Orvieto, in the dead center of the Italian peninsula, is a perfect oval hill town right out of central casting, perched majestically 1,000 feet above the Umbrian valley floor. It’s the setting for Umbria Jazz Winter, an offspring of the huge Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia.
There are many differences between the two festivals. The Perugia event happens in July. Orvieto takes place over New Year’s. The Perugia festival is 47 years old. Orvieto is 27. Perugia is a massive, bacchanalian summer street party. (In 2019 the estimated turnout was 500,000.) Orvieto is indoors and orderly. Both are located in hill towns, but Orvieto’s population is about 20,000, while Perugia’s metro area is eight times larger. Perugia’s festival lasts 10 days, Orvieto’s five.
Because of these differences, but especially because of the winter cold, Orvieto is a more inward, more intimate occasion, and more intensely focused on the music. It is an easy festival to navigate. Many acts performed several times, and there were only seven venues, a few blocks apart. Three were in Palazzo del Popolo, a medieval palace. The main stage was Teatro Mancinelli, a beautiful 19th-century neoclassical U-shaped theater with four tiers of opera boxes. It should not be assumed that Orvieto is entirely dignified; the madcap marching band Funk Off still parades through the cobblestone streets twice a day, trailed by children and dogs, like they do in Perugia. But in Orvieto the band members are bundled up in coats and scarves.
This year all five days had high temperatures in the 40s (Fahrenheit), with sunshine. The famous golden light of Italy is paler in winter, but the Duomo di Orvieto, one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Italy, still gleamed. (Its ornate facade dates from 1330.)
Two guitarists, John Scofield and Francesco Diodati, provided Orvieto’s most compelling moments. Scofield appeared in a special project, “The Magic and the Mystery of the Beatles.” It was the brainchild of the Umbria organization’s representative in New York, Enzo Capua. Members of two ensembles, Orchestra da Camera di Perugia and the Umbria Jazz Orchestra, were combined into a 24-piece band, with the strings of the former on the left and the horns of the latter on the right. Center stage was Scofield, backed by the A-list American rhythm section of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash. Gil Goldstein created the arrangements (and played keyboards and accordion).
There are risks to such an undertaking. Beatles songs are encrusted with six decades of associations and many people consider them sacred texts that should not be disturbed. But Goldstein approached the material with respect and imagination. He worked with Gil Evans for six years in the 1980s, and the Evans touch was audible in Goldstein’s subtle management of detail and the emotional depth of his arrangements. Employing all the resources of his formidable hybrid orchestra, Goldstein took the songs into new sonic domains and so expanded their scale it was like they were written on the sky.
As for Scofield, his interpretive acts contained passion and intelligence. It was startling and moving to hear his pure, penetrating guitar notes, incised into the night, depict melodies like “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” One of his free-flowing prologues turned out to be “Yesterday.” Perhaps the iconic nature of the material led him to prioritize theme in his creative process of theme-and-variation, but the variations were often brilliant. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a foreordained choice, though not all that gentle.
Each of the three Beatles concerts ended with “Imagine,” a song that resonates with the turning of the year in our troubled times. Scofield’s guitar cries filled the Mancinelli while the orchestra behind him darkly whispered.
Francesco Diodati hit the jazz radar in 2013 when he became Enrico Rava’s new guitarist. On Rava’s 2015 ECM album Wild Dance, it was apparent that Diodati had brought unprecedented sonorities and edgy attitudes into the ensemble. Recently it has also become apparent, through Diodati’s own bands and collective projects, that he is one of the artists on the leading edge of the new European jazz generation. He brought three of his projects to Orvieto and also performed once as a guest, with Paolo Fresu’s Devil Quartet.
The Devil Quartet contains Bebo Ferra, who is a jazz guitarist in the classic sense. When Diodati joined mid-concert and blew the night apart, something became clear: Diodati is not so much a guitarist as a seeker who happens to use the guitar to create new soundscapes that may include shattering glass or grinding metal.
