The Art Ensemble of Chicago in full cry, especially on a 50th-anniversary tour, is a powerful way to kick off a jazz festival. That said, if you have just flown in to Milan from the west coast of the United States and have not slept for 27 hours, the AEC can sound a little harsh. One thing, though: They will keep you awake.
Personnel is fluid in the AEC these days. The septet that played Milan contained two founding members, Roscoe Mitchell (soprano and alto saxophones) and Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion). The others were Hugh Ragin (trumpets), Jean Cook (violin), Silvia Bolognesi and Jaribu Shahid (basses), and Dudu Konate (African percussion). The three stringed instruments, with their violin and arco bass drones, imprinted an unfamiliar sonic signature on the Ensemble. AEC is no longer the democratic collective of the old days; it’s Mitchell’s band now. His soprano saxophone outbreaks, storms of lethal lyricism, were the defining extended solos of the night. Ragin was an interesting, contrasting voice of reason but played sparingly. Twice the din coalesced into known AEC themes, “Odwalla” and “Tutankhamun.” The dominant intelligence and energy center was always Mitchell, whose relentless commitment to new forms of beauty is undiminished, 50 years on.
Milan’s JazzMi, under the leadership of artistic director Luciano Linzi and producer Titti Santini, is remarkable for how quickly it got big. From a standing start in 2016, the festival in 2018 grew to 210 events with 500 artists over 14 days (Nov. 1-14). Total attendance was 48,000, a 20% increase from 2017. Italy may have more jazz festivals per capita than any other country, but the important ones have not been in the major urban centers. JazzMi has changed that. This intensely metropolitan festival had two main anchors. The first was the Triennale di Milano, a design and art museum a few blocks from the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which holds Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The Triennale facility provided the acoustically brilliant 500-seat Teatro dell’Arte, as well as smaller venues used for younger bands, a gallery for a William Claxton photo exhibition, and rooms for meetings and lectures. The second anchor was the Blue Note, part of the jazz-club chain that now has eight locations around the world. The Milan Blue Note, larger than the New York original, is a classy, efficient, comfortable setting for music.
Most of the major concerts were in the two main venues, but JazzMi spread itself all over the metro area: to bars, art galleries, libraries, social clubs, hotels, and a castle. The festival was also committed to presenting music in out-of-the-way, economically challenged parts of the city. For example, a new jazz/classical crossover band called Lumina played in a Pentecostal church in the Quarto Oggiaro neighborhood. The pews were filled by grandparents, parents, and children. Not a typical jazz crowd, but they loved Lumina’s alluring music, which intensified when trumpeter Paolo Fresu joined for the last two numbers. (Fresu produced Lumina’s eponymous album on his own Tuk label.)
JazzMi incorporated an enormous range of cultural and educational activities: lectures, panels, public interviews, laboratories for children, book launches, and films. At many jazz festivals, secondary events are sparsely attended; in Milan, most were full. Linzi believes that there is a pent-up demand for jazz in the city, which had not held its own festival for 17 years before the foundation of JazzMi.
At a festival this huge and decentralized, what you see (and what you write about) is necessarily a selective process. One way to organize an overview of JazzMi is to start with two recurrent themes: piano (especially solo piano) and guitar.
Jason Moran and Abdullah Ibrahim played solo concerts in Teatro dell’Arte. Very few living pianists have a range of interests as broad as Moran’s, or a grasp of history as deep. He knows ragtime (e.g. Jim Burris’ “Ballin’ the Jack”) and he knows Cecil Taylor. By himself, with no need to coordinate with one of his many projects involving orchestras or trios or dancers or multimedia, Moran spills and swells at will. The force of his attack can knock you back in your chair. Ballads take sudden hard turns into wild aggression. Moran’s technique has become more expansive over the years; his ideas soar without flying apart. If the bombast was occasionally exhausting, and if some of his devices were overdone (like the thundering he stayed with too long at the far left of the keyboard), his fearless creativity, in its quest to communicate, always won you over.
Ibrahim’s night could not have been more different. He made the risky decision to perform an entire solo concert in a domain of quietude and minimalism. He stared straight ahead, only his hands moving, playing spare melodies, sequentially. There was a total absence of dynamic contrast, and only one tempo: dead slow. The evening was a kind of séance, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes monotonous, but one aspect was always extraordinary: the acoustics of Teatro dell’Arte. Ibrahim played without amplification, and he played very softly. Even chords he barely touched were true and clear, and filled the auditorium.
Steve Kuhn played the Blue Note with his trio (bassist Aidan O’Donnell, drummer Billy Drummond). While Moran’s approach to the piano is impulsive and Ibrahim’s mystical, Kuhn’s is methodical. In his hands, even a hard-charging piece like Miles Davis’ “Four” sounds measured. He represents a pure strain of modern mainstream jazz piano. When he plays a love song like Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” love is no less sincere for being so graceful and civilized.
Alessandro Lanzoni played twice in a small venue in the Triennale museum, as part of the festival’s “Italian Jazz Showcase” series. He was a prodigy who made his first record at 14. He is now in his mid-twenties, and has developed a piano language that is distinctive yet unmistakably Italian in its blend of lush romanticism and jagged, crashing freedom.
