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Live Review: Umbria Jazz 2014

In pop and jazz, devoted music fans understand the difference between festival performances and standalone concerts. If you say “I saw him/her/them live” and you’re referring to a festival performance, that phrase usually sits beside an asterisk, or two or three: The artist in question performed a truncated version of his or her full concert; the sound check was rushed and thus the live mix was inadequate; the crowd was distracted and disruptive, making focused listening a challenge or an impossibility.

Umbria Jazz, the 41-year-old festival in the central Italian capital city of Perugia, reaches toward the glories of the major-event standalone show with each of its ticketed performances. (The pop-, blues- and soul-heavy program booked on admission-free stages around town is another story.) If you purchase a ticket for a performance by an A-list American or Italian jazz performer at Umbria, the gig will last about 90 minutes, with or plus an encore; the sound will often boast a clarity that could be an anecdote among hi-fi enthusiasts; and the crowds will bring with them a patience and focus that can seem surreal to American festivalgoers-especially at the amphitheater-style Arena Santa Giuliana, where thousands of attendees homed in on acoustic jazz groups as if they were going to be quizzed on the gig later. (Mixing into the crowd at that sprawling but smartly arranged space puts Keith Jarrett’s antics last year into perspective, underscoring them as not only repugnant but absurd.)

The festival’s programming, imposing in its bounty and quality, deserves such consideration. Experienced festivalgoers spoke of how the schedule has thinned in recent years, and event reps talked about the need to attract new and more sponsors, but the 10-day fete, which ran July 11-20, can still feel like an embarrassment of riches for the jazz faithful. The key hits of the day included a 5 p.m. show at the Teatro Morlacchi, a gorgeous five-tiered opera house; a double bill at the arena that generally ran from 9 to 11:30 or so; and a late “‘Round Midnight” show back at the Morlacchi. Events were held at other spaces in town, among them Palazzo della Penna, a contemporary-art space, and a vast, tall room in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria burdened by billowy, aimless sound.

The top rank of jazz’s modern mainstream, the sort of artists you can regularly take in at New York City venues and American festivals, was well represented at Umbria. John Scofield’s Überjam Band, the guitarist’s revived working group from the height of his jam-jazz crossover period, found its strength in hard-grooving diversity, cycling through funk and Afrobeat (“Thikhathali”) and second-line in a deep pocket as Scofield took marathon solos out front. Chorus after chorus his phrasing progressed with sensible, narrative pacing; he invented real melody and brought the band with him through his ascents and their logical yet unpredictable climaxes. Miraculously, Christian McBride‘s technique gains strength with age. In his trio with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Rodney Green, his dexterity, speed and intonation gave decades-old swinging music an edge of audacity. Handling main melody lines and soloing in a way that suggested rock-guitar heroism, he re-contextualized the bass-out-front format, usually reserved for the electric bass and fusion, within small-group swing and bop.


The arena concert by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, on soprano sax, relied on wandering free improvisation, which, with a duration that stretched well over 90 minutes, threatened tedium. (There was also bravery present, too, but not as much as that of saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who has chosen to make her name in the harmonically naked sax-bass-drums format. At Umbria, her gift for motivic and rhythmic invention-not to mention her knack for balancing historical influence with personal distinctions-carried a concert-length program.) Shorter sought melody without fear, with flinty tone and substantial technique. His performances are often judged nowadays not by what or how he played but by how much he played, and judging by that criterion this night was a success. Eliane Elias‘ quartet with bassist (and husband) Marc Johnson, guitarist Graham Dechter and drummer Rafael Barata ably served the bossa anthems that are the pianist-leader’s stock-in-trade, and played from her recent Chet Baker project, which sees the trumpeter not as jazz’s premier melancholy mystic but as a sunny extension of the Great American Songbook. Elias and Dechter were given ample room to burn but Johnson, one of the acoustic bass’ supreme solo melodists, seemed underutilized. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express channel-hopped between swing and reggae-an inventive m.o. made even more interesting by Alexander’s double-band strategy. It was a crowd-pleasing system, on intellectual and physical levels: deep listening and true-blue jazz improvisation broken up by cathartic Marley riddims that inspired cheers and dancing in the cheap seats. Another rhythmic powerhouse was Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Volcan, where drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo performed a kind of master class in how drums and congas should interact, using expert dynamic control to create a bubbling undercurrent of rhythm that propelled the leader’s piano and synth but never overpowered them.

Newer jazz-circuit favorites gave satisfying concerts, including vibraphonist Warren Wolf, whose group with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Kendrick Scott felt like a consummate example of what modern acoustic jazz should mean in 2014; more textured and interactive than Wolf’s bands on record, this quartet imagined a mid-’60s Blue Note group in a 21st-century rhythmic context. Wolf isn’t the most probing improviser, but his single-mallet technique, descended from Milt Jackson, is absolute, so flowing and athletic that the percussive qualities of the vibraphone rush to the fore; it can sometimes come across as if he’s playing a second trap kit. And like his employer Christian McBride, Wolf’s delivery of a theme can feel as exciting as the apogee of a solo. Of equal technical accomplishment was vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose program held its usual proffer of sterling moments but strained under the weight of pacing that felt overly spacious, stretched out. Salvant sounds better and appears more comfortable onstage than she ever has, no doubt the results of her grind of a tour schedule. She’s also taking more risks, seeking out the niches and nooks of lyrics and phonics to put across the narratives behind her repertoire. But sometimes those stops and starts and sing-speak dynamics traversed charming and became vexing, as on her calling-card tune, “Nobody.”

