Some things about the Umbria Jazz Festival never change, and you wouldn’t want them to. Perugia is not only one of Italy’s most beautiful hill towns, it is one of the largest, which means you can wander farther in its twisting cobblestone lanes. You can take a wrong turn and come upon a piazza you haven’t seen before, though it has been there for centuries. Or you can suddenly find yourself at the old town wall and look out and down upon pale green Umbrian hills that roll all the way to the haze of the horizon, where they finally fade.
The festival’s prevailing physical experience is sensory overload turned slightly surreal by exhaustion. The cappuccino, pasta, pizza and gelato (in roughly that order, over the course of a festival day) are wonderful, and especially wonderful is the fact that they are always served with a smile by Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida or Claudia Cardinale. Exhaustion results from cumulative sleep deprivation. Every night the music ends around 2 a.m. You’re in bed by 3, but street musicians below your hotel window start work early. Even if you manage to sleep late, Funk Off, Umbria’s resident manic marching band, will wake you with a raucous street parade before 11. Your hotel provides free breakfast until 10:30. In eight visits to the festival over 12 years, you have never once made it down to breakfast.
The lifeline of Umbria Jazz is always Corso Vannucci, the main drag of the centro storico, with its 15th-century palazzi. On one end is the small free stage in the Giardini Carducci. On the other end is the large free stage in Piazza IV Novembre. (The fountain in the piazza, completed in 1278, now free of scaffolding, is considered one of the finest in Italy.) Navigating Corso Vannucci is often a challenge, even when Funk Off has momentarily fallen silent and is not marching down the street followed by its entourage of revelers. In the day it teems with families, dogs, ad hoc saxophonists, unofficial opera singers, jugglers, acrobats, street mural artists and aggressive sellers of Lotta Comunista, the local communist newspaper. At night it is often completely blocked by hordes of youth consuming birra and free music. Around the corner and down from Piazza IV Novembre is the Morlacchi, the gorgeous moldering 18th-century teatro with five tiers of opera boxes. It is where the 5 p.m. and the “’Round Midnight” concerts go down. To get to Arena Santa Giuliana, the outdoor stadium where the headliners play, you take a series of escalators off the hill. It can hold 5,000 for music, many more if they take out the chairs. (In 2017 no concert came close to selling out the Arena, perhaps because there was no one on the program like Sting or Eric Clapton or Lady Gaga, who filled it in years past. This year the pop acts were Kraftwerk and Brian Wilson, for whom the Arena was at approximately half capacity.)
The dominant formats of Umbria 2017, held July 7 to 16, were duos and orchestras. Several strong duos performed at noon in a lovely room in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria museum, right on Corso Vannucci. (For the record, noon is early at a jazz festival.) The walls were covered in medieval and Renaissance Umbrian art. Most of the large arched windows were covered with jazz photographs. Saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Lewis Nash appeared three times. Many of their tunes were tributes to major figures born in 1917, for whom 2017 is a centenary. (The list includes Monk, Dizzy, Ella, Buddy Rich and Mongo Santamaria.) They played “Con Alma” and “Woody ’n You” by Dizzy and a Monk medley. “Pannonica” became a bright trace of alto saxophone fluidity that burst into passionate trills. Wilson is such an elegant improviser that his riskiest moves sound reasonable. Nash is a drummer with so many tools he makes a duo sound full, like a complete ensemble. He comped for Wilson like a pianist.
Alessandro Lanzoni was a prodigy who made his first record on Italy’s Philology label when he was 14. He is now in his mid-20s and has a highly developed personal concept of how to unfold a piano performance. His recital began with an improvised piece full of clusters clanging around middle C and moved down many paths, eventually arriving at “All Too Soon” as an intense ballad. His partner was Gabriele Evangelista, probably the most highly regarded young bassist in Italy. Like Lanzoni, Evangelista, both pizzicato and arco, is open to new ways of getting to form.
