Craftsmanship, Refinement Guide Umbria Jazz Festival
Most of the indoor concerts during the first several days were by bands from Europe. The Igor Butman Big Band, an outfit of virtuosos, offered a 90-minute set that displayed their mastery of post-Dizzy Gillespie jazz orchestra language, rendering both bright numbers and ballads with the precision, flair and swing of the Atomic-era Basie Band on steroids and a “We will crush you” attitude reminiscent of the better editions of the Buddy Rich Orchestra. Butman’s own extravagant tonal personality on tenor saxophone came through on a vibrato-laden tour de force entitled “Samba de Igor” and on “Nostalgia,” on which he showcased his wide dynamic range on a creative intro solo based on “Miles’ Mode,” then stated a refrain that evoked the cool blueness of Benny Carter and Benny Golson, uncorking a long, build-to-climax statement.
Tenor counterpart Dmitry Mospan offered a Frank Foster-esque solo on an arrangement of “Dark Eyes” by pianist Nick Levinovsky that featured a long, crisp sax-section soli and symphonic flourishes toward the end. Later, Mospan concluded on Levinovsky’s “Africa Brass,” based on John Coltrane’s “Blues Minor,” with a turbulent, big-sound solo evocative of early ’60s Coltrane, counterstating an old master turn by trombonist Alevtina Polyakova that showcased her control of rhythm, tone and velocity and a fleet, boppish solo by alto saxophonist Iliya Morozov that had the feel of Gigi Gryce.
Later in the show, Butman introduced world-class vocalist Fantine Pritoula, who sang the lyric of “Night In Tunisia”—done in a Dizzy-meets-Machito style—in a full contralto, scatting cogently until the famous break. Then she sang Chick Corea’s “You’re Everything” with sensitive phrasing, setting up Butman’s warp-speed, crisply articulated solo.
All five tiers of the Morlacchi were filled the following night for a duo concert by Paolo Fresu on trumpet, flugelhorn and electronics and Omar Sosa on piano and keyboards. Over the course of 70 minutes, they engaged in constant dialogue on virtuoso levels of instrumentalism, Fresu making his melodies ring out with an enormous, clear tone, which he would modify electronically, triggering instant responses from Sosa, who often played lines on the Fazioli grand while simultaneously chording on a keyboard placed to his left.
Equally attentive levels of listening on very different repertoire was the watchword during a performance by pianists Renato Sellani and Danilo Rea on a suite of songs by Armando Trovajoli, the iconic Italian film composer who died in March at age 95. They effectively exploited their contrasting approaches—octogenarian Sellani plays with elegant restraint, evoking a certain melancholy with his touch, while Rea, an extremely versatile pianist who is one of Italy’s busiest, responded with more forceful, “modern” phrases.
Rea stood out in a quartet led by bassist Giovanni Tommaso—a major figure in Italian jazz for more than a half-century—that included alto saxophonist Mattia Cigalini and drummer Francesco Sotgiu. Rooted in examples set by Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro and Paul Chambers (whom he saw in New York as a teenager in the late ’50s), Tommaso likes to explore the contrasts between “inside” and “outside” approaches in his compositions. The first selection, a multi-sectional piece, opened with a textured dialogue—clicks from Cigalini, disembodied bass smears, drumkit timbre. Then Rea stated a melody. Cigalini controlled tone and dynamics with a firm hand when soloing on a dissonant passage that reached the upper overtone range; after Rea stated gospel chords, the altoist launched a riff that he developed and again referenced the outer partials. Tommaso introduced “Euphoria,” a ballad, with an arco statement. Rea developed his solo elegantly and gracefully; on another selection built on a Mingusian bass line with a pedal-point vamp, he moved between consonance and dissonance with lightning reflexes.
At a midnight set at the Morlacchi, Roberto Gatto, the “dean” of Italian drummers, presented an ambitious program by the “Perfect Trio,” with Alfonso Santimone on piano and keyboards and bassist Pierpaolo Ranieri, who engaged in three-way dialogue with the leader’s exploration of a global spectrum of rhythms drawn from Africa, India, Brazil and American swing and funk, and an orchestral array of textures from a drum kit augmented with multiple percussion and electronics. The flow began to coalesce at the 40-minute mark, when Gatto launched creative variations after Santimone referenced Ed Blackwell’s “Togo” from the Old and New Dreams songbook. They played “Black And Tan Fantasy” at a slow march tempo before morphing into power funk that propelled Santimone’s free-bop piano.
On the following day, pianist Enrico Zanisi presented his trio (Joe Rehmer, bass; Alessandro Paternesi, drums) in a set of originals drawn primarily from his 2012 CD, Life Variations (CamJazz). A gifted pianist in matters of touch, facility, right-left interdependence and melodic development, Zanisi alternated between odd-meter pieces deeply influenced by Brad Mehldau and legato ballads that drew upon his personal refraction of classical influences. Zanisi’s improvisations show that he is nobody’s clone (elements of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett are part of his mix), and it will be interesting to follow him as he further develops his voice.
Already in full possession of an individualistic voice is the young singer-pianist Sarah McKenzie, one of several acts that played two sets a day at the Giardini Carducci, the garden with the view, where patrons can take in the entertainment for free. Addressing repertoire that spans from Duke Ellington to Joni Mitchell, McKenzie delivered the songs with an unassuming, multi-octave voice that is fully in service of the story, backed by a swinging guitar-bass-drums trio.
Singer-guitarist Allan Harris mixed his swing and rock roots with a quintet, featuring a top-shelf under-30 rhythm section (Pascal Le Boeuf, piano and Hammond B3; Leon Boykins, bass; Jake Goldbas, drums) and alto saxophonist Jesse Jones, who soft-sells his virtuosic chops (think Hank Crawford meets Lou Donaldson meets Bobby Watson). Set after set, Harris showcased his extraordinary conceptual and performative range, rocking out on guitar one moment, hollering the blues the next, singing a standard à la Tony Bennett, or crooning a ballad in the finest Nat “King” Cole style, but always placing his stamp on the repertoire, working hard to grab his audience, and unfailingly placing them in the palm of his hand.
Finally, the Rockin’ Dopsie Band transformed the atmosphere into a more intense version of Tipitina’s with its own zydeco-meets-the-Meters funk. The eight-piece ensemble was super-tight, propelled by the ferocious beats of drummer Tiger Dopsie (Alton Rubin Jr.) and veteran bassist Alonzo Johnson Jr. The 48-year-old leader, who revamped the group from its zydeco roots into its present form after his father’s death, is a perpetual motion machine, belting out the lyrics, orchestrating the flow in real time with split-second cues and doing an array of splits, knee drops and shakes out of the James Brown playbook, inflaming his fans with cries of “pay-roo-gy-ah,” as he has done for the last 15 years.
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