Umbria Jazz Festival, now in its 39th year, is less vast than it once was. The current condition of the global economy has required many jazz festivals to downsize, especially in Europe. The Umbria festival included 180 concerts this year, compared to 260 in 2011. (In its heyday, the number was closer to 400.) Ticket sales were just under €1 million in 2012. Last year’s figure was €1.2 million.
But Umbria is still big enough to completely take over the centro storico of Perugia, one of Italy’s most beautiful hill towns. There are 10 days of free outdoor concerts and street parades, 14 hours a day. The big names play every night in Arena Santa Giuliana, a sports stadium just down the hill from the old town. There is a performance “’round midnight” every night in the 18th century Teatro Morlacchi, with its five tiers of opera boxes. After the last encore in the Morlacchi around 2 a.m., the main town square, Piazza IV Novembre, is still crowded with revelers dancing to the music of street musicians. What makes Umbria special is the atmosphere. It is a large jazz festival within a non-stop street party in a small, enclosed space. A gorgeous small enclosed space.
Umbria 2012 will be remembered for Ryan Truesdell and his Gil Evans Centennial Project. Truesdell is only 32, but he has made himself a Gil Evans authority. On May 13 (the 100th anniversary of Evans’ birth), he released Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, on ArtistShare. The album contains 10 major Evans charts that had never been recorded. Truesdell had gone looking for Evans’ original scores because he knew that many of the available arrangements were inaccurate transcriptions. His research led him to the Evans family archives, to which he was the first outsider granted access. He found a treasure trove of original Evans manuscripts, including many famous masterpieces but also many unknown works.
Centennial was recorded by a large ensemble of first-call New York musicians. It would have been cool to bring them all to Perugia, but it was not economically or logistically feasible. Instead, Truesdell brought the Eastman Chamber Jazz Orchestra: 26 young players, all either current students or recent graduates of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
The story goes back three years. Truesdell wanted to hear the newly discovered Evans charts performed, and Dave Rivello, a band director and assistant professor at Eastman, wanted to get involved. Rivello offered Truesdell a hand-picked ensemble of Eastman students. Reading sessions began three years ago. Rehearsals eventually led to a concert at St. Peters Church in New York in March 2011. Enzo Capua, the United States representative for the Umbria Jazz organization, attended the St. Peters concert, and immediately began talking to Truesdell about bringing the project to Perugia, with some of Italy’s leading jazz musicians as guest soloists. The outcome was Truesdell conducting six concerts in six nights at the festival, the first two at 5:30 p.m., the last four “’round midnight,” all in the Morlacchi. In aggregate, the concerts included music from Centennial, most of the pieces from eight of Evans’ greatest albums, and several lost, unknown Evans arrangements.
On the program, it appeared that the first concert would be the least significant of the six, because it was the only one without a well-known featured soloist. In fact, it was a mind-blower. It concentrated on music from two beloved albums, #Out of the Cool# and #The Individualism of Gil Evans#, and it immediately established that the Eastman Chamber Jazz Orchestra is thoroughly, even uniquely qualified to play Evans’ works for large ensemble. The musicians had been rehearsing since January, in two two-and-a-half-hour sessions per week. They executed the delicate motifs of “Where Flamingos Fly” with nuanced precision. The trombone solo by Alistair Duncan was haunting and rapt. “Punjab,” a 14-minute previously unknown Evans original, appeared on Truesdell’s Centennial album. It had been composed for the Individualism album, but did not make the cut for mysterious reasons. In Perugia, the sharp solos by pianist Nick Weiser and alto saxophonist Ethan Helm held their own with the solos on the record by Frank Kimbrough and Steve Wilson. On “The Barbara Song,” Owen Broder’s long tenor saxophone calls, his fervent held notes, came from deep inside Kurt Weill’s composition.
But the emotional revelation of the first Truesdell concert was simply to hear this music live, impeccably played, and to hear it exactly as Evans wrote it, note for note. The acoustic environment of the Morlacchi is so superb that, in quiet passages, the orchestra was whispering right in your ear.
Each of the Truesdell concerts focused on a pair of Evans albums. For the second, they were New Bottle, Old Wine and Great Jazz Standards. The featured soloist was the most highly regarded saxophone player in Italy, 23-year-old Francesco Cafiso. He is famous for his chops, but his sound is just as stunning, a powerful, penetrating, singing cry. Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” with the ensemble painting pastel colors and Cafiso’s alto whirling and soaring, was magical.
For the third concert, the guest soloist was alto/soprano saxophonist Stefano Di Battista. His solos were very fine, and so were those of several members of the orchestra. Dave Chisholm’s trumpet slashed sideways through “Straight, No Chaser” and “Bird Feathers.”
The only non-Italian guest soloist was multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson. Concert #4 again featured music from the Out of the Cool and Individualism albums, as well as early (unrecorded) Evans arrangements for the Claude Thornhill band. “Punjab” was played for the second time and it was not enough. “Sunken Treasure” contained dark Evans ensemble blends suggesting unfathomable depths. “El Toreador” was just a few simple figures, so solemn they could have been funeral music for the universe. Pianist Nick Weiser beautifully understated the tender emotion of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”
The most anticipated concerts were the last two. They filled all five tiers of opera boxes in the Morlacchi. Paulo Fresu and Fabrizio Bosso played the trumpet parts in Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles Davis. Concert #5 was Bosso on Miles Ahead and Fresu on Porgy and Bess. The final concert was Bosso on Quiet Nights and Fresu on Sketches of Spain. Just as with the very first concert, the initial impact of these performances came simply from hearing this extraordinary music played live, in ideal circumstances. Bosso has a clarion, classic trumpet tone and clean articulation. Fresu shares not only the sound of Miles Davis but a significant portion of his soul. Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” swaying into motion so gradually, was mesmerizing. Bosso’s trumpet was the very sound of yearning. Quiet Nights is the least famous of the Evans/Davis albums. But the arrangements stand with Evans’ best work, and not even transcriptions have been available. On “Song #1” and “Wait Till You See Her,” a large orchestra transformed itself into glittering manifestations of light.