Also in possession of a faultless voice was Theo Bleckmann, who formed a towering frontline in Ambrose Akinmusire‘s sextet alongside the trumpeter-leader and saxophonist Walter Smith III. At a Teatro Morlacchi concert during the wee hours, the challenging elements of Akinmusire’s music-arrangements that deftly deconstruct the band into other, smaller units; the overtly modern harmonies-took a backseat to its visceral delights. Among those are Akinmusire’s playing, overwhelmingly powerful but put over with a flugelhorn softness, and the muscular finesse of drummer Justin Brown, who is so good he can eclipse the band in the way that Brian Blade can distract his audience away from Wayne Shorter.


Not to be slept on were the Italians, whose jazz purview, for the most part, mercifully placed melody and stark, experiential beauty above technical prowess. Bassist Enzo Pietropaoli proved himself nearly as engaging a soloist as McBride, but for reasons having more to do with lyricism than agility. Trumpeter Paolo Fresu and his new-old quintet with saxophonist Tino Tracanna, pianist Roberto Cipelli, bassist Attilio Zanchi and drummer Ettore Fioravanti relished direct, hummable tunes (for instance, “Trenta giorni” and “Chiaro,” both off a new album) and the leader approached electronics with a taste and understatement that helped him evoke Miles in the sweet spot between the second great quintet and Bitches Brew.

Saxophonist Francesco Cafiso has thoroughly broken away from the trappings of his prodigal past and is doing substantial composing. As a player he’s also developed profoundly, tempering the effervescent Bird-isms of his early years and digging deeper into the alto-player-as-tenorman ethos of Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz. Pianist Franco D’Andrea reimagined Monk standards through the dreamy, drifting lens of the ’60s and ’70s European avant-garde-the chopped-up swing rhythms like a Slinky loafing down stairs, the melodies and solos shrouded in a roughly intonated, perverse sort of Buñuel-goes-to-New-Orleans polyphony. A Morlacchi concert by the Dino e Franco Piana Jazz Orchestra brought onstage Italian-jazz royalty, including drummer Roberto Gatto, pianists Danilo Rea (who offered a rapturous kickoff solo performance) and Enrico Pieranunzi (who appeared to be winging it as an ensemble guest) and trumpeter Enrico Rava (a few more solo spots would have been welcome). Rea and Pieranunzi comped on the same Fazioli at encore, with a sense of humor and selflessness rare for piano-duet scenarios.

The avant-garde has a long and rich history of presentation at contemporary-art spaces, and the Palazzo della Penna’s “Young Jazz” series proved how potent the combination can be. (The series title was something of a misnomer, meant more to convey daring and excitement than to signify age.) Simone Graziano Frontal featured a heavyweight frontline in alto saxophonist David Binney, whose commanding solos turned the room in his favor as if he were at his main NYC haunt, 55 Bar, and tenor player Dan Kinzelman. Later that evening, Kinzelman’s Ghost project, consisting of the leader plus three horn players who doubled on various percussion, suggested a version of the World Saxophone Quartet grounded in European art music rather than the African-American avant-garde. Piero Bittolo Bon & His Original Pigneto Stompers played unapologetic, electronics-laced free jazz; especially intriguing here was the two-drummer base of Massimiliano Sorrentini and Federico Scettri and electric bass of Ornette alumnus Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who found the pocket when it peeked through the melee and rose out of the mix with a punchy, midrange attack. In Penna’s cavernous stone basement, Colin Stetson gave his see-it-to-believe-it solo sax recital, using the most organic, physical means possible to create what sounded like an alloy of minimalism, electronic rhythms and whale song. The physicality of Stetson’s performance is why he shouldn’t be missed, but he’s concocted melodies, like the recent “Who the Waves Are Roaring For (Hunted II),” that stay with you.


The shows at Penna were mostly packed because, of course, they took place in spaces in and around a relatively small art museum. At other venues attendance was less impressive and tricky to predict. Hometown talent seemed to draw best, with healthy houses for Fresu, Roberta Gambarini and others at the near-800-capacity Morlacchi and large audiences at the arena for crossover bookings Fiorella Mannoia and Mario Biondi. (Biondi, on a bill with Al Jarreau, was a curiosity, flaunting a crack band and what had to be a heavy-duty Barry White influence.) Even lousy weather earlier in the day couldn’t prevent a decent turnout for Stefano Bollani’s jaw-dropping hookup with bandolim player Hamilton de Holanda and guest Anat Cohen.

Overall, festival organizers say arena attendance dropped 7,000 attendees from last year’s total of 31,000. Larger American names didn’t automatically mean larger crowds—as with, for example, a New Orleans-themed double bill at the arena featuring Galactic and Dr. John, who sounded under-rehearsed and surprisingly detached from his rhythm section. And the Roots, unfettered by special guests or Jimmy Fallon, gave a white-hot arena show that felt undersold.

But Snarky Puppy, performing its first Italian show ever, packed the Teatro Morlacchi to the fifth tier with an audience bordering on frenzied. The band deserved such adoration, and veteran jazz-rock fans who haven’t checked this outsized Brooklyn-based group out yet need to. There are plenty of signs of the ’70s in Snarky Puppy: backgrounds in jazz training at the University of North Texas; out-and-out, unabashed virtuosity; an appreciation for the synthesizer as a lead instrument; an understanding that groove and polymeters aren’t mutually exclusive; highly cultivated composing and arranging skills (no aimless, vampy jam-band noodling here). So Snarky Puppy is an authentic fusion band, and in 2014 that involves incorporating a wider range of pop source material than, say, Weather Report had to deal with-developments like hip-hop and dubstep and electronic subgenres you’d need a 19-year-old to properly explain. What a band, and what a venue, and what an audience.


For a special report on Danilo Rea’s Umbria performances by Thomas Conrad, click here.

Originally Published

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.