The French duo of soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien and accordionist Vincent Peirani started with gentle, charming music (Parisien piping, Peirani yearning) that suggested a sunny morning in Montparnasse. But they ended shrieking and roaring and leaping about the stage, and came off drenched in sweat to loud applause.
The room in the Galleria museum was beautiful but an unfortunate choice for a concert space. Because of the high ceiling, music bounced everywhere and broke down into confusing noise. The concert by Linda May Han Oh’s highly capable quartet was all but wasted in this location because of the sound.
The duos who played in the acoustically excellent Morlacchi had no such issues. But the duo of Danilo Rea and Cristiana Pegoraro made its own problems. The Umbria festival has had a long, misguided love affair with multiple-piano ensembles. To put two pianists into a duo is almost always to turn them into a novelty act. Rea is one of the great pianists of Italy and a supreme melodist. His pairing with classical pianist Pegoraro was a mismatch. Rea was louder and Pegoraro was unfamiliar with something called swing (without which it don’t mean a thing).
But trumpeter Paolo Fresu and pianist Uri Caine lit up the Morlacchi. Their partnership, which has been intermittently active for years, is an attraction of opposites. Caine is technically erudite; Fresu is a shameless romantic. Sometimes they sounded like a musical sparring match as they circled one another, jabbing. But mostly their concert was an immersion in one of the most soulful sounds in jazz: Fresu’s trumpet and flugelhorn, enhanced by electronics. Caine prodded and punctuated Fresu’s flowing with hard accents. They played Bach minuets, Italian popular songs (“E Se Domani”) and American standards. Even in this minimalist format, “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Nature Boy” were lush. Fresu’s deep calls, electronically extended, seemed to hang forever in the Morlacchi darkness.
There were even duos in the open air of Arena Santa Giuliana. One was awful. Columbian harpist Edmar Castañeda was rarely allowed to display his special talent. He was primarily an accompanist for Hiromi, a pianist with extraordinary chops who is utterly lacking in taste and musicality. For Hiromi, piano playing is not an art; it is a sport, or perhaps a mathematical exercise. But the pairing of Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba worked beautifully. They overcame the limitations of the piano duo by an obvious means: They are both world-class solo pianists and they mostly played separately, only coming together for occasional interludes. Rubalcaba is versatile. The last time he played Umbria, in 2014, he appeared with drummers Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Giovanni Hidalgo in a sustained explosion of rhythmic virtuosity. In 2017 he played an achingly poignant version of Johnny Mercer’s “My Love and I” (“Mi Amor y Yo,” in Rubalcaba’s introduction). It was so soft he barely touched the keys, but it was no problem in the Arena, because 2,000 people sat absolutely rapt and silent. It was like an unfolding of the heart, closely held, from emotion, and gradually released and shared, from emotion. Valdés is one of the living masters of a genre he helped create, Afro-Cuban jazz. When he applied his rhythmic passion to a piece like Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” it was a new revelation of universal meaning in a famous song.
As for orchestras, they were all over this year’s program. Three acts (a tribute to Italian singer-songwriter Luigi Tenco at the Arena, a tribute to Astor Piazzolla at the Morlacchi, and Wayne Shorter’s “Emanon” project at the Arena) used the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, or Perugia Chamber Orchestra. This excellent string ensemble appeared in different configurations and sizes for each event, the largest of which, by far, was for Shorter.
Shorter’s quartet—pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade—played the first half of his concert by themselves. They are one of the most baffling, exasperating and intermittently exhilarating bands in jazz. The rhythm section can generate devastating power, even if Pérez plays too many block chords with locked hands and Blade’s vicious whiplashes sometimes sound gratuitous. Whenever Shorter feels their force and responds to their enormous swells with his own wild flight, the moment can be breathtaking. But these crescendos often come in disconnected bursts. The quartet’s music is all in fits and starts. The absence of continuity or flow makes it truly radical. People who get it cheer sincerely. People who don’t get it sometimes walk out.
