Live Review: 45th Umbria Jazz Festival

Stefano Battaglia, Vijay Iyer, Danilo Rea, and a new band called Lumina light up Perugia

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Gregory Porter at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

You could go to many European cities when a jazz festival was in town and never know it. Big cities like Belgrade, Serbia and even medium-sized towns like Bolzano, Italy absorb their festivals with barely a ripple on the surface of daily urban life. But you would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to go to Perugia, Italy in mid-July and not know the Umbria Jazz Festival was happening. At both ends of Corso Vannucci, the main drag of the centro storico, free music plays on outdoor stages all day and long into the night. There are big busy kiosks selling festival merchandise, street musicians wailing on every corner, and artists chalking jazz murals on the sidewalks. Funk Off, a manic marching band, parades riotously down Corso Vannucci twice a day. During the day the cobblestones teem with fans in jazz T-shirts, and at night hordes of young revelers, dancing to the free music with a birra in one or both hands, block your path. Even when the official music stops on the outdoor stages around 2 a.m., conga drums pound in Piazza IV Novembre and the party goes on.

No jazz festival outdoes Umbria for atmosphere, and few approach it for scale. It celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2018 and brought 400,000 visitors to Perugia. Paid attendance was 35,000 and total revenue, counting merchandise sales, was 1,450,000 euros. Approximately 500 artists played 300 hours of music over 250 events in nine venues.

The largest venue by far is Arena Santa Giuliana. A quintessential Umbria experience is to join the crowd every night and make your way from the hilltop to the Arena, down many escalators (most working). As you get close you can look down into the Arena and see (on sold-out nights) 4,500 chairs and two huge video screens on either side of the stage. It is where the headliners play. Umbria, like many major jazz festivals today, supplements (some would say dilutes) its program with rock and pop acts. This year only three of the 10 nights in the Arena were jazz: a Quincy Jones birthday celebration on opening night and two double bills: Kyle Eastwood/Pat Metheny and Melody Gardot/Gregory Porter.

Quincy Jones’ night was a warm and affectionate occasion. It was a revolving door of artists who have figured in Jones’ diverse, distinguished 70-year career. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin, Ivan Lins, Take 6, and Alfredo Rodriguez made cameo appearances. Jones sat to one side of the stage and reminisced between songs. A gigantic ensemble combining the festival band (directed by John Clayton) with a working symphony (the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia) played Jones’ arrangements.

Pat Metheny at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
Pat Metheny at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Few real jazz musicians have larger, more devoted followings than Pat Metheny. His fans can’t get enough of his sweetly piercing guitar cries. They sat transfixed for over two hours and begged for more after three encores. Metheny’s current quartet has his longtime collaborator Antonio Sánchez, a drummer of many voices, and two recent hires, bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Gwilym Simcock. Oh, with her intelligent, intricate bass lines, is a fine addition to Metheny’s operation. They played pieces from all eras of Metheny’s enormous body of work: “Question and Answer,” “Bright Size Life,” “Tell Her You Saw Me.”

Melody Gardot at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
Melody Gardot at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Melody Gardot’s murmuring sexy voice, the way she swallows her words, might not seem suited for an outdoor stadium. But as her set unfolded, she drew you in and cast a spell. After Gardot, approximately 100 musicians took the stage for Gregory Porter. They were an augmented version of the festival big band/Orchestra da Camera di Perugia combo that had played on opening night for Quincy Jones. Vince Mendoza conducted and provided the arrangements. Porter sang classics like “Nature Boy” and “Smile” from last year’s Blue Note album Nat King Cole & Me. His warm, powerful voice has always been his strength, and his songwriting has been his limitation. Singing better songs than his own, Porter’s rich baritone owned the night, and Mendoza’s arrangements made all those violins whisper. It was the last night of the festival. Several thousand people went home happy.

Since 1983, most of the great music at Umbria has gone down in Teatro Morlacchi. It was built in the 18th century, and it is dark, musty and creaky, with hard seats and, of course, no air conditioning. But when you look up into that towering horseshoe with its five tiers of opera boxes, you feel sorry for anyone who has never been to Perugia. Various concerts in the Morlacchi have passed into Umbria legend: Ryan Truesdell (with his Gil Evans project) in 2012, Stefano Bollani in 2010, Ambrose Akinmusire in 2014, Brad Mehldau in 2008. The Vijay Iyer Sextet will now be added to this list.

Vijay Iyer at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
Vijay Iyer at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Iyer and his colleagues played selections from the record that finished first in the 2017 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll, Far from Over, conceived as a musical response to our present horrifying times. It is not unusual for a live performance to be looser, faster, harder, louder, and more about solos than the studio album on which it is based. But in this case, the difference between the two modes was extreme. Iyer’s was a concert of shattering intensity. Tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and cornetist Graham Haynes unleashed shrieking, howling hell and bassist Stephan Crump maniacally flailed. Yet everyone functioned within the context of Iyer’s compositions. The band had been on tour for three weeks when they hit Perugia. They played a seething suite that will never be heard again, using only parts of the songs of Far from Over, expanding or fragmenting them, with Iyer’s choppy piano inciting, then guiding the horns. Iyer has a new young drummer. Remember his name: Jeremy Dutton. He is a force. The encore may have been “Threnody.” It ended the concert the way the album ended, with a cycle of soft piano notes that held out the possibility of hope with the passing of time. When silence finally fell on the Morlacchi, the audience sat stunned and drained.

