Jazz Notes: Umbria Jazz Festival Celebrates 45 With a Wonder of Italian Jazz, a Round of Top-Tier American Jazz All-Stars and a Genius Bolt of David Byrne’s Decidedly Non-Jazz Universe
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, July 31, 2018
At this summer’s 45th annual Umbria Jazz Festival in the ancient central Italian town of Perugia, the party atmosphere was omnipresent. It was hot in temperature and the songs were broiling. Musically the scene captured a rare meeting of top-tier talent that featured jazz royalty—including a tribute to Quincy Jones—with transcendence beyond the jazz realm: the star of the festival being the brilliant David Byrne performing decidedly non-jazz, Afro-punk-funk- and rock-fueled new music from his latest album American Utopia as well as dance-crazed Talking Heads hits.
For all the hits, there were some misses, but it didn’t take much to breeze by the duds, especially dancing in the front row at the free stages to the great New Orleans Mystics delivering their four-part harmonies, dancing and swinging through the hottest r&b and soul tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. A pure treat.
On the final day of the 10-day bash (July 13-22), a press conference assembled journalists and friends of the celebration to announce that this year’s fest broke records. The earnings totaled more than $2 million from merchandizing and box office tickets (35,000 people paid to get into the expansive 7,500-seat Arena Santa Giuliana as well as other venues including the grand opera-house-like Teatro Morlacchi). It was Umbria’s top commercial edition. Most of the free shows took place outdoors in the large meeting place Piazza IV Novembre in the middle of town and at Conrad Stage in the picturesque park Giardini Carducci. All told, the festival hosted 300 hours of music performed by more than 500 musicians and attracted more than 400,000 people to the city’s top-of-the-hill medieval fortress with a meandering network of narrow streets.
City officials heralded Umbria as an event of national importance that puts the region at one of the forefronts of Italian tourism. They noted that Umbria and Perugia were famous all over the world as well as recognized as the flagship of Italian jazz.
Founder and artistic director Carlo Pagnotta basked in the success and championed the security to maintain safety at such a large event, especially in light of festival tragedies in recent years. However, the jazz-loving Pagnotta was embarrassed about programming the popular artist/producer duo the Chainsmokers. “I was encouraged to book them for the Arena,” he said. “That was a big mistake. I apologize. I must be more careful with bringing in these kinds of artists in the future.”
It’s a rare jazz festival that programs 100 percent jazz, with many booking a sampling of pop and rock acts to boost the attendance. At the Arena, Umbria put on an all-star Brazilian music event this year, featuring contemporary singer Benjamin Clementine (who headlined a spirited and ruminative set by jazz/African singer Somi), electric bassist Nik West and the sold-out Byrne creative blast. After the press conference in which Pagnotta panned the Chainsmokers, I asked him what he thought about Byrne’s show. “David Byrne is a class act,” he beamed.
On the Italian front, after missing stars such as Paolo Fresu, Stefano Bollani and Gianluca Petrella on the opening nights (I was at the North Sea Jazz Festival at the time), at the Morlacchi I caught the sweet mellow groove of low-toned guitarist Fabrizio Sotti and his trio as well as the pleasing trio of pianist Dado Moroni, bassist and vocalist Rosario Bonaccorso, and drummer Roberto Gatto with their scenic twisting melodicism, colorful beats and bass unison singing.
Elsewhere on the trio Italian front, the young band of bassist Francesco Ponticelli, guitarist Francesco Diodati and trumpeter Filippo Vignato played a disappointing, monotonous set of quiet lyricism and electronica sprinkles that was slow, deliberate and missing any sense of dynamics. It took place as a part of the Jazz Goes to the Museum series at Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria’s Sala Podiani, an acoustically perfect high-ceiling space on the third floor. It was as the Ponticelli group was paying reference to the space instead of opening up its energy.