The second half of the concert was a lost opportunity. Shorter’s writing often reduced a professional 38-piece ensemble to a single source of heavy, beating energy, and minimized its potential for color and texture and depth. The repetition of elemental motifs was monotonous. Shorter rarely played with the orchestra. Instead, his quartet took turns with it. The orchestra would heave and pound while Shorter sat and listened. Then the band would subside and Shorter would solo with his rhythm section, in brief, shrill soprano saxophone outbursts. A huge orchestra rendered the jerky, spasmodic movements of Shorter’s unattractive music. It was an odd night. Many cheered. Some left early.
There were also big jazz bands. Fabrizio Bosso is widely regarded as the most technically accomplished trumpet player in Italy. His Dizzy Gillespie tribute project, premiered at this year’s Umbria, played to his strengths. The shattering volleys of notes that he fired over the Arena were as fast and clean as Dizzy in his prime. The arrangements by conductor Paolo Silvestri drew on diverse sources. The out-of-time introduction that surprisingly became “Manteca” was derived from Gil Evans’ chart for his 1958 album New Bottle Old Wine. Silvestri orchestrated Dizzy’s solo on “I Can’t Get Started” for the opening of his new arrangement.
There were also little big bands. Francesco Cafiso’s new nonet made its second public appearance. Cafiso was a bebop virtuoso when he was barely into his teens. In 2015, when he was 26, he suddenly took a hard left turn and released 3, a three-CD set that launched a new Cafiso: a committed composer, a freer, more aggressive alto saxophonist and a researcher into his Sicilian musical heritage. At Umbria this year he revealed his next new direction. Partly as a result of time spent in New Orleans, he has become interested in exploring and celebrating vital forces that nurture all jazz musicians, like swing and the blues. It was initially surprising to hear Cafiso in charge of a quick, biting expanded ensemble where solos were concise. The crisp, riffing section work (with one- or two-horn sections) and the ferocious, joyous bounce sounded traditional. The edgy harmonies and the angular melodies sounded modern. Even in its second concert, the band was so tight it squeaked. When they got their chances, players like trumpeter Alessandro Presti and trombonist Humberto Amésquita briefly burned. There has never been a Cafiso project with so little solo space for Cafiso, but in his concentrated moments he confirmed that his alto saxophone playing has reached a new level. He can achieve a pure, singing tone that communicates rapture like Johnny Hodges (appropriate to the historical orientation of his nonet). But now he can also honk and jolt like an outcat tenor player, hard enough to knock you down.
Of the bookings outside the prevailing duo/orchestra theme, the best was the new quintet of Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko. Many wondered whether this joint venture would work. Rava and Stanko each have highly individual ensemble concepts as leaders, and neither has shared the frontline with another trumpet player in years. They turned out to be uniquely complementary. They introduced Rava compositions (“Choctaw,” “Ballerina,” “Tribe”) in splashing, blaring unisons then soloed in long flares (Rava) and cryptic fragments (Stanko) that brought out new dimensions of these established tunes. Giovanni Guidi, over 40 years younger than the leaders, was given generous open space that he filled with wild, swirling solos. He is one of the bright lights of jazz piano.
More quick observations: Jamie Cullum got the whole Arena dancing. If Cullum can’t make you happy to be alive, you are already dead. Based on their performance in the Arena, the band bassist Christian McBride calls New Jawn (Marcus Strickland, reeds; Josh Evans, trumpet; Nasheet Waits, drums) may be the best he has ever had. A night at the Arena called “Ladies!” was a hit. Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, reedist Anat Cohen, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller kicked ass. An afternoon concert titled “5 by Monk by 5” packed the Morlacchi to the fifth tier of opera boxes. It avoided the excesses of multiple pianos by mostly scheduling the five pianists to play separately. Kenny Barron, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Dado Moroni offered Monk interpretations in five distinct vocabularies. To choose just one highlight, Green’s “Ruby, My Dear” blended extravagance, jaggedness and lyricism. Gianluca Petrella (with his “Trio ’70’s”) and Jacob Collier (with his bizarre, outrageous one-man-band) both left it all on the floor of the Morlacchi stage. In music, as in every other field of human endeavor, there are not that many new things under the sun. Collier is one.
