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Umbria Jazz ’08

Sonny Rollins

Umbria is the most bacchanalian of jazz festivals. Somehow the medieval walled hill town of Perugia survives the annual invasion of 400,000 revelers. Somehow in mid-July normal life carries on. But when you emerge from Teatro Morlacchi or Teatro Pavone after a midnight concert, the cobblestone streets at 2 a.m. are still teeming. In the Piazza IV Novembre, crowds dance to pounding congas around the Fontana Maggiore and spill onto the steps of the Duomo. Jugglers and fire-eaters ply their trades on the Corso Vannucci.

This year’s festival provided a series of natural opportunities for comparison and contrast. For example, the three vibraphonists who are arguably the most important living practitioners of their instrument all appeared. Gary Burton played the big outdoor sports stadium, Arena Santa Giuliana, and filled most of the 4,500 seats. Many were there to hear Burton’s sideman Pat Metheny, who may have disappointed his fans by only achieving his signature state of keening out-of-body catharsis once or twice. The Burton group mostly played disciplined, concise, intricate, trebly music. Volatile drummer Antonio Sánchez sounded atypically subtle but still swung. Burton has taken the four-mallet technique (which he largely invented) far beyond any other vibes player. Yet his virtuosity always serves the music. He swirled three- or four-note chord voicings around his single-note melody lines, and on this night blended them with myriad pinpoints of light from Metheny’s guitar. In its sheer timbral luxuriance, a ballad like “Coral” proved that any melody sounds more important, richer in implication, when played on the vibes.

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