Many things about the Umbria Jazz Festival never change. It always takes over the beautiful ancient hill town of Perugia, Italy, for 10 days in July. There are always free concerts all day and long into the night at both ends of Corso Vannucci, the main street through the old town, in Piazza IV Novembre and Giardini Carducci. Every night, the headliners play just down the hill in Arena Santa Giuliana, the outdoor sports stadium that can hold 5,000 for music. There are five o’clock and “’round midnight” (and often noon) concerts in Teatro Morlacchi, with its five tiers of opera boxes, which opened in 1781.
Still, no year is the same. Enzo Capua, the United States representative for the Umbria Jazz organization, says, “The festival is like wine. Each year has its own character. There are many good years. There are also great years.” This was a great year. The festival set new revenue and attendance records. Ticket sales (35,000 for €1.5 million) surpassed 2013, the 40th anniversary year. An estimated 450,000 people came into the city for the festival’s 10-day street party. €100,000 in merchandise was sold. (That’s a lot of t-shirts, even at €20 a pop.) The program, one of the strongest in years, included Brad Mehldau, Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, Stefano Bollani, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Bill Frisell, Vijay Iyer and Snarky Puppy. And, oh yes: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, in the only stop in Italy on their “Cheek to Cheek” tour.
At midnight on the first day, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders and (in his first tour with Lloyd) drummer Kendrick Scott, played mostly music from Lloyd’s new Blue Note album Wild Man Dance. It is common for jazz fans and even critics to claim than an elderly musician has lost nothing. It is usually sentimental wishful thinking. Not in Lloyd’s case. At 77, he played for almost 90 minutes without a break. He engulfed the Morlacchi in lyric passion, wave upon wave. In the long form of his Wild Man Dance suite, a Lloyd set becomes a single flowing that surges and recedes and veers, the four players obeying mysterious impulses. The music was so spiritually profound and sustained that it stayed in your head long after, not only as you walked back to your hotel at 2 a.m. through the still teeming streets of Perugia, but even into the next day, when new concerts would ordinarily replace it.
Brad Mehldau’s midnight concert on the second day filled the 600-plus seats of the Morlacchi, to the fifth story of opera boxes. It was high-level acoustic piano trio music, but it would have been stronger if Mehldau did not write so much of his repertoire. He is a special player but an unremarkable composer. He opened his set with three straight tunes of his own. They were all successful attempts to establish hypnotic grooves, but their emphasis on pure energy limited Mehldau’s ability to utilize all of his skills. It is in the presence of great material that he becomes a creative, prolific interpreter. He overwhelmed Chico Buarque’s “Valsa Brasileira” and Sidney Bechet’s gorgeous, obscure ballad, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère,” with dense, rich piano invention. His trio with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard is beyond tight, although Grenadier is primarily assigned ostinatos and hooks to serve the groove, which to some extent keeps him in a box.
Also at midnight, Bill Frisell, with pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, played tunes from their recent album Guitar in the Space Age. The recording is a paean to the Fender Telecaster, and to the time when the electric guitar began to dominate American popular culture. Frisell was born in 1951, right before the dawn of this era. “Pipeline” and “Telstar” might seem like unlikely sources for a major jazz musician, but they turned out to be tunes Frisell was destined to play. He was able to impose the discords and fragmented forms of his advanced jazz aesthetic upon texts embraced by the masses, embedded in history. Additional examples included “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds, and “Tired of Waiting for You” by the Kinks. Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is not on the album but it was a timely choice for the summer of 2015. It was crashing and dark, as angry as anything Frisell has ever played in public.
Two more midnight sets in the Morlacchi provided a meaningful contrast. The quartets of Miguel Zenón and Ravi Coltrane both offered accomplished, intense examples of the post-modern jazz artform. But Zenón’s ferocity was musical, while Coltrane’s was technical and exhausting, especially in a set that ran long (past 2 a.m.) at the end of a long jazz day. The lines created by Zenón and his powerful pianist, Luis Perdomo, were as hard and clean and bright as steel sculpture. Coltrane on tenor saxophone played livid braying onslaughts, all prodigious feats, all too much alike. In a fixed head-solos-head formula, Coltrane’s sidemen, bassist Scott Colley and guitarist Adam Rogers, were impressive when their turns came. Coltrane took “Lush Life” on sopranino saxophone. It offered relief from the unrelenting pressure of his tenor, even if it was a fierce, piercing, fractured version of that song, with a shrieking final cadenza.
On a sultry night in the Arena Santa Giuliana, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman and Snarky Puppy played music that was uncompromised yet calibrated for appeal beyond the hardcore jazz audience. It is surprising how seamlessly Redman has integrated his strong personality into the theatricality of The Bad Plus. He adds new force to that trio’s well-established flair for the dramatic. With more intense heat around him than ever before, Redman thrives on the fire, which begins and ends with calculating, merciless drummer David King. Yet the piece that got the crowd buzzing was the only ballad, bassist Reid Anderson’s “People Like You.” Its dead-slow progress came in halting steps. Redman’s rapt rendering of the three-note theme began as an incantation, then ascended to rasping cries. One reason The Bad Plus has a younger, larger fan base than most jazz bands is that they are self-conscious but not self-indulgent. They do not allow 20-minute solos. They are focused and concise. They play songs.
