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Jazz Notes: Umbria Jazz Festival, Orvieto Dazzles In Its 25th Anniversary

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, January 8, 2018

As a result of his successful summer jazz festival founded in 1973 in the Umbria region of Italy, Carlo Pagnotta, the artistic director of the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, started a new festival twenty-five years ago in the historic Umbrian city of Orvieto. What started as an experiment—would jazz lovers come during the winter season between Christmas and New Year’s Day?—has successfully become the beacon of jazz light in Italy’s dark season.

While the weather dipped into the 30s and heightened into the low 50s, it was chilly but nowhere near the cold snap that the sprinkling of visitors from New York would have been suffering through. Indeed, the respite from the cold weather served up five days of top-flight music in a variety of the village venues, including an opera-house theater (Teatro Mancinelli) and two stages at the Palazzo del Popolo building. Like Perugia, there were street parades during the festival, swung into motion by the Tuscany band Funk Off.

While it was the 25th anniversary of Umbria Jazz Festival, Orvieto, it also took place in the latter days of the 100th anniversary year of the birth of jazz icon Thelonious Monk—Pagnotta’s favorite jazz artist. As a result, he enlisted pianist/bandleader Jason Moran to pay tribute to the master with his ambitious eight-piece In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall 1959 multimedia project (originally commissioned by the San Francisco Jazz Festival). Moran and co. played four superb shows during the course of the festival. The group grooved and socked through Monk pieces in their show that was embellished by archival audio and video of Monk. While the images on the video screen sometimes were distracting from the music (images too speedy and obscure), the music won over with the brilliance of Moran’s unique arrangements and stellar improvisations, with a nod to trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s contributions.

Another front liner at the festival was guitarist Marc Ribot who led a trio of avant musicians, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor), as well as his funk-to-punk-to-metal ensemble The Young Philadelphians—a band that swerved off the rails at certain points of their wild ride but mostly charged straight ahead with stalwart speed. Of special attention came when Ribot and fellow guitarist Mary Halverson (often playing with finger slide) linked up for electrifying runs. While the band finds Philly soul at its center, Ribot swapped out a horn section for a three-piece string band to keenly support.

A couple of vocalist revelations came with young scat-fueled jazz artist Jazzmeia Horn (a winner of the Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2015) and Italy’s premiere jazz singer, Maria Pia De Vito. The former grew more comfortable as she stretched into her four shows (the opener at Teatro Mancinelli was tentative at times) while the latter performed a brilliant set of Joni Mitchell tunes given a fresh approach and beauty.

The hardest working band at the festival was the quartet singing group the New Orleans Mystics who rendered soul and funk classics with joy and splendor. While they mostly provided music for a sit-down supper club, the crowd erupted to dance in the aisles and onstage at the New Year’s Eve’s show. Great fun for firing up the first hours of the new year.


Cover: Jason Moran (piano) and his band; courtesy of Umbria Jazz Festival, Orvieto.


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