Like any number of annual music festivals that overtake a particular area, Umbria Jazz is after something more than music. The idea is to build a living, breathing community-or maybe to rally the community that’s already there, while bringing a troop of self-selected tourists and jazz enthusiasts into the fold.
Whatever the designs, this 10-day festival injects Perugia’s storied stone streets with a cross-section of jazz and kindred music; along the way, it fills the archaic town with a kinetic vibe.
If you were one of the thousands of music-goers on Saturday night, you might have squeezed into the five-star Hotel Brufani, festival headquarters, which dates back to 1884. In a back room, saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen led her quartet through a throbbing postbop rendition of Sean Paul’s “Turn Me On” (no kidding?), which got the sala‘s standing-room-only crowd smiling and swaying.
Trekking to the crosstown escalator-a site-specific innovation perfect for this steep Umbrian hill town-you became one of myriad jazz pilgrims gliding through the nearly 400-year-old Rocca Paolina’s dim, brown-brick bowels. Dropped at the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of town, the crowd’s pull swept you into Arena Santa Giuliana, the festival’s main venue.
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Marcus Miller were this evening’s main attractions. Earlier this month, they launched a “Tribute to Miles” world tour, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Miles Davis’ death. In interviews, the musicians have expressed that the aim isn’t to recreate the sound of Davis’ music-“He would roll over in his grave if we did that,” Hancock told the Huffington Post-so much as to conjure his spirit. Art imitating life.
“We’re going to pay tribute to all periods of Miles’ life,” Miller told the audience on Saturday. “We decided to make a soundtrack to Miles’ life.”
Thankfully, the band has forged an identity in spite of its catholic bent. And, in truth, it wasn’t unlike anything Davis ever created: Miller was Davis’ right-hand man during much of the 1980s, and with the electric bassist at the helm, the Tribute to Miles quintet seemed to have its footing in the Tutu era. There were wide-open spaces, filled in minimally with Hancock’s sparse synthesizer; grooving basslines that ducked and jabbed rather than flowed; and a general glossiness. The difference is that the group is, by necessity, well versed in a range of Davis’ repertoire.
The 1950s were covered, with a polyrhythmic “All Blues” and a rendition of “Milestones” that stretched to the margins, leaving wiggle room for Shorter to banter with trumpeter Sean Jones, who favored a muted, Miles-esque sound throughout the night. Davis’ seminal jazz-rock was covered with selections from In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Later, the band jumped back to the acoustic early ’60s with “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
The crowd responded vociferously to “Prince,” with Miller’s first bona fide walking bassline, and from there the band was off to the races. On “Jean-Pierre,” the 1982 funk classic, pulsing bass and Sean Rickman’s pattering drums laid the groundwork for slick harmonies by Shorter and Jones, plus some playful vocal samples from Hancock’s synthesizer. It was the hour-and-a-half-long set’s highlight.
The biggest surprise of the night (other than, maybe, seeing Miller lead a band that included Shorter and Hancock) was Chihiro Yamanaka. Opening for the Tribute to Miles band with her trio, the Japanese pianist tore into two originals at the top of her set, sounding a bit like Mulgrew Miller on classically trained steroids, and with a progressive bent. When she announced “Take Five,” the crowd let out a gleeful “ahh”-but they weren’t ready for the voracious re-harmonization, full of upward-creeping basslines and chromatic descents, or her mid-song interpolation of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” retrofitted in 5/4 time. Right and left, jaws were dropping.
Back in the town center, the town’s main street was almost unwalkable; the 15-piece Italian ensemble Funk Off’s performance in Piazza IV Novembre had ended, but the corso was still bursting with young people toting beer, gelato and songs of their own to sing. Many of them eventually headed to the Giardini Carducci for Rockin’ Dopsie & the Zydeco Twisters’ 12:30 a.m. set, where New Orleanian renditions of “Shout” and “Purple Rain” bristled with an implicit entreaty: Dance!
Given the era, it’s no surprise that much of what’s going on at this year’s Umbria Jazz isn’t “jazz,” in the traditional definition. But with Eddie Palmieri, Ahmad Jamal, Branford Marsalis and Tia Fuller on the bill for the other nights, there’s not much to lament. And the communal spirit of the music, whatever you dub it, is vivifying the whole town.