As for Snarky Puppy, they may be the cleverest fusion band ever designed. Their grooves are irresistible, and as well planned as a Las Vegas floor show, minus the scantily clad dancing girls.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, on the other hand, are a Las Vegas floor show, with exactly one scantily clad dancing girl: the outrageous, riveting character that a young New York performance artist, Stefani Germanotta, has created and promulgated as a worldwide phenomenon. It was not a jazz crowd that filled all 5,000 seats of the Arena, and snapped up the 1000 additional standing-room tickets that were released shortly before the concert. But they were not all young. It appeared that entire families came to see Lady Gaga, and they whooped and hollered and carried on between her costume changes, which were myriad. When she came out in something filmy and translucent to sing her pansexual version of “Nature Boy,” and spun around to display her thong, the crowd lost it, howling in ecstasy. Separately and together, Bennett and Lady Gaga did approximately 26 songs. Bennett can still belt them out. He gazed upon his partner’s antics (such as her emergence in a see-through red dress featuring pasties) with a bemused expression, as if he could not quite believe that this was all happening to a sweet, unassuming 89-year-old guy. His voice, not surprisingly, sometimes sounds strained. But he nailed “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Lady Gaga does not so much belt songs out as throw herself upon them like a tigress devouring hapless prey. Because her phrasing (like everything else about her) lacks subtlety, she was better on boisterous send-ups like “La Vie en Rose” and “Bang Bang” than ballads like “Lush Life.” But her pipes are real, she gives everything she has, and she stays in character. Even jaded jazz critics there on press passes had a great time. Six thousand people screamed her name as she flounced off the stage.
A case might be made that the best reason for an American to go to the Umbria festival (not counting the golden sunshine, the pasta, the wine and the thousands of women who look like Sophia Loren) is to hear Italian musicians. While it is great to hear people like Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell at the top of their game, these artists are available domestically. But, largely because of the barricades that the U.S. government places in their way, Italian jazz musicians play America infrequently (and when they do, they rarely get west of New York). The Italian jazz scene is the strongest in the world outside the United States, and to truly experience it, you must go to Italy. This year’s Umbria program was especially deep in homegrown talent.
Bassist Giovanni Tommaso, a seminal figure in Italian jazz since the 1960s, has found a way to stay young: He surrounds himself with badasses in their mid-20s. He calls his group the Consonanti Quartet. Enrico Zanisi is a mature, sophisticated pianist from the Brad Mehldau school. Mattia Cigalini is the most exciting alto saxophone player to enter jazz since Francesco Cafiso. The set opened with a brooding arco and pizzicato Tommaso prologue, into which Cigalini leapt, announcing himself with a wake-the-dead cry worthy of Eric Dolphy. Cigalini’s alto sound is striking not only for its power but for its singing purity. His tone is so attractive that at first you may not notice the challenging, unusual assumptions behind his ideas. “Orizzonte” was a Tommaso ballad that Cigalini portrayed in hesitations and rushes, building to crescendos that rung through the Morlacchi. Like many of his countrymen, Tommaso finds rich sources for improvisation in Italian film scores. Nino Rota’s “Theme from La Dolce Vita” floated out of time, serene, until Cigalini blew it up.
Danilo Rea is one of the great pianists of Italy, renowned in his country but not famous outside it. He appeared twice at the festival and came close to filling the Morlacchi both times. (Only Mehldau and Enrico Rava drew as well.) Noon comes early at a jazz festival, but the premier of Rea’s new Bach project with Iranian classical pianist Ramin Bahrami was worth dragging yourself out of bed for. The piano is not a natural duet instrument. Most piano duos illustrate the principle of more-is-less. But Rea and Bahrami melded into a piano choir, all air and light and grace. In a selection of Bach arias and fugues, Bahrami usually led and Rea inserted enhancements. When Rea’s moments came, he blended Bach and Rea. The duo worked because Bahrami is an irreverent classicist, not afraid to improvise, and Rea, like so many Italian jazz pianists, began his musical life in the conservatory. They took turns on a theme from the Goldberg Variations, venturing further from Bach on each pass. It was perfect start-of-day music: pristine, civilized, mostly gentle, yet substantive.
Rea’s other performance was a trio concert, a tribute to beloved pianist Renato Sellani, who died this year at 88. With bassist Massimo Moriconi (a long-time Sellani collaborator) and drummer Tullio De Piscopo, Rea played songs associated with Sellani (“Besame Mucho,” taken hard) and others in Sellani’s generous spirit (“Let It Be,” taken even harder, lurching and plunging).