His band Yellow Squeeds has now made two recordings. The most recent, Never the Same, was the “Recording of the Month” in the May 2019 Stereophile, but in Orvieto they showed they have already moved far beyond that album. The band contains some of Italy’s most in-demand young players (trumpeter Francesco Lento; pianist Enrico Zanisi; bassist Gabriele Evangelista; drummer Enrico Morello), but they are less interested in proving they are badasses than in creating their own concepts of ensemble form. Diodati’s compositions set parallel lines in motion, made from content like Lento’s short eruptions and Zanisi’s long glittering strands. The lines are individually intriguing but more intriguing for how they aggregate to form whole unique designs that are subjected to continual revision through group improvisation.
A collective trio called Floors, with bassist Francesco Ponticelli and Europe’s best new trombonist, Filippo Vignato, is a chamber ensemble that derives proprietary melodicism from originals and also from songs with history (like Elvis Costello’s “Someone Took the Words Away” and Carla Bley’s “Jesus Maria”). Floors is not afraid to play pretty music. Diodati’s soft chords might shadow Vignato’s mysteriously poignant trombone lines. But because this is a Diodati band, all lyricism is asymmetrical and all rhythms are provisional. The music of Floors continually reshapes itself and forces the audience to rethink their listening experience.
MAT is a louder, more volatile trio with tenor saxophonist Marcello Allulli and drummer Ermanno Baron. They’ve been together 12 years, and Diodati says they have played Tom Waits’ “Time” at nearly every concert. You can hear why. Waits’ refrain (“And it’s time, time, time…”) sets up this ensemble to strut its stuff. They are devoted to simple melodic gestures that become rituals as they are repeated, in ceremonies of varied dynamic intensity, from lullabies to ravings. Alongside Allulli’s stark long calls, Diodati used electronic effects to make huge looming guitar groundswells or almost silent chimings.
This year’s program featured a vibraphone theme. Three of the top vibraphonists in jazz were in Orvieto. They played one at a time (Joe Locke, in a project with alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani called “Love in Translation”), two at a time (Warren Wolf and Joel Ross in a tribute to Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson), and all three together (in a loose, casual jam called the “Vibes Summit,” which closed the festival). The plan probably looked great on paper but was a mixed bag. Wolf and Ross had never played together. They took turns soloing while the other comped, tentatively. There were no arrangements, and the potential of the unusual instrumentation went mostly unexplored. But it was fun to hear two world-class, very different vibraphonists on one stage. Wolf is a technical virtuoso who flows; Ross is an impulsive artist who spikes and surprises. Ross had “’Round Midnight” to himself and broke it apart, suspending the fragments in space, in lingering vibratos.
Of the vibraphone projects, Locke and Giuliani were the most successful because their quartet was a real band and their relationship goes back 20 years. A program of songs with “love” in the title might sound like too obvious an idea, but these guys made it work. On “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” Giuliani burned like Elvis never dreamed.
Here are some other lasting memories from the festival:
—Two pianists from New Orleans, Sullivan Fortner and Isaiah C. Thompson, created a buzz. Thompson, at 22, has chops of doom and a bright future. Fortner’s future is now. His album with Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window, placed in the top five in the 2018 JazzTimes critics’ poll. Fortner also has rarefied chops, plus an ability to imbue every melody he touches with grace.
—Tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman was a delight, visually and sonically. She traded fours and eights with drummer Lewis Nash in Fortner’s trio, and also collaborated with Wolf and Ross. The phrase for “tap dancer” in Italian is in itself delightful: “ballerina di tip-tap.”
—A trio led by Danilo Rea, one of the great melodists of modern jazz piano, played a program of Italian songs associated with legendary pop singer Mina, all seductive, all fresh to American ears.
—It wouldn’t be an Orvieto festival without a gospel group. Of all the acts that played the Mancinelli, only one got the crowd bouncing in their chairs and standing up to shake their booties: the Every Praise & Virginia Union Gospel Choir.
When you travel from the west coast of the United States and get thrown into the adrenaline rush and inevitable sleep deprivation of a jazz festival, it is hard on the mind and body. You even have moments when you wonder why you came. In Orvieto, after playing three times in the ambitious Beatles project with a huge orchestra, John Scofield performed a rare solo recital on New Year’s Day. He chose songs that offered varied opportunities for emotional revelation through guitar mastery, like “Alfie” and “Ida Lupino” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Then he played “Danny Boy.” It seemed impossible that anyone could improvise a new beautiful melody within a song already perfect, but Scofield did, and it was the moment when you knew exactly why you came.