (Robert Cray, Doyle Bramhall, the extraordinary Derek Trucks and Slowhand himself) sent Clapton’s Italian fans home hoarse. Pat Metheny’s trio gave a long, committed, often inspired recital. Oddly (given that bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sánchez are among the strongest in jazz on their instruments), the most memorable moments came when Metheny played alone, with just his baritone guitar. Metheny’s audience not only loves but needs him: He plays profoundly reassuring music that creates its own world of warmth and clarity, sad only when you remember that it is about what life might have been.

The sound system at the Arena was a major reason for the festival’s overall impression of quality. It was the work of Reference Laboratory, a manufacturer and importer not ordinarily in the business of setting up sound reinforcement systems. Reference Laboratory undertakes only one such project a year, Umbria Jazz, as an opportunity to showcase its technology. Their achievement in a large outdoor venue was stunning. The sound for Santana and James Brown was big enough to knock you down, yet detailed and precise. Remarkably, the same set-up worked beautifully for intimate music like Metheny’s solo acoustic pieces and Caetano Veloso’s soft songs. General Manager Angelo Tordini explained that one reason for Reference Laboratory’s superior results is that they pay special attention to cabling for microphones and instruments. They use their own proprietary multi-strand cables. (The sound at the two theaters, Morlacchi and Pavone, was also typically excellent. It was the work of Gianni Grassilli Sound Services of Bologna.)

The Italians

Umbria Jazz 06 probably represented the strongest case ever made at one time and place that Italian jazz is the best in Europe-which is to say the best anywhere outside the United States.

Enrico Rava’s quintet, with an eminent guest, Pat Metheny, gave a midnight concert that lit up the Morlacchi. In a dream duet, Rava barely implied “My Funny Valentine,” and Metheny floated individually significant acoustic guitar notes across the top of Rava’s trumpet fragments.

Another trumpeter, Paolo Fresu, performed with his trio at the Pavone, with Antonello Salis on piano and accordion, and Furio Di Castri on bass. Like virtually every appearance by an Italian band at the two theaters, the show was sold out to the top tier of boxes. Di Castri drummed on his bass strings with a stick. Salis crashed and slammed across the keyboard, then made surf sounds with a plastic bag over the microphone, then switched to accordion for wheezing, fractured Sardinian polkas. Meanwhile, Fresu spun fragile lines above the fray, then multiplied them through electronics. It was wild, impetuous, bent entertainment, yet musical. The crowd cheered Fresu and company like they were the Italian soccer team (almost).

Francesco Cafiso, the astonishing 17-year-old alto saxophone virtuoso, twice performed the “Tribute To Charlie Parker” that he debuted at Umbria Jazz 05. (The first night sold out months ago, so a second was scheduled.) He again used the original arrangements from Charlie Parker With Strings and the Solisti Di Perugia orchestra, known for its Baroque repertoire. “Just Friends” and “East Of The Sun” and “Yesterdays” were pure, concentrated melodic celebrations, intensified by the lush, complex connotations of the strings. You can get high on Cafiso’s blinding, penetrating, singing alto saxophone tone. His solos were not Parker’s but his own, their concise focus reflecting a discipline remarkable in a player so young. This project will be brought to Birdland in New York for a week in June of 2007. Francesco Cafiso is the most exciting young talent to come into jazz in many years.

Two Italian vocalists were impressive for the beautiful instruments they play. Roberta Gambarini, who now lives in the United States and has just released a strong debut album on Groovin’ High, Easy To Love, appeared with the ageless Hank Jones at the Morlacchi. Maria Pia De Vito, who is not yet well known outside of Italy, sang a personal, intelligent “Omaggio A Joni Mitchell” at the Pavone, accompanied by pianist Danilo Rea and bassist Enzo Pietropaoli. De Veto’s interpretations, in English, of “A Case Of You” and “God Must Be A Boogie Man” came from deep within the songs. De Veto’s “Omaggio” needs to be performed in person in Joni Mitchell’s North America. In the meantime, it is available on a new CamJazz recording, So Right.

In this enormous, diverse festival, the single most unforgettable arc of creativity came from a man alone at a Fazioli piano on the stage of the Pavone on a Sunday at noon. (It was an early hour for the late night revelers, but the Pavone was packed.) Danilo Rea’s performance was billed as “The Guggenheim Concert,” referring to his well-received solo presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York during the Umbria Jazz mini-festival in April of this year. Rea’s performance in Perugia was the “Guggenheim Concert” in aesthetic impulse only. He improvises too freely to repeat himself, weaving his sources (operatic arias, Italian popular songs, his own compositions) into hour-long liberated suites that surge and recede and climb and cascade in streams of pianistic consciousness that sound like no one but Danilo Rea. He referenced Puccini and Fabrizio De André in an uninterrupted meditation that contained dramatic contrasts. Ferocious fortissimos melted to single-note pensive lyricism. Themes swirled, became rippling chromaticism, then shattering tremolos. You don’t “follow” a Danilo Rea performance, because its logic is private. But you can watch its segments pass by, not needing to immediately understand what connects them, because each possesses truth and poetry.

Piano players are a particular strength of the Italian jazz scene. At Perugia their ages ranged from the gifted 14-year-old Alessandro Lanzoni, through 21-year-old Giovanni Guidi (a creative interpreter of Ornette Coleman), to elegant 80-year-old Renato Sellani.

The Other-Than-Italians

The Carla Bley Big Band gave a midnight concert at the Morlacchi with ironic, erudite charts by the leader, towering solos by trombonist Gary Valente and trumpeter Lew Soloff, and an “Overture to ‘Escalator Over The Hill'” that had genuine majesty. There was also idiosyncratic, first-rate music at Morlacchi from Bill Frisell’s new quintet with Greg Tardy, a smokin’ midnight set by the Roy Hargrove Quintet at Pavone, and eleven straight days of performances by Trio Da Paz. Guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca (also “artists in residence”) played early and late at several venues, and every time caressed the air with graceful, yearning music. Lubambo is a masterful guitarist who writes seductive songs. Da Fonseca has a deft, light touch, yet generates subtle urgent energy. Trio Da Paz plays Jobim as naturally as breathing, with the warmest “Wave” and the quietest “Corcovado” ever.

Perugia’s Final Bow

Umbria is such a long festival that at its beginning you could hardly visualize its end. But the end had to come. Seeing the workmen disassemble the huge stage in the Piazza IV Novembre, watching them pull down the rails and braces of the scaffolding, it was so sad to realize it was really over.

Originally Published