The Umbria festival is not as gigantic as it once was, but if you count all the free concerts, there were over 200 separate musical events in 10 days, and there was still room for photo exhibitions, competitions for student bands, Berklee College of Music clinics, book signings and films. Kasper Collin’s film about Lee Morgan, I Called Him Morgan, will take its place among the important jazz documentaries. There was a huge display that contained the work of 35 photographers (including Tim Dickeson, whose photos illustrate this festival report). The images came from 43 years of Umbria, from 1973 to 2016. To view them all together was to begin to understand how much jazz history this festival has touched.
Of everything that went down at Umbria in 2017, the memory that will last longest is Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans tribute. The origins of this project go back to 2012, when Truesdell, then a young unknown composer-arranger, released Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. It contained Evans compositions and charts that had never been recorded, performed by a large ensemble of first-call New York players. Truesdell followed it three years later with a live recording of additional unknown Evans material, Lines of Color, with the same band. These two albums won many polls and awards including a Grammy. Truesdell became accepted as the leading authority on Gil Evans. His work has been valuable, not only in bringing lost music to light, but in making sure that Evans’ acknowledged masterpieces still get played. Perhaps because so many jazz musicians today are focused on original composition, many great works of the jazz canon rarely get performed. At Umbria in 2012, Truesdell did six nights of Evans material with an orchestra of students from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and well-known guest soloists. The concerts included pieces from Centennial and also much of the music from Evans’ eight most important albums. In 2017 Truesdell returned to Perugia. He offered only one program, but it was performed twice, and it was epic, especially the second one.
The music came mostly from two legendary Evans collaborations with Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. The 27-piece band contained A-list Italians and a notable American rhythm section of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash. Featured soloists were Steve Wilson (who had played on Centennial) and Paolo Fresu (who had fulfilled Davis’ role in Truesdell’s Umbria concerts of 2012, and also in concerts at Umbria Jazz Winter, in Orvieto, at the end of 2016).
Truesdell works from Evans’ original manuscripts, and when a band under his direction does pieces from Sketches of Spain like “The Pan Piper” or “Will o‘ the Wisp,” they do them note-for-note. The solos, of course, are another matter. Large portions of Miles’ famous solos with Evans were notated. Fresu added his own inflections and phrasing to the notated parts, and went for it hard, on his own, in the open sections. His sound on trumpet and flugelhorn is like an emanation direct from his soul. It channels Miles, but, through electronic technology, adds effects unavailable in Miles’ day. On “Solea,” from Sketches, what both Wilson and Fresu did was new. (There was no saxophone solo on the original “Solea.”) Wilson erupted in torrential waves of treble, then he and Fresu wailed together. Truesdell chose a few pieces that were not on Sketches or Quiet Nights, like “Time of the Barracudas,” from The Individualism of Gil Evans. The original saxophone solo was by Wayne Shorter on tenor. Wilson’s new alto solo was wilder. It is one of Evans’ most haunting pieces, all the way to its wonderfully ambiguous, lingering last chord. Of course, the piece they played last was Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio).” It was moving to hear this music live. (The New York band that recorded it in 1959-1960, with minor exceptions, never played it live.) The Morlacchi is a superb acoustic environment and every detail—every castanet, every whispering bassoon and flute—was a vital presence in the cavernous room. You could lose yourself in the depths of Evans’ sonorities. (Miles once said that Evans could make an orchestra “sound like one big guitar.”) Fresu’s trumpet slowly uncoiled throughout the “Concierto.” He can draw out one note until it contains all of human longing.
Truesdell said they played the “Concierto” last “because if you played it first you’d just have to go home.” But remembering it all now, the song that best sums up the entire festival experience is Michel Legrand’s “Once Upon a Summertime,” from Quiet Nights. Fresu played it muted, wistfully, because magical summer nights slip away so quickly and become memories that fade with the passage of time.