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Live Review: 46th Umbria Jazz Festival

Europe’s wildest jazz party sets records for revenue and attendance

Kenny Barron performs at the 2019 Umbria Jazz Festival. (photo: Tim Dickeson)
Kenny Barron performs at the 2019 Umbria Jazz Festival. (photo: Tim Dickeson)

When you have made many trips to Perugia, Italy for the Umbria Jazz Festival, you never get a sense of which years are bigger than others. They are all crazy (“pazzo,” in Italian). The main drag of the hill town, Corso Vannucci, is all but impassable every night because of the crush of revelers. The music starts every morning at 11:30 a.m. when the marching band Funk Off parades down the Corso followed by early-rising (by jazz festival standards) merrymakers including children and dogs. The music ends after 1 a.m. on the free stages at either end of the Corso, at which point the hardest of the hard core transition to Jazz Club Méliès, where the nightly jam session carries on until 4 a.m.

But Umbria announced that in 2019 the total proceeds of 1,600,000 euros and the total estimated turnout of 500,000 were records. There were other impressive numbers: 300 events, 12 venues, 95 bands, and almost 500 musicians. 

Of the 12 venues, three are paramount. Arena Santa Giuliana, down the hill from the old town, is where the headliners play, about half of them jazz. It can hold 5,000. King Crimson (“Celebrating 50 Years”) needed all that capacity. They played calibrated thunderous three-drummer kitsch for three hours. The delighted older crowd watched their lives pass before their eyes. The appeal of the Arena is the scene and the moonlit Italian summer night. The best music happens indoors in the old town. Teatro Morlacchi is a magnificent moldering 600-seat U-shaped 18th century playhouse with five tiers of opera boxes. Sala Podiani is a room on the fourth floor of the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, housed in the 13th century town hall. Sala Podiani was the setting for the noon and 3:30 p.m. concerts by solo pianists and small ensembles. However, the space is a problematic acoustic environment for music. It is two stories tall, and the sound bounces everywhere. Its appeal is intimacy. Major musicians like Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch played solo for fortunate audiences of 150.  

L to R: Julian Lage, Reuben Rogers, Charles Lloyd, Marvin Sewell. (photo: Tim Dickeson)
L to R: Julian Lage, Reuben Rogers, Charles Lloyd, Marvin Sewell. (photo: Tim Dickeson)

There are many stories about Carlo Pagnotta, the revered, imperial, intimidating artistic director who has presided over the Umbria program since the festival began in 1973. One story is that, back in the day, Pagnotta was asked why Umbria did not book more Italian artists. He replied, “We will invite Italians when they are good enough.” Italians have been good enough for at least 15 years. Italy has now eclipsed Scandinavia as the strongest jazz scene in Europe. In 2019 the Umbria program was dominated by two countries, Italy and the United States. The comments below (brutally selective, given the festival’s 300 concerts) are divided into those two national categories.

Italy breeds jazz piano players, most of whom started in classical conservatories and later moved over to jazz and brought their classical chops with them. Almost all the greatest Italian pianists were in Perugia in 2019. (Stefano Bollani was the notable exception). The gifted melodist Danilo Rea performed in Sala Podiani in a trio led by American bassist John Patitucci, with Roberto Gatto on drums. Rea hushed the room with a rapt rendering of an unfamiliar melody. Only the opera fans in the audience knew it. It was the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, in a spare arrangement by Rea.

Other important Italian pianists included Dado Moroni, Enrico Pieranunzi, Rita Marcotulli and Dino Rubino. Moroni performed in the Morlacchi with a stellar international trio (bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Peter Erskine). Enrico Pieranunzi was a guest with a young big band from Rome, the New Talents Jazz Orchestra. They performed Pieranunzi compositions in the Morlacchi.