Enrico Rava, who has been Italy’s most famous jazz musician for most of his life, introduced a new quartet at the festival. Like Giovanni Tommaso, Rava has recruited provocative players half a century younger: guitarist Francesco Diodati, bassist Gabriele Evangelista and drummer Enrico Morello. Rava ensembles have rarely included a guitar. Diodati is a fresh thinker who brings new colors and textures to a Rava band. His guitar traced intriguing figures, arrayed deep atmospheres, and turned Rava inward. Rava’s trumpet lines became cryptic, lyric gestures often broken off mid-thought. Not that Rava has gone soft. He is still likely to torch a slow song in sudden flaring attacks. On one piece everyone walked off the stage and left Diodati alone for a vast, oceanic solo, further enlarged by electronic processing. But when the band returned they unexpectedly went into straight swing. Rava is like that: He lives on the edge of contradiction. He is onto something with his new quartet. They have a new album on ECM, Wild Dance, with guest trombonist Gianluca Petrella. (At the festival concert, saxophonist Stefano Di Battista sat in.)
In the last two years, Giovanni Guidi has released two recordings on ECM that place his piano trio with the finest now working in jazz. They are City of Broken Dreams and This Is the Day, both with Thomas Morgan on bass and João Lobo on drums. Their noon set on the next-to-last day of the festival (noon is especially early after nine straight nights of “’round midnight” concerts) rewarded early risers with differentiated, adventurous, inspired music. In the flow of Guidi originals, occasional known songs emerged as reference points, like “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.” He operates in a keyboard domain where anything is possible. He might cross hands to jab and overlay conflicting single notes, or he might clang confrontational tremolos. But he is just as likely to go quiet, into the ethereal and the crystalline, barely touching spare melodies that then linger in the air.
In the Guidi concert, and also in an earlier performance with Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, Thomas Morgan confirmed that he is the most talented bassist to enter jazz in the new millennium. He plays intricate lines of haunting ambiguity, organic to the ensemble.
Stefano Bollani, at 42, is the most important Italian jazz musician of his generation. He came out of the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence, and could have had a fine career as a classical pianist. He still performs classical music occasionally, such as his brilliant recital of Ravel, Gershwin and Bernstein with a 95-piece orchestra at the Umbria festival in 2013. But when Bollani was in his early 20s, Rava wanted to hire him and told him he had to choose. Bollani chose jazz. He is now the only jazz musician in Italy with the status of a rock star. He writes books and has hosted a television show. He also could have had a career as a stand-up comedian. A Bollani concert is usually a unique juxtaposition of crude humor and refined art.
At this year’s festival, he undertook a project called “Sheik Yer Zappa,” perfect for someone whose skill set includes virtuosity and deadpan, raunchy wit. An entire program of Frank Zappa music began with “Cosmic Debris,” and it became apparent that the night would be unique, zany, twisted and beautiful. Jason Adasiewicz smashed his vibes with four mallets or scraped them with a violin bow. Jim Black whipped and kicked behind his drum kit, setting off intermittent, violent explosions. Bollani, his hands a blur, caused his piano to erupt, volcanically. Then he sang the merry, obscene lyrics to “Bobby Brown.” “Let’s Move to Cleveland,” “Lumpy Gravy” and “Uncle Meat” were wild, extravagant ass-kickers. Bollani’s reign over his instrument is so absolute that he can appear to be half paying attention as he generates rarefied piano content. The height of the evening was his solo version of “Peaches en Regalia.” The mock-heroics of Zappa’s melody gave Bollani his opening flourish, from which he unleashed a spontaneous, tumultuous new Zappa symphony. It came from a bottomless well of creative piano possibility to which only Bollani, among living pianists, has access.
From the jumbled memories and sensations of a marathon festival, some low points:
• The talents of two exceptional musicians, Paolo Fresu and Gianluca Petrella, were squandered in a four-horn novelty act called Brass Bang!
• Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea played a mostly silly, ill-prepared, inconsequential duo piano concert. The audience paid up to €77 to sing along on “Spain.”
• GoGo Penguin, a young piano trio from the U.K. that has been compared to EST, captured the monotony of EST but not the magic.
In addition to those already mentioned, some high points:
• Bill Frisell held “Shenandoah” back in suspenseful pauses, then released it, allowing it to hover, on and on. The audience was with him, even though few of them had ever seen the wide Missouri.
• Charles Lloyd’s encore was a rapturous medley of “You Are So Beautiful” and “Come Sunday.” Lloyd understands rapture.
• Danilo Rea’s “Your Song” revealed his ability to find the essence of a melody and turn it into an anthem of the heart.
• Cassandra Wilson opened her concert of Billie Holiday songs with “Don’t Explain.” She walked to the microphone and, in a dark voice straight up from the soul, sang “Hush now….” Two thousand people did as she asked.
• The highest point of all was just being there. From the Giardini Carducci, where blues bands like Sugar Pie and the Candymen played all day for free, you could look out over the ramparts of Perugia and see for miles over the golden-green hills of Umbria.
Homepage photo of Charles Lloyd by Andrea Rotili.