Jazz Notes Intel: Italy’s Umbria Jazz Festival Turns 45 With a Bolt of Italian Jazz; Unearthing the ‘Lost’ John Coltrane Album; and a Live Recording by Vocalist Polly Gibbons
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, July 6, 2018
In the late ‘80s, I was still relatively a jazz rookie after having followed the many veins of rock and pop beforehand. But jazz was always sneaking in during that time until the flood gates opened when I was asked to cover the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1989. I drank deeply from the well. Then, I was totally surprised when my editor John Ephland at DownBeat assigned me to review a 1992 CD by Italian reeds player Gianluigi Trovesi on the Italian label Soul Note. Jazz in Italy? I buried that CD, From G to G, to the bottom of the pile of assigns. Then finally, what a surprise. It was so quirky, spirited, avant-garde and humorous at the same time, and wildly unpredictable with megaphones, penny whistles, bass clarinet, tubas. It is now still one of my favorite jazz albums. I gave it the highest rating (5 stars) and jumped at the chance to see Trovesi perform live—as it turns out, not in the U.S. but in Beijing, Istanbul and Italy.
Gianluigi was my introduction to the deep waters of Italian jazz, from trumpeter Enrico Rava to pianist Stefano Bollani. Over the years I savored the chance to go to the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia where I have come to understand and appreciate the depth of jazz from Italy.
Umbria turns 45 this year. One of the largest and most impressive festivals in Europe, it exhibits a wide swath of jazz, spanning the jazz spectrum (this year in the 5,000-capacity Arena Santa Giuliana outdoor space, acts range from an all-star show celebrating Quincy Jones’ 85th birthday to Pat Metheny blasting his six-strings). It also draws crowds outside of the jazz realm. Prime example: an evening with genius David Byrne and his rock/funk crew performing his superb new album, American Utopia.
Umbria boasts several free outside stages, including in the main Piazza 4 Novembre. It also has intimate noontime shows at Sala Podiani in the museum Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and an afterhours jam session at the Da Cesarino Jazz Club. Plus, there are artist-in-residence duo shows every day at 3 p.m. and 6:30 pm in a room at the ancient church Oratorio Santa Cecilia. But the best indoor space is the opera-like venue Teatro Morlacchi. It presents an impressive array of artists playing shows at 5 p.m. and later that evening at midnight. Included in the lineup are two Fabrizios: trumpeter Bosso and guitarist Sotti—two of the most remarkable Italian jazz artists at the 10-day extravaganza (July 13-22).
Bosso says his “presence is constant at Umbria.” In New York on June 30 with his band at the Italian Cultural Institute, before his invite-only show of some 100 people, he reflects on why Italians so embrace jazz. “Jazz is important in Italy,” he says. “Maybe it’s because Italians love American jazz and absorb that in their own music. We learn from American jazz, but it’s from a distance so we can add our own influences. Sometimes I’m a little afraid that Americans will hear me play and maybe feel that I’m not doing it right.”
Not to worry. Justice was served at the show, as Bosso buoyed with a swinging and brassy tone in a unique voice that ranged from the highest register to the lowest. In stretches it sounded as if Bosso were singing on his trumpet. With shifting tempos and ballads exploding into flamed blowing, he and his quartet—pianist Julian Oliver Mazzariello, bassist Jacopo Ferrazza, drummer Nicola Angelucci—played tunes from the band’s fine double album State of the Art Live!
At Umbria, Bosso will be playing in the Not a What quintet with young rising-star pianist Giovanni Guidi at the July 20 5 p.m. Morlacchi show. “I’m glad to be playing there,” Bosso says. “Last year I played in the Arena, and the sound was not right for me. Inside it sounds much better.”
As for his appreciation of Umbria, Bosso says, “It’s a special festival. It’s not only important for Italian artists to be here together, but there are always groups of journalists from around the world who may have never had the chance to hear us. It’s an exchange in a terrific atmosphere.”
Sotti agrees. He and his trio of bassist Ares Tavolazzi and drummer Mauro Beggio will play Morlacchi July 19 at 5 p.m. Even though the guitarist has played in bands in Umbria, this will be his debut appearance with his own band. “It’s like they say, a prophet isn’t recognized in his own country,” says Sotti who while born in Italy. moved to the U.S. when he was 16. He now sets up shop at his recording studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I consider myself an American jazz musician,” he says. “I made my career in America.” When he was a kid, he switched from classical piano to guitar influenced by people like Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix. There were no schools in Italy in the early ‘80s to study jazz. “So I listened to records, I read books and made a name for myself at 15 as the leader of a trio. We even had a record deal.”