Lumina at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
Lumina at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

One reason to go to jazz festivals is to make discoveries. Lumina is a project organized by trumpeter/entrepreneur Paolo Fresu as a “tribute to light.” It was performed in the Morlacchi by five players of Fresu’s choosing, all from the domain where classical music meets jazz: William Greco, piano; Marco Bardoscia, bass; Emanuele Maniscalco, drums; Leila Shirvani, cello; Carla Casarano, voice. (The first three wrote the music.) The alluring, sonorous ensemble blends were aural metaphors for radiance as affirmation. The high point was a trio piece in which Greco led a long winding quest toward the light. Fresu joined at the end and contributed trumpet lines that infused luminescence with mystery. Lumina’s self-titled album came out last year on Fresu’s Tuk label.

Here are more memorable moments from the Morlacchi: Kurt Elling commanded the stage with his voice and his presence, and his guest, dynamic trumpeter Marquis Hill, started a buzz at the festival. A new quintet led by impulsive pianist Giovanni Guidi and impeccable trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso brought out previously unknown aspects of Bosso’s character, such as rampant aggression and edginess. Their set was searing.

The Mingus Big Band at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
The Mingus Big Band at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

The Mingus Big Band was more searing. They brought no ballads. They roared, kicked ass, and took names. “Fables of Faubus” was still scathing and still relevant, even though Arkansas’ benighted segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, sank into well-deserved oblivion 50 years ago. The solo firepower in this orchestra is formidable. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and pianist Theo Hill all burned. Igor Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra played a guttural, brutalist version of straight-ahead big band jazz. Pianist Dado Moroni’s trio with bassist Rosario Bonaccorso and drummer Roberto Gatto swung their butts off. Billy Hart’s quartet with Joshua Redman, Ethan Iverson, and Ben Street played a classy set in which Hart ran a clinic on such subjects as articulate percussion exposition and visceral drum impact, and Redman showed why he has been one of the most popular saxophonists in jazz for 25 years: He combines passion with focus and clarity.

It is possible that at a big jazz festival you can get a little jaded. If you went to see Roy Hargrove’s quintet in your home town, you would probably have a fun night out. But at Umbria, in an ocean of great music, Hargrove’s set disappeared within moments after the encore. What Hargrove has, in spades, is attitude. Between his fiery, brief, conventional solos, all notably lacking in original ideas, he strutted around the stage like the town badass. His alto saxophonist, Justin Robinson, took the same messy, shrill, slithering solo on every song. Hargrove’s programmed excitement felt phoned-in. (Full disclosure: The near-full house in the Morlacchi loved it.)

Umbria used a new venue this year, the Umbrò cafe. The duo of clarinetist Anat Cohen and guitarist Marcello Gonçalves were artists-in-residence and played Brazilian music there seven times. Every performance was standing-room-only. Their repertoire mostly came from their Grammy-nominated album Outra Coisa. The songs were elegant and seductive and precise, and always opened for Cohen’s wheeling, swooping, soaring flights: ecstasy as music.

A venue that has become important at Umbria is Sala Podiani, a beautiful two-story museum space in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. There were noon concerts there for nine days, by solo performers or small ensembles. Last year this tall room with marble floors was a reverberant acoustic disaster. This year it was much improved by the addition of carpeting, upholstered seating, and wall units for sound traps. Italy’s most important and wildest trombonist, Gianluca Petrella, has a new project with vibraphonist Pasquale Mirra that has mellowed him a little. They played a free yet heartfelt “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ immortal eulogy for Lester Young. (It would have been nice to hear the Mingus Big Band also play it.). Ethan Iverson gave a fun, friendly, and rare solo piano recital. Dan Kinzelman’s Ghost is a unique four-horn chamber ensemble often willing to blow the doors off the chamber. A new group containing three of Italy’s most talented, most fearless players (guitarist Francesco Diodati, trombonist Filippo Vignato, and bassist Francesco Ponticelli) surprised everyone by behaving themselves. They played an atmospheric set of concentrated quietude. Elvis Costello’s “Someone Took the Words Away” emanated into a room of dead silence.

Francesco Deodati, Filippo Vignato, and Francesco Ponticelli at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
L to R: Francesco Deodati, Filippo Vignato, and Francesco Ponticelli at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Two solo piano recitals in Sala Podiani were the framing, defining moments of Umbria 2018. On the second day, Stefano Battaglia’s concert was titled “Pelagos,” for his recent ECM album. But he did not do songs from Pelagos, except in glimpses and passing allusions. Instead he sat down and played for an hour without interruption or announcement, and completely reimagined his album, which was inspired by the migrants and exiles now seeking asylum in Europe, and their suffering. He is one of the great unheralded pianists in jazz, whose technical mastery serves asymmetrical, episodic, proprietary, sometimes jagged lyricism of enormous spiritual power. In music that came out of tragic awareness and empathy, there were cries of pain but also recognitions of courage. It is a central paradox of art: that portrayals of sadness and darkness, in their truth, can be beautiful.

Danilo Rea is not unheralded. He is so popular in Italy that a second concert had to be added on the last day of the festival. Rea’s performance was very different from Battaglia’s, except in its emotional impact. Rea set in motion a 90-minute stream of consciousness in which songs like mileposts in the lives of everyone present kept coalescing out of the flow: “Come Together” became “Autumn Leaves” became “Hey Jude.” Rea created tapestries containing tribal memories as songs. The last was “Hallelujah,” in an extended rendering full of dramatic hesitations and more dramatic ascents. It was the apotheosis of Leonard Cohen’s greatest song. Some in the audience found themselves standing at the end. On rare occasions, the uplift of music can take you out of yourself. It can release you.

Danilo Rea at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival
Danilo Rea at the 45th Umbria Jazz Festival (photo: Tim Dickeson)