Polymath Programming Bolsters Bergamo Jazz Festival

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Pianist Amaro Freitas presented a panoramic solo set at this year’s Bergamo Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Giorgia Corti)

In programming her third and final Bergamo Jazz Festival, Artistic Director Maria Pia De Vito set a high bar for Joe Lovano — who begins his four-year term next year — to follow. Appointed in 2019 after she’d established a successful track record curating the jazz component of the Ravello Festival, the Naples-born vocalist was the first woman to curate a major festival in Italy. Having lost her first edition to COVID-19, De Vito was only able to present an attenuated festival in October 2021. But in 2022, unencumbered by restrictions, she displayed programming chops of similar breadth to her polymath artistic production, matching performers representing various streams of expression, famous and obscure, to Bergamo’s beautiful venues.

As in 2022, De Vito launched the festival’s 44th edition, which ran March 23–26, with a solo piano recital. Amaro Freitas, 31, from Recife in northeastern Brazil, presented a panoramic set consisting primarily of originals, but also convincingly personalized interpretations of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” blending influences culled from the canons of jazz, classical and Candomblé. He displayed a highly refined, orchestral technique, sometimes uncorking pristinely articulated whirlwinds evocative of Cecil Taylor explosions and jet-fueled Conlon Nancarrow player piano pointillism, but also crystalline rubato passages. As the set progressed, Freitas developed the piano-as-drum throughline, accompanying himself with a shaker, then applying to the piano’s wood exoskeleton and the strings, which he’d prepared in real time, imparting the illusion — if you closed your eyes — that he’d morphed his instrument into a sampled drum ensemble, before gradually reintroducing the piano sound with a trance-like cadence. Then Freitas addressed a wooden drum frame containing an mbira, on which he played a brisk right-hand melody, counterpointing with a left-hand piano line.

A few hours later, MixMonk — American drum grandmaster Joey Baron (a Berlin resident in recent years) with pianist Bram de Looze and saxophonist Robin Verheyen, both from Belgium — played a compelling eight-tune set, including “Monk’s Mood” and “Bye-Ya,” Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’,” Misha Mengelberg’s “Who’s Bridge” and four originals. It was a model of group interplay, thematic improvisation and dynamic contrast, goosed by Baron’s unrelentingly creative, functional approach to eliciting rhythm timbre..

There followed an ambitious program by Panorchestra, a four-woodwind, two-trumpet, trombone, piano, bass and drums tentet (nine Italian musicians and American trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson) organized by veteran tenor saxophonist-educator Tino Tracanna. The seven pieces, each 12 to 18 minutes long, were complex and multi-sectional, requiring much sight-reading and command of extended techniques. The ensemble was up to the task. Solo highlights: Federico Calcagno’s virtuosic statements on clarinet and bass clarinet; trumpeter Paolo Malacarne’s haunting declamation on Joe Zawinul’s “Forlorn”; pianist Alfonso Santimone’s channeling of atonal Schlippenbach and impressionistic Bill Evans; and trombonist Andrea Andreoli’s projection of alligatory roughness and celloistic smoothness with equal authority.

On Friday, Belgian-American singer David Linx, joined by authoritative pianist Leonardo Montana, presented primarily original songs from Skin In The Game, his 16th leader album since 1989. Linx is a gifted lyricist, and he conveys the words with impeccable time, unerring pitch and interactive phrasing, which he also applies to an idiosyncratic vocalese conception.

Later, at Teatro Donizetti, Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, whose tone remains celestially mysterious, played a bracing duo with venturesome pianist Rita Marcotulli, before Cécile McLorin Salvant (with Glenn Zaleski, piano; Marvin Sewell, guitar; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Keita Ogawa, drums) took the stage. After opening with a Creole song, Salvant switched to English for a stylistically varied set comprising her originals (“Thunderclouds,” “Fog,” “The World Is Mean”), songs by Dianne Reeves (“Mista”) and Gregory Porter (“No More Dying”), a cabaret/art song (Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”) and numbers associated with Betty Carter (“I’m All Smiles”), Diana Krall and Frank Sinatra (“Devil May Care”) and Nat Cole (“Nature Boy”). She concluded with another Creole original (the zoukish “Doudou”) from her dropped-that-very-day album, Melusine. On this brief tour, Salvant was presenting a completely different set each night; she seemed to thrive on operating without a safety net, invoking a point of view on each piece with characteristically sublime diction and dramatic presence.

Nik Bärtsch, of Ronin fame, opened Saturday with a meditative late morning solo piano recital, medleying repertoire from his 2021 ECM solo album Entendre with high focus, relaxed precision and polyrhythmic derring-do, unearthing complexities and subtleties from his singular compositions. Later, bassist-composer Paolo Damiani, a veteran of Italy’s experimental music scene, oversaw a concert of original music by the six talented under-40s who joined him. Initially tentative, the group cohered as the superb drummer Francesca Remigi propelled the flow with an array of stickings and attacks, locking in nicely with bassist Federica Michisanti.

At the Donizetti, rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin — on tour with pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer E.J. Strickland — gave a rip-roaring concert of music framed around her new recording Phoenix. Wearing a gold jacket, sleek red pants and silver hightops, Benjamin soared through the burners and caressed a couple of gospel ballads with a keening, edgy, spirit-raising tone evocative of Kenny Garrett, booted by Strickland’s volcanic beats. Spiritual intentions remained front and center on drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake’s ritualistic tribute to Alice Coltrane with a group including British star saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, keyboardist Jamie Saft and bassist Joshua Abrams.

Saturated with music by Sunday afternoon, I finished my festival at concerts by two European masters. Django Bates (England) played an impressionistic, melody-centric concert of recent works (“Flurry In The Desert,” “Sophie Detailed,” “Iris,” “Dancey Dancey”), concluding with “Horses In The Rain,” on which De Vito sang the lyric he’d previously recorded with Sidsel Endresen. A few hours later, De Vito sat in with visionary Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger’s trio (Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje and Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla, who also played mbira, the lute-like xalam, and a wooden cornet-like instrument, wood recorder and wood flute) to contribute a vocalese part on a piece where Reijseger, cradling the cello like an oversized guitar, plucked slide effects and played tumbao, while Sylla made rude Donald Duck sounds to counterpoint De Vito’s pellucid voice. DB



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