Vocal Dynamos Add Spark to Umbria Jazz Fest

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Pedrito Martinez (left) and Angélique Kidjo perform during the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, on July 12. (Photo: Courtesy Umbria Jazz)

This year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, once again featured an ambitious multifaceted program that ranged from top-tier jazz stars like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko and the legendary Wayne Shorter to an ebullient jaunt through pop nostalgia with Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys sing-along. Also of note during the 10-day party (July 7–16) were two piano duos: the whimsical, unpredictable Chucho Valdés-Gonzalo Rubalcaba set that ended with a spirited romp through “Caravan” and the Brazilian-inflected collaboration of Stefano Bollani and Egberto Gismonti. But the most noteworthy shows were by vocalists whose performances were steeped in jazz but blurred the genre’s boundaries.

In red glasses and black chapeau on July 10, Dee Dee Bridgewater ventured into new stylistic territory—namely, Memphis music—in a tribute to the soulful city where she was born. As she did years earlier when she connected with her ancestral roots on the album Red Earth: A Malian Journey, Bridgewater dug into her own history by playing the groove-oriented music she used to listen to on the radio when she and her family moved to Flint, Michigan.

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Dee Dee Bridgewater performs on July 10 at the Arena Santa Guiliana. (Photo: Courtesy Umbria Jazz Festival)

She opened with a bang, launching straight into a silky-smooth r&b rendering of “Burnt Biscuits” by Booker T. & the MGs’s, much to the delight of the crowd at Arena Santa Giuliana. She then followed with a dynamic, funky spin through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Goin’ Down Slow.” While noting that this was a change of pace for her, Bridgewater let her jazz brilliance shine through with spunky improvised vocals and fiery scat on tunes like Al Green’s “I Can’t Get Next To You” and her rollicking reading of Carla Thomas’ hit “B-A-B-Y.” A highlight was Bridgewater’s funk-fueled treatment of her friend B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”

The next night in the sold-out, five-tiered opera house Teatro Morlacchi, the 22-year-old British phenom Jacob Collier, wearing an oversized white T-shirt, brought his frenzied, tech-driven and highly electronic audio-visual one-man show to an eager crowd of youngsters seeking something new in the jazz world. And if the music failed to hold the listeners in thrall, they were no doubt entertained by the cartoonish images on the screen behind Collier as he played his array of instruments—two keyboards, piano, drums, basses, guitars—in real and sampled time.

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Jacob Collier performs at the Teatro Morlacchi during the Umbria Jazz Festival on July 11. (Photo: Courtesy Umbria Jazz Festival)

The social media star has been turning heads and has even found a fan in Quincy Jones. Collier opened with his hip-hop-grooved and wildly scatted take on Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” treated to his electronic playground of sounds, textures and images, then followed with a piano-led, sampled run through Burt Bacharach’s “Close To You.” He grooved, he rhapsodized, he told stories, he sprinted across the stage to link up with his various instruments—all while the video cameras followed his every move.

His originals are so-so, but his covers are brilliantly conceived, with the spotlight on one of his favorite all-time tunes, Brian Wilson’s “In My Room.” It’s the tune that inspired him to shutter himself in his home studio to create his jubilant one-man debut album by the same name. (Interestingly, Wilson did not sing this tune at his show later in the week.)

On July 12, back at Arena Santa Giuliana, vocalist Angélique Kidjo wowed the crowd with her salsa-drenched set in tribute to the iconic Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. With her clarion vocal call, Kidjo served as the spark plug of the percussion-peppered show, continually swirling in dance steps during the songs. After her hot run through Cruz’s hit “Cucala,” she shouted out to the crowd, “How can you come to a salsa concert and sit down and not dance?” Most of the people got up at this good-humored admonition.

With the horn section and the drums, Kidjo played in a perfect Latin jazz setting that melded African, Afro-Cuban and Cuban Santería music. Guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez played with a powerful conguero presence that kept the heat at a high-temperature boil. Kidjo never turns in a subpar performance, which made her Umbria appearance special. DB


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