L to R: Gerald Clayton, David Ginyard Jr., Terence Blanchard, Gene Coyne, Charles Altura. (photo: Tim Dickeson)
L to R: Gerald Clayton, David Ginyard Jr., Terence Blanchard, Gene Coyne, Charles Altura. (photo: Tim Dickeson)

There is a new Italian generation coming up behind these established pianists, and three of the best were in Perugia. Ten-or-so years ago they were all prodigies. Now they are grown up. Alessandro Lanzoni made his first record at 14. He has an excellent new trio album on the CAM Jazz label, Unplanned Ways. But he was a sideman in Perugia, in the quartets of two important Italian leaders, Rosario Giuliani and Roberto Gatto. In both bands, Lanzoni generated huge swells of piano. His freely spilling solos always arrived at concepts you never saw coming.

Enrico Zanisi plays in edgy young Italian ensembles like Francesco Diodati’s Yellow Squeeds. Solo, he submerges his edginess in lush neoclassical Italian romanticism. The best moment was the only standard, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” by Fran Landesman, “the poet laureate of lovers and losers.” Zanisi embellished it almost beyond recognition but kept both the love and the loss.

Giovanni Guidi’s solo concert in Sala Podiani was one of the high points of the festival. What he performed was a particular spontaneous art form associated primarily with Italian piano players (such as Danilo Rea). Guidi sat down and improvised for an unbroken hour, but unlike a solo concert by Keith Jarrett, his inventions flowed through known songs. When he came upon “Answer Me” it was like a secular prayer. His touch was delicate, but then “Answer Me” grew dense with tremolos. Few pianists can turn their instrument into an orchestra like Guidi. Near the end, “Moon River” suddenly coalesced like a fond memory. Then he traced the long arc of “Over the Rainbow.” This was a concert that swept you up. To fully experience it you had to let go.

The three most important Italian trumpet players performed in Perugia. Fabrizio Bosso has a sound of pure brass brilliance. Probably no living practitioner of his instrument can go so fast with such precision. He played once in Sala Podiani and once in the Morlacchi. But the performance that had everyone buzzing came at a jam session, when, on “Bernie’s Tune,” he shot the lights out in Jazz Club Méliès. In the Morlacchi, Paolo Fresu and bassist Lars Danielsson played music from their recent ACT album Summerwind. If Svengali had been slightly more beneficent and had played flugelhorn, he would have sounded like Fresu. Krzysztof Komeda’s “Sleep Safe and Warm” cast a spell. Fresu knows how to use electronic effects to turn his horn into a choir of angels. As for the third trumpet player, he is saved for later.

Except for three rock and pop acts (King Crimson, Nick Mason, crooner Paolo Conte), the largest crowds in the Arena were for Americans playing jazz. Chick Corea and a double bill of Snarky Puppy/Kamasi Washington each sold around 3,000 tickets. For Diana Krall the gate was closer to 4,500. Snarky Puppy came out of nowhere 15 years ago with a unique blend of pop cultural consciousness and real jazz content. They give younger listeners familiar elements of energy and attitude and groove, and then hit them with more ambitious forms and jazz chops. Their popularity is good news for jazz. The same can certainly be said of Washington, whose stardom begins with a monumental tenor saxophone sound that partakes of both Coltrane and Rollins. But whereas Snarky Puppy keeps refreshing itself with new music, Washington has stayed with the same program for three years. He still has the loudest acoustic rhythm section in modern music (Miles Mosley on bass, Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner on drums) and the shrieks of vocalist Patrice Quinn are still intrinsic to the ensemble uproar. In jazz, even powerful messages can start to lose their impact if their delivery methods don’t evolve. Washington needs some new ideas.

Speaking of new ideas, Corea has not challenged himself in years. His Spanish Heart Band was full of accomplished soloists (guitarist Nino Josele, trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez). His Spanish tunes were nice and his keyboard work was polished. But the evening never rose above pleasant light entertainment. 