That was nowhere near the case a day later at the museum when pianist Danilo Rea, one of Italy’s prime artists, captivated the sell-out crowd with a rousing solo set of avant pounces, stray melodic phrasings, and improvisational excursions that went into surprising territory. He started with a tender version of “Nature Boy” that morphed into the melody line of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (George Harrison’s hit) complete with the pouncing ending standing for the words “sun, sun, sun”). Earlier he also referenced the Beatles with a roiling flight through “Got to Get You Into My Life,” with a nod to the Earth, Wind & Fire arrangement for the Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band film. Rea alluded to Disney and then settled into “Moon River” with the emphasis not on flash but steeped in emotion. The show was so well-received that, in another festival rarity, Rea did another unscheduled show that afternoon.
The museum was a perfect space, with many of the shows at noon and 5 p.m. It was a noon date for Ethan Iverson, former Bad Plus pianist who put on display his wide array of remarkable playing responding to the space. “You can feel the weight of history in Perugia,’ he told the crowd at the onset. “The town is special and here I am playing in a museum. This is like a workshop for me.” He offered a classical vibe, a blues thump, a swinging swoop as he cruised through standards and embraced numbers by Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Nowhere in the set was Bad Plus’s hit cover “Flim” by pop band Aphex Twin. Those days are passed.
Later that night Iverson settled into his piano chair in jazz master Billy Hart’s quartet at Morlacchi. At 78, Hart has enjoyed a career as a classic drummer who in recent years has steamed ahead as a leader for ECM Records with his unique, post-bop, straightahead vision. At Morlacchi the crowd treated him as the under-deserved star that he is. The night before at Morlacchi, vocal extraordinaire Kurt Elling creatively delivered lyrical gems, blues-drenched beauties and scat tumbles that energized the crowd in his commanding performance.
But as noted above, David Byrne was the highlight of the fest with his ambitious part-theater, part-dance, part-rock, part-funk show. At 66, he was in amazingly terrific physical shape as he energetically delivered with his 11-piece band—all dressed in matching gray suits and with the exception of one player playing in barefoot—a constant dancing motion choreographed to perfection. His setup was radical, at once making the traditional rock setup (all band members standing in place) obsolete. No wires or amps visible. Even the six drummers were a part of the funky procession for each song.
Byrne and co. played killer tunes from the new album—his first solo recording in 14 years—including the lyrical “Every Day Is a Miracle,” the stomping “I Dance Like This” and the fun but poignant singalong chorus, “Everybody‘s Coming to My House.” Mindful of how influential his Afro-punk-funk band The Talking Heads still are, he delivered dance-frenzied tunes “Slippery People,” “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” and “Once in a Lifetime.” Right in the middle of the latter, Byrne halted the song, called for security and told them to get rid of the barriers and let the people dance. The crowd flooded the stage. Byrne also added in “Like Humans Do” from his 2001 solo album Look Into the Eyeball and two tunes he collaborated on with British rapper Fatboy Slim (“Toe Jam” and “Here Lies Love”). Of course (about as predictable as he can be) the show ended with a torrid run through the T. Head’s dance floor hit, “Burning Down the House.”
There’s a political vein in Byrne’s, music, especially on the latest album, but it’s not stated as politics. It’s more, as he says in his liner notes, a reflection on the “utter collapse” of the American experiment in dreaming for a better, more hopeful life. In a profound end to the 90-minute show in the second encore, Byrne and his band stood at the edge of the stage and soberly rendered Janelle Monáe’s powerful tune “Hell You Talmbout,” the chanted list of black Americans killed by police. As Byrne writes in the album’s liners: “It’s not easy, but music helps. Music is kind of a model—it often tells us or points us toward how we can be.”
The show was an entrancing dance party with a strong beam of human hope. And it took a jazz festival to bring this light to a small town in Italy.
Cover: A view from the stage from one of the outdoor venues at the Umbria Jazz Festival; photo: G. Belfiore / all photos in this feature courtesy of the Umbria Jazz Festival, Perugia, Italy.