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Jazz Notes: Umbria Jazz Festival In Perugia, Italy Brings Out the Stars

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, August 1, 2017

Fact of the matter: There are dozens of top-tier jazz festivals spread around the globe—especially in the U.S. and European countries—that attract modest to huge crowds to a lineup that isn’t always all that much jazz. That’s the economics of the festival circuit. Like it or not, jazz fans have to contend with (or delight in) high-flight pop acts that lure nonjazz people into a festival or the city at large. The two European jazz festivals I went to this summer apply that philosophy. The three-day North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Holland (July 7-9) had Grace Jones, Solange and Van Morrison to entice listeners who once they arrive at the multi-venue Ahoy Center are then treated to a vast array of the jazz legends, contemporaries and upstarts like Shabaka Hutchings and Tigran Hamasyan.

A piazza in Perugia, Italy.

Likewise at the the 10-day Umbria Jazz Festival (July 7-16) in picturesque Perugia, Italy, the pop temptations this year included electronic 3-D band Kraftwerk to complement its full lineup of jazz artists, including vocalists (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Angelique Kidjo, and young wunderkind Jacob Collier), jazz standbys (Christian McBride’s latest band New Jawn, Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash, and arranger/conductor Ryan Truesdell leading a 30-piece orchestra in unique takes on Gil Evans music) and given that Italy is home to the best jazz artists outside the U.S., dynamic sets by the likes of Paolo Fresu, Enrico Rava, Stefano Bollani, Gianluca Petrella among others.

Angelique Kidjo; courtesy of the festival.

A sampling of Umbria’s highlights this year (out of over 200 free and ticketed shows around the city) took place at the Arena Santa Giuliana and featured Wayne Shorter, the Chucho Valdés-Gonzalo Rubalcaba piano duo and the perfect pop offering, Brian Wilson, celebrating the Beach Boys legacy in his 75th year (imagine an arena crowd of 3,000-4,000 Italians singing and dancing along to California’s ubiquitous hits from 50 years ago).

Wayne Shorter Quartet; courtesy of the festival.

Starting with Wayne. It’s always a treat to see him perform alchemy with his like-minded, like-spirited quartet comprised of pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. No two shows they perform are ever alike as the improvisational journeys the band take are colorful and flaming, angular and melodic, dramatic and playful, brashly turbulent and quietly lyrical. The quartet operates as a collective with each member nudging the others to respond with surprising connections—all the while piloted by the tenor and soprano saxophone of the leader. Shorter, who played more stretches than typical, busted forward with his elliptical lines then tossed off trills and rhythmic doodles. Pérez played inside the box, which instigated a conversation with Patitucci who then handed it on to Blade who rumbled on his kit. Shorter sat back momentarily and took in the marvel.

Wayne Shorter Quartet and the Orchestra Da Camera Di Perugia; courtesy of the festival.

The quartet started the evening, then were joined by the 38-piece Orchestra Da Camera Di Perugia conducted by Clark Rundell to perform Shorter’s new orchestra work, Emanon (which he had played at the North Sea fest and will be performing over the Labor Day weekend at the Detroit International Jazz Festival). Given the setting it didn’t carry the motion of the previous quartet session, but it did teem with a tinge of multi-hued colors and textured sounds. The piece wasn’t filled with the brilliant melodies of Wayne’s incredible compositional legacy with the Jazz Messengers and with Miles Davis, but he played it with his typical cosmic beauty where every note means the universe. The work was sweet and crashing with the quartet tagging along with its own rambunctious voice. Overall the piece came off akin to a film score with improvisation giving the work a Third Stream flavor.

(l. to r.) Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés; courtesy of the festival.

Valdés and Rubalcaba, both Afro-Cuban piano virtuosos of different generations, started out low key and lyrical before the conversations, with a subtle sense of humor, began and carried the 88 keys into a grand display of mastery. They looked across at each other with big smiles, played tricks on each other and complemented each other as they traded lines and harmonized. They spurred each other on. Disappointedly, they left the duo setting and settled for solo territory. Valdés began with his magical take on “Waltz for Debby” and a lyrical swing through “Irresistibly You” before giving way to Rubalcaba who launched into unpredictable chordal splashes then settled into a heartfelt homage to his friend and collaborator the late bassist Charlie Haden by playing “My Love and I” (introduced as “Mi Amor y Yo”), a Johnny Mercer tune that Haden played with his Quartet West group. Valdés returned and the pair played their finest in an extended version of “Caravan,” whimsically playing off each other with shape-shifting tempos and rhythms. Fresh and crisp, the duo dreamed up surprise after surprise, turning the stage into a jazz playground.

Brian Wilson (center, in red) presents ‘Pet Sounds;’ courtesy of the festival.

The rough-hewn voiced Brian Wilson, sitting at a keyboard and leading his large supporting band (that included only one former Beach Boy Al Jardin on guitar and vocals), gave it his best to rouse the crowd, opening the show with what he called the anthem of the old days, “California Girls,” which the crowd cheered. Billed as a show where Wilson and co. were going to be presenting the BB’s masterpiece album, Pet Sounds, there was so much more. The hits just kept on coming including “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda” and of course the 1963 tune “Surfing U.S.A.” (lyrics by Wilson, music grabbed from Chick Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”) that the arena faithful loved. It was surf’s up even though the Mediterranean was so far away. Interestingly, Wilson didn’t sing his beautiful tune, “In My Room” that had inspired the young audio-visual phenom Jacob Collier to shutter himself in his studio room to create his jubilant one-man debut by the same name. Collier lovingly played the tune at his Teatro Morlacchi show two nights earlier. Still, with all the songs Wilson put on the map in creating the California sound in the ‘60s, it’s to be expected that not all could fit in his 90-minute show.

Brian Wilson in ‘Pet Sounds;’ courtesy of the festival.

Cover: View of the audience at the Umbria Jazz Festival; courtesy of the festival.


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