Giovanni Guidi performs in Enrico Rava's "Special Edition" during the Umbria Jazz Festival. (photo: Tim Dickeson)
Giovanni Guidi performs in Enrico Rava’s “Special Edition” during the Umbria Jazz Festival. (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Diana Krall gave a bewitching performance. Paradoxically, her potent new ensemble (Joe Lovano/Marc Ribot/Robert Hurst/Karriem Riggins) has turned her deeply inward.  Songs like “All or Nothing at All” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” were episodes in a hushed, dark, existentialist meditation on love’s ambivalence or outright loss. When Ribot’s guitar knifed into one of her songs, it was a rush. When you have a master like Lovano taking the saxophone breaks, who is going to complain that he is overqualified? “Cry Me a River” was an essay in bitterness but Krall’s come-hither voice made bitterness alluring.

A 25-year-old American singer created a stir at the festival. As artist-in-residence, Veronica Swift performed nine times in Hotel Brufani with Benny Green’s trio. The contrast with Krall could not have been more extreme. Krall is a minimalist who can set a mood with a quick gesture. Swift is a vocal acrobat with major league pipes and drop-dead scatting chops. She has it all: diction, confidence, swing, stage presence. She can do outrageous things while looking relaxed. If she develops style (which only comes with life experience, and which Krall possesses in spades), she will be dangerous.

There were several excellent performances in the Morlacchi by American bands, and one disappointment in a magnificent reconstructed 13th century church (San Francesco al Prato), where a concert was held for the first time in 30 years.

The current projects of Marquis Hill, Terence Blanchard and Joel Ross all share a quality that may be more common to European jazz than American: a priority for fresh concepts of ensemble form, an emphasis on the gestalt of the whole concert experience, rather than a focus on solos. Yet because these three bands happen to contain world-class solo firepower, when soloists do separate themselves from the collective thrust, the results are often stunning. Hill (trumpet), Blanchard (trumpet and electronics), Gerald Clayton (pianist with Blanchard) and Ross (vibraphone) are among the leading voices in jazz on their respective instruments. These groups also contain young talents of promise like pianist Michael King and drummer Jonathan Pinson (Hill), guitarist Charles Altura (Blanchard) and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins (Ross). They all play a kind of new millennium jazz that has not yet been given a name. It occupies a fertile domain between the tradition (where it is grounded) and avant-garde (where openness is instinctive and assumed).

Charles Lloyd knocked ‘em out in the Morlacchi. He debuted a new quintet with two guitarists, Julian Lage and Marvin Sewell. It was Sewell’s first public performance with Lloyd and it was loose, raw and volatile. Sewell brings a new complex of sonorities to a Lloyd band: bluesy raunch; psychedelic screech; ominous distortion. It will be interesting to see if he stays. Lloyd, at 81, with his white hair sticking out of his cap and his spasmodic little dances, is charismatic as only a shaman can be. Now more than ever, his tenor saxophone sound bypasses all the mundane distractions of human existence and reaches straight into your soul.

Benny Green (piano) and Veronica Swift (vocals). (photo: Tim Dickeson)
Benny Green (piano) and Veronica Swift (vocals). (photo: Tim Dickeson)

The Uri Caine concert at San Francesco al Prato was a commissioned work called “Seven Dreams,” performed by a large ensemble containing Caine’s trio and a string quartet from a Perugia chamber orchestra. They played on a stage surrounded by ancient columns. The occasion was grand (the mayor spoke and many Perugia VIP’s sat in the front row), but the fussy, frenetic music, in one hour, did not contain a single attractive melody.

And finally we come to that third important Italian trumpet player. Enrico Rava performed near the end of the festival. He was on a world tour celebrating his 80th birthday. His previous band had the best young guitarist in Italy, Francesco Diodati. The band before that had the best young pianist in Italy, Giovanni Guidi. His new band, his “Special Edition,” has both. In Perugia they played their fifth gig together. (The other members are saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti, bassist Gabriele Evangelista and drummer Enrico Morello.) They were already able to spin themselves off into duos and trios for collaborative improvisations on the fly. Rava’s trumpet lines are still veering journeys that hit epiphanies of sudden breaking light. At the end he played “My Funny Valentine,” the national jazz anthem of Italy. Or rather, he played intimations of “My Funny Valentine,” because emotions like longing broke the song apart, leaving only fragments to be played.                            

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.