But Sotti had bigger goals. “I moved to America in 1991 to learn more and to try to compete with people my age,” he says. “I came in 1991 and never went back.”
A noteworthy collaborator with singer Cassandra Wilson (including her 2009 recording Closer to You: The Pop Side and 2012’s Another Country), Sotti looks back at Italy and marvels at how such a small country can be so important to the jazz world. “Italy and other countries in Europe embrace jazz more than Americans do,” he says. “You go to a show and there are all ages in the audience. You see that in Umbria. It’s one of the biggest festivals in the world, so it’s been important in exposing these audiences to jazz. For all the years that it has been here, you can feel the history and feel the legendary musicians who played here.”
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: JOHN COLTRANE’S ‘LOST’ ALBUM
It seems like every year, a mysteriously missing recording by a jazz great gets unearthed and shocks the jazz world—more blasts from the past while the future is spiraling into new unexplored orbits. Most are not so remarkable, such as never-before-heard live dates or European radio shows. But they are merely footsteps in an icon’s legendary path. Then there are the rare gems that finally see the light of day.
At an exclusive listening event on June 11 in the jazz shrine of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ—a cathedral-like space designed by one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s acolytes and the acoustically pristine ground zero for all the ‘50s and ‘60s masterwork jazz recordings—Verve Records championed a bonafide new John Coltrane album with the saxophonist’s classic ‘60s quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Titled Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (and released on June 29 on Impulse), it was recorded on the afternoon of March 6, 1963 while Trane and his crew in peak form were playing at Birdland (and one day before the saxophonist collaborated with vocalist Johnny Hartman for their classic ballad recording—John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman—that was inducted onto the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013).
Verve CEO Danny Bennett welcomed the gathering, called the discovery of the album “a gift” and then turned the show over to the recording’s producers, Trane’s saxophonist son Ravi Coltrane and Ken Druker, Verve’s vp of jazz development. They sat on stools in the middle of the room, played four sublime songs from the album, including two spine-tingling untitled tracks, the only studio take of the Trane live staple “Impressions” and the exploratory ”Slow Blues,” where the tenor growls with a guttural unease, drives with ecstasy, instigates tempo shifts and playfully delivers split-tone power. It’s a remarkable tune that deserves canon status.
So where had this hidden treasure been stashed away? According to Coltrane and Druker, there’s a good chance the master tapes had been lost or destroyed as Impulse Records was sold to ABC Records and moved to L.A. But Van Gelder always made mono reference copies for the musicians. It was discovered in the archival material of Trane’s first wife, Naima. While certainly a valuable historical document, it also reveals the cultivation of a new sound in jazz at the time. “What they were doing was renegade,” said Druker. “It was something brand new. A lot of people saw John Coltrane as being anti-jazz because he was so different from the norm. But he invented this sound, reshaped jazz so that over the course of 50 years it has come to sound so familiar. It sounded very new back then, but today is still relevant.”
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
Congrats to Resonance Records for its mission: preserving jazz and discovering rising stars…like Verve (above) it’s been instrumental in unearthing music from long ago including a few noteworthy live recordings by heralded guitarists Wes Montgomery and Grant Green…The non-profit also ushers in the new, including bubbly Brit singer Polly Gibbons…She has two Resonance recordings to her credit with her as-yet-untitled third spin set for first-quarter 2019 release…The difference? It’s a buoyant live date recorded at the renowned Power Station Studio on East 53rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen on June 11 in front of about 100+ invitees…Cheers came first, then Gibbons garnered more as she delivered the 10-song set with spirited flair and surprising covers…not a classic jazz vocalist but certainly an entertaining singer bandleading a quintet…She flew into upbeat numbers like “Beautiful Things” (written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1967 Doctor Doolittle film)…crooned in melancholy on “If You Had the Chance” that she co-wrote with pianist/musical director James Person…and belted out the blues with barroom brio (the Jimmy Witherspoon hit “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues”)…She scatted through a Horace Silver killer, ““Permit Me to Introduce Myself”…paid homage to one of her heroes, the late Al Jarreau, with a loving rock-bluesy take on his “Good Hands Tonight”…conclusion came with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” that Gibbons took on a rock-meets vaudeville ride…In the house in the back row, her manager Mary Ann Topper (who paved the way for early Diana Krall and gave a mid-career boost for Kurt Elling) clapped with approval.
Upcoming dates to hear Polly Gibbons:
July 7, 14, 21 and 28 – Birdland Jazz Club
July 29 – The Jazz Forum (Tarrytown, NY)
August 7 — Mezzrow
August 19 – Blue Note
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Cover: Fabrizio Bosso; photo: Marco Benvenuti.