For Sketches of Spain, Fresu played seated, bent so low the bell of his horn almost touched the floor, where the sheet music was spread. The trumpet solos in Evans’ arrangements are extensively notated, but Fresu personalized them through inflection. The same notes were smeared in different places. On “Saeta,” the orchestra’s fanfare and processional built and built and then fell away so that a trumpet could sing the passion. Miles’ solo on “Saeta” was one of his greatest moments. Fresu’s version had its own truth and finality. Of course, Truesdell’s Gil Evans project had to end with “Concierto de Aranjuez.” It opened with that famous high harp tremolo and those castanets, then pursued the drama and sweep of Joaquín Rodrigo’s narrative, its theme more piercing each time it returned. Gil Evans’ music has art’s rarest quality: nobility.
There were two other memorable achievements at this festival. Ambrose Akinmusire’s hot young quintet (Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Sam Harris, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Justin Brown, drums) played an electrifying acoustic set at midnight in the Morlacchi. Akinmusire opened with a wild, free a cappella trumpet cadenza. It was like a series of warning shots, telling the audience to either open their ears or run for cover. In his solos, huge intervallic leaps and dynamic swings were interspersed with lines of cryptic, burning lyricism. He is extravagantly talented but also grounded, with his own vision of jazz form. His first instinct is sonic scorched earth, but he can also turn suddenly inward, like “Regret No More.”
In recent years, the Wayne Shorter Quartet has been capable of oddly sputtering, meandering, incoherent public performances. But at Umbria in 2012, in a sold-out-to-the-ceiling Morlacchi, they just about burned the building down. As always, they played an 80-minute suite, but this one had no dead spots. Shorter, first on tenor saxophone, later on soprano, released furious outpourings of songs within songs (“Zero Gravity,” “Orbits,” “Plaza Real”). This concert rose in an arc to a shattering climax in the encore, a Shorter work-in-progress called “Starry Night.” Its three-note ritual built to an ecstasy of catharsis. The audience, filing out, looked exhausted. It is perhaps surprising that this great performance took place with a substitute drummer, Jorge Rossy. But it may not be coincidental. The presence of Rossy perhaps led Shorter, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez to bear down and focus and stay on message.
Besides the Gil Evans Centennial, Umbria 2012 had a second theme, the 30th anniversary of the passing of Thelonious Monk. There were several interesting Monk projects. Multi-reed player Francesco Bearzatti gave a witty recital in which he blended Monk tunes with Aerosmith and the Police. The Lydian Sound Orchestra, under the direction of Riccardo Brazzale, played stark, fresh arrangements of 11 Monk classics.
Here are some other highlights: In the Arena, Joe Lovano played a strong, intelligent set. He has a new band, Sound Prints, with Dave Douglas. Pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Linda Oh are two young players to watch. John Scofield’s Hollowbody Band is his most satisfying project in years. The presence of second guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel is a major reason why. Their “Moonlight in Vermont” was epic, a tearjerker, but hip. KJ Dehnert is an institution at Umbria festivals. She still writes good songs like “And So the Story Goes” and “Destiny,” and her band, with hot saxophonist Aaron Heick and nasty/nice drummer Ray LeVier, still kicks ass. And, oh yeah, Sting. He closed the festival in a sold-out Arena and did all his hits. If you find someone who would not like to hear Sting holler “Roxanne” on a soft Italian night, under a moon bright enough to illuminate the church towers in the night skyline of Perugia, avoid that person.
There were a few disappointments. Herbie Hancock’s lame show in the Arena, with one of the world’s great pianists noodling on a Roland AX-Synth, was a monumental misappropriation of talent. Sonny Rollins packed the Arena but had an off night (and an uncharacteristically short night), apparently caused by fatigue. Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society was bland and forgettable. Spectrum Road was loud. Jack Bruce should sing only in the shower. Still, he is grandfathered in to “Sunshine of Your Love,” on which the whole world will cut him some slack. Umbria, for all the things it does right, has an unfortunate fondness for piano duos, trios and quartets. (Yes, quartets, with four pianos on stage.) This format turns significant pianists (Stefano Bollani, Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Eric Reed, Benny Green) into novelty acts.
The Umbria festival is a marathon of sensory overload and sleep deprivation. When you get home from Italy, and look over the festival program, it does not seem quite real. Did you really get swept up every day in the street parades down Corso Vannucci, led by the madcap marching orchestra Funk Off? Did you really head down the hill every night at nine with several thousand others into Arena Santa Giuliana, with its two huge video screens? Then after the Arena concert did you really rush back up the escalators into town and pick your way through the throngs in the piazzas for the midnight show at the Morlacchi, then emerge into still teeming streets and gather with new and old friends in a sidewalk bar and talk about the music until three, then go back to your hotel and collapse and get up the next afternoon and start it all over again? It is all not quite real, yet you know you were there on a summer night when an orchestra played “Once Upon A Summertime” and Gil Evans’ voicings barely moved and Fabrizio Bosso’s trumpet slowly, haltingly whispered the melody, as if poised on the brink of human hope.