Giovanni Guidi, perhaps the most gifted pianist of the new Italian generation, lit up Enrico Rava’s band, in which he appeared as a sideman. Rava’s featured guest was Joe Lovano; bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Gerald Cleaver were the other players. They filled Teatro dell’Arte on JazzMi’s second night. Given the heavy artillery in this quintet, the evening’s prevailing pensive mood was unexpected. One of the high points of the entire festival was their final medley. Guidi rendered “Over the Rainbow” in free melodic associations, pass after luminous pass. Rava played fragments of haunting sadness that sometimes became “My Funny Valentine.” Lovano played “Passion Flower” in a slow unfolding, as if he were encountering memories thought lost. (Lovano took the place of Tomasz Stańko in this band after the latter died last July. The music, deeply felt, by intention or not, became a eulogy for Stańko.)
The grandest venue used by the festival was the 1,420-seat Sala Verdi in the Conservatorio di Milano, the largest institute of musical education in Italy. Chick Corea invited some members of the audience to sit behind him onstage during his solo piano concert there. He followed a plan: First play a classical piece, then put it together with a jazz piece. A Mozart piano sonata eventually began to incorporate Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Corea found surprising relationships between two disparate forms, then he concentrated on the Gershwin song, then he improvised on both. He took a Chopin mazurka and pasted Jobim’s “Desafinado” into it, and did something similar with Scarlatti and Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” It was an evening of light entertainment and harmless fun: witty, clever, and gimmicky.
It seems wise to start our second JazzMi theme with Bill Frisell, who played solo in a nearly full Blue Note. His stature enables him to pursue a wide variety of projects, but when he plays solo you can truly hear how songs are filtered through his creative consciousness and transformed by his hesitations, his passing notes, his withheld, then released, revelations. He played more standards than usual: “Moon River,” “Lush Life,” “What the World Needs Now.” By means of electronic loops, he played duets with himself. The pointillism was like choirs of light.
John Scofield also came close to selling out the Blue Note with his new band, Combo 66 (pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Bill Stewart). Clayton’s postmodern concept of lyricism does not, on the surface, seem like a fit with Scofield’s down-to-earth rational virtuosity, but his piano solos were so beautiful no one cared. Scofield and Frisell share a love for Americana, but Scofield’s twang gets the human cry of country music, while Frisell gets its human aspiration, in glistening notes like gentle rainfall on a prairie.
Francesco Diodati, who played in the “Italian Jazz Showcase” series, first hit the radar when he joined Enrico Rava’s band in 2015. His guitar changed the atmosphere of a Rava ensemble, opening up new spaces in which the leader thrived. Diodati has his own group now, called Yellow Squeeds. It contains some of the baddest young players in Italy, like pianist Enrico Zanisi, trumpeter Francesco Lento, drummer Enrico Morello, and tuba player Glauco Benedetti. But Diodati is not primarily interested in them for their proficiency as soloists. He feeds their voices into the whole. In Yellow Squeeds, the ensemble solos, in lurching, stabbing outbreaks and fierce seethings. Tempos jerk and slam, blasted by the tuba/drum rhythm section. In this sonic witches’ brew, things might suddenly go silent, and Diodati’s guitar becomes a barely audible scream. “Played Twice” was Monk in another dimension, displaced, surreal. There is a brand-new album on the Auand label, Never the Same.
Of course, there were concerts at JazzMi that did not fit the piano/guitar theme. In the Conservatorio di Milano, on a stage wide and deep enough to contain a symphony orchestra, trumpeter Paolo Fresu and bassist Lars Danielsson looked lonely as they played music from their new duo album on ACT, summerwind. Their two voices, Danielsson’s a looming darkness and Fresu’s a glowing light, were arrayed across silence. They played originals, but their most indelible marking was on “Autumn Leaves.” Fresu’s muted trumpet, fragile yet piercing, touched the song intermittently, then floated free.
There were two concerts in Teatro dell’Arte that could be understood as attempts to align the jazz art form with our present moment. One was an abject failure. One was a stunning success. Antonio Sánchez is a major drummer and an original thinker capable of creating a solo drum score for an Oscar-winning movie, Birdman (which should have won an Oscar of its own). But his band in Milan, with shrieking EWI, wordless vocal moans, and hammering repetitive piano, was lame. Marquis Hill’s Blacktet made jazz relevant to now, not by importing pop-cultural elements but by the passion and freshness of its ideas and the sheer technical brilliance of its execution.
All the buzz you’ve heard about Hill is true. He has Ambrose Akinmusire-type trumpet chops (although he doesn’t paint outside the lines as often), writes memorable tunes, and assembles powerful bands. His current Blacktet has Logan Richardson (alto saxophone), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Jeremiah Hunt (bass), and Jonathan Pinson (drums). Hill’s compositions address the threats and dilemmas of our troubled times, like “Ego vs. Spirit” and “Prayer for the People.” His solos are concise, immaculate, and shattering. Amazingly, Richardson had been with the band for only five days yet sounded embedded in Hill’s songs; he is one of the few saxophonists in jazz who can follow a Hill solo and not sound like an immediate downgrade. Ross showered “Her Story” in vibraphone extravagance, orchestrally. Only special ensembles can make hardcore take-no-prisoners jazz sound lyrical.
By presenting artists like Francesco Diodati and Marquis Hill, JazzMi fulfilled the highest calling of a jazz festival: It pointed the way to where the music is going.