As Umbria Jazz Marks 45 Years, Quincy, Iverson Evolve


What keeps Umbria Jazz in the upper echelon of the world’s festival scene is its inspired balance of elements. Its judicious programming strategy takes the genre’s pulse in any given season while showcasing native Italian talent, along with various specialty items and a few all-important pop music sessions. It all transpires in the idyllic setting of Perugia, Italy, an ancient hilltop city of no small charm.

All told, the Umbria festival, which ran July13-22, was lined with the extra-musical enticements of fine food, ambience and wine. Token attention paid to more experimental or avant-garde impulses would have been nice, but that domain is left to other festivals.

Everything went according to well-established plan during the festival’s 45th year: The pop contingent included Massive Attack and David Byrne’s current, artfully dance-crazed show. For a more challenging music experience, the Vijay Iyer Sextet filled the 235-year-old Teatro Morlacchi with its gripping ensemble force—a sound which placed Iyer at the top of the Jazz Artist and Jazz Group categories in the recent DownBeat Critics Poll.

But the festivities opened auspiciously with another anniversary of note—Quincy Jones’ 85th birthday. Jones sat in a chair at stage right, lending quips and commentaries between songs during a three-hour show, as John Clayton conducted a massive, multi-limbed ensemble with the fine Umbria Jazz Orchestra, featuring guests Harvey Mason on drums and Nathan East on bass. Up front, the diverse tapestry of Jones-linked music—from big band charts to film music and a cut from Thriller—was given voice by a revolving cast, including Take 6, Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ivan Lins and, for national color, languidly crooning trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

In a press conference in Rome a day earlier, Jones regaled the paparazzi-packed room with anecdotes and bon mots. He explained his own fluid genre-crossing ethos, noting that, “bottom line, jazz is about freedom. Doo wop, be bop, hip-hop, laptop—it’s all part of the same evolution.”

Rio de Janeiro-born Lins’ recurring presence in the Jones show served as a gateway to this festival’s bold Brazilian programming thread. From the heart of Brazil came a double-header of Gilberto Gil and Margareth Menezes, as well as Brazilian-steeped projects from Italian piano-master Stefano Bollani and New Yorker clarinetist Anat Cohen. Undeniably, a strong Brazilian state of mind also marks the evolution of guitarist Pat Metheny, whose flexible ensemble (drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, pianist Gwilym Simcock) covered a swath of the guitarist’s 40-plus-year musical saga.

The standout Brazilian moment came with a special performance by Tropicália pioneer Caetano Veloso, 75, in a captivating project with his three sons—Moreno, Tom and Zeca. No added players necessary. Veloso and sons offered up a poetic, understated, yet powerful, set of about 30 tunes, each with its own infectious flavor and quirky structural detailing. They made the expanse of the 5,000-seat Santa Giuliana venue hum with an enlightened living-room-like directness.

In terms of performance intimacy, several enticing discoveries came during the noon-time “Jazz Goes to the Museum” series, a new addition to the Umbria agenda. Among the finds: Italy-based American saxophonist Dan Kinzelman’s Ghost, an innovative, impressionistic quartet with three saxophonists, a trumpeter and gentle percussion in the wings; bandoneon player Daniele di Bonaventura’s Band’Union; and the playful dynamic duo-phonics of famed Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella and vibraphonist Pasquale Mirra.

Best of all, another noontime treat spotlighted pianist Ethan Iverson—recently left to his own various creative devices after leaving the Bad Plus. He delivered a rare and riveting solo set, demonstrating a witty and mischievous virtuosity, deconstructed standards finding fresh pathways amid the realm of his solo practice. “Laura” and “Misty,” for example, were subjected to radical, postmodernist reinventions, while somehow respecting the sanctity of the originals. Iverson was in town as part of his long-standing role in the Billy Hart Quartet—which performed a fine set later that same evening, although guest Joshua Redman lacked the lived-in presence of original saxophonist Mark Turner—and agreed to do what the pianist humbly dubbed a “workshop” show by day.

As if by some serendipitous design, “Misty” returned in the festival finale, in the more conventional and plusher dimensions of Gregory Porter’s current Nat King Cole tribute project. The Umbria Jazz Orchestra returned to perform Vince Mendoza’s ravishing arrangements, and Porter’s rich, magnetizing vocal charisma kept a crowd in thrall, even through a sudden downpour. DB

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March 2019
Joe Lovano
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