‘A Night in Anzio’ Celebrates Return of Live Jazz in Europe

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A formidable front line in Anzio: Camille Thurman (left), Sylwester Ostrowski, Igor Butman, Freddie Hendrix and Alexander Beets.

(Photo: Sebastian Wołosz)

On a Thursday night in early July, as the sun was beginning to set over the charming fishing port of Anzio on the West Coast of Italy, about an hour’s drive south of Rome, an all-star jazz tentet took the stage. The picture-postcard setting was a luxurious outdoor dinner-theater facing the Tyrrhenian Sea called L’Abbraccio (The Embrace), with two terraces and a small amphitheater. The players were a mix of seasoned veterans and rising stars representing the U.S. and five European countries, including four superb tenor saxophonists: Poland’s Sylwester Ostrowski, Russia’s Igor Butman, America’s Camille Thurman and Holland’s Alexander Beets. The invited audience of about 100 die-hard jazz fans, friends of the band and journalists were elegantly dressed for a gala evening.

It was kind of a miracle that it happened at all.

Jazz on a summer evening didn’t use to be this unusual, not in Europe nor in the States. But “A Night in Anzio,” a one-night-only international jazz party organized by Ostrowski to celebrate the return of live jazz to Europe, had a special magic to it. Partly it was the majestic setting, partly it was the feeling that, on a moment’s notice, live jazz might be ripped away from us again.

In our fragile après-pandemic environment, in which virus variants threaten new lockdowns, the ability to stage live musical events may well be fleeting. There is other live jazz happening in Italy and France this month, including a reduced-capacity, but still star-studded, Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia. But, one day after the Anzio event, new restrictions on live music clubs and events were announced in France, The Netherlands, Greece and Spain.

There was a justifiable sense among the guests that they might be witnessing a jazz Brigadoon, here for just a day, that could disappear again, if not for 100 years as in the Lerner and Lowe musical, then for what might still be a long stretch.

The afternoon of the concert, Ostrowski said, “Tonight’s event is very important to me.” His scheduled European tour with Bobby Watson, Billy Harper and Freddie Hendrix had been canceled due to the pandemic. “I decided to produce this jazz party to involve very special people I wanted to play with to celebrate jazz and life and friendship. The most important thing is community.”

In addition to the saxophone chorale, Ostrowski attracted top European and American talent to the Anzio event: veteran trumpeter Freddie Hendrix (from the U.S.); two guitarists, the Italian Francesco Bruno, who lives in Anzio, and Ostrowski’s Polish protégé, Jakub “Mizer” Mizeracki; pianist Albert Bover (Spain), rising American bass star Endea Owens, known for her work with Jon Batiste in the Late Show with Stephen Colbert orchestra; and Netherlands-based American drummer Owen Hart Jr.

Steadfastly loyal to his Polish sound and video crew, Ostrowski trucked them in from his hometown of Szczecin City — along with all the sound equipment and a Yamaha grand piano. The journey, nearly 1,100 miles, took three days. The result was worth it: a thoroughly professional video of the concert with multi-camera views, drone shots, and sparkling sound, can currently be viewed at Jazzcorner’s Facebook page.

The set list mixed old and new, standards with originals, from bebop to hard-bop to samba. Ostrowski’s “A Night In Anzio,” a straightahead hard-bopper written for the occasion, started the concert on a note of high energy. Thurman, a dual threat on vocals and tenor, shifted the group into even higher gear with her brisk rendition of “My Shining Hour.”

It was in the middle of Hendrix’s “We Are The Jazz Brigade,” written for Sylwester’s group in which Hendrix plays trumpet, that the heavens opened briefly for a passing downpour, sending the musicians and audience fleeing as the crew scrambled to protect the piano and other instruments. The concert resumed 25 minutes later.

With the sun now set, Butman took the stage for his showcase, featuring his composition “Nostalgia,” possibly the most noir-ish tenor saxophone solo since “Harlem Nocturne.” Butman’s rendition burned with raw emotionalism and brilliant, passionate riffing, resulting in the first of the evening’s several showstoppers.

Thurman began her high-spirited samba arrangement of the classic r&b song “Our Day Will Come” with some breathtaking scat-singing to drummer Hart’s impressive Brazilian groove. Twin tenor solos by Butman and Thurman followed.

Kenny Barron’s high-speed “Voyage” featured the two guitarists, the mellow-toned Bruno contrasting nicely with the jazz-rock style of the younger Mizeracki. The rhythm section of Owens, Bover and Hart Jr. provided solid support and adroit, inventive solos. The Dutch tenor ace Beets then led a homage to one of his main inspirations, Stanley Turrentine, with a stirringly soulful “Sunny,” ratcheting up the intensity with each modulation.

The evening’s apogee and tour de force, however, came with the four tenor players forming a front line “saxophone summit” for the deeply swinging Dexter Gordon classic “Cheesecake,” inspired by the 1978 live recording featuring Gordon and Johnny Griffin at Carnegie Hall. They egged each other on, trading eights, fours and twos.

An encore of Bird’s “Now’s The Time” was a fitting closer, as friends and fans seized the day. Tomorrow will almost certainly bring more live-streamed and hybrid musical events as the jazz world continues to adapt to the evolving COVID situation.

But, as Ostrowski said, “There is no substitute for real life. That’s why we did it.” DB



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