Italy’s Bergamo Jazz Festival Highlights Collective Artistry on a Global Scale


Joe Lovano (left), Peter Slavov, Beragmo Jazz Artistic Director Dave Douglas and Lamy Estrefi perform at the Bergamo Jazz Festival on March 18

(Photo: Courtesy Bergamo Jazz Festival)

A spirit of continuity prevailed in the development of the 2016 Bergamo Jazz Festival (March 13–20), after artistic directors Uri Caine, Paolo Fresu, Enrico Rava and Dave Douglas decided to maintain a similar sense of open-ended and palatable freedom, adding their own choices to the mix.

The main venue is the superb Teatro Donizetti, a late 17th-century theater that ensures a grand and crystal-clear setting for the music. But there were other places in the city where the music thrived, especially the contemporary art gallery, the auditorium and the Domus Bergamo.

After a first night devoted to the encounter between adventurous veterans Franco D’Andrea on piano and Han Bennink on drums at the Teatro Sociale, it was Detroit pianist Geri Allen who inaugurated the Teatro Donizetti, delivering a solo performance based on her album Grand River Crossings : Motown & Motor City Inspirations (Motéma).

Playing around the melodies of the original tunes—Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl” and “Tears Of A Clown,” Marvin Gaye’s “Save The Children,” Michael Jackson’s ‘‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’’—Allen used them as a launching pad for varied explorations. She is an original player, combining influences from Herbie Hancock to Monk, Duke Ellington to Randy Weston. There are hints of Debussy and Scriabin too.

Despite the pianist’s invention, the choice of material was slightly awkward. It’s was if the songbook did not lend itself well to exploration—it needed to be deconstructed, enriched, shaped into something else before the songs could be hinted at. Allen’s version of ‘‘Aries,’’ by Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” were much stronger tunes.

The second part was dominated by saxophonist Joe Lovano’s tenor sound, a presence so overwhelming that the music tended to revolve around this powerful sonic axis. And despite the variegated contexts that have attracted Lovano’s interest, he remained rooted in a sound-conscious tradition, brimming with references to bebop (his excellent rendition of “Bird’ Eye View”), Hawkins, Ornette or even Albert Ayler with his hymn-like “On This Day.”

With a good quintet comprising Lawrence Fields on piano, Peter Slavov on bass and Lamy Estrefi on drums, he shared the spotlight with a playful Dave Douglas on trumpet, developing a luminous and assertive wealth of ideas. The pure balladry of “I Waited For You” as an encore was a sheer delight.

Clarinet virtuoso Anat Cohen delivered an enthusiastic performance, even if it was probably too much of a show and not enough of an artistic statement. The band is clearly a foil for her, showcasing her theatrics with well-oiled savvy. She does have a personal take on Brazilian music, although her approach leaves the music stranded between various idioms. Between Milton Nascimento’s “Lilia” and her own tender tributes to her mother (“Ima”) and Baden Powell (“In The Spirit Of Baden”), there were some entertaining moments, if nothing actually gripping.

In a much more sober vein, the undisputable highlight of the festival was Kenny Barron’s trio. The pianist from Philadelphia has always had a knack for building great units (such as his quintets with saxophonist John Stubblefield, or his trio with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley). With the musical bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa and the colourful drummer Johnathan Blake, the undisputed master keeps reinventing and exploring his own music.

His arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop” was subtle and musical—a typical Barron move—dark and intriguing before it cleared up in full swing mode. Like Lovano’s sound, Barron’s touch was a statement in itself. Whether tackling ultra-sensitive compositions such as his own “Lullaby” and Charlie Haden’s “Night Fall” or radical burners such as “Bud-like,” his perfect command of the keyboard was at the service of deep feeling, taste and invention.

The intense “Shuffle Boil” (with its driving groove and inventive solo by Kitagawa) and the encore “Cook’s Bay” were full of incredible lines, depth of purpose and interactive inspiration. The trio worked as a unit at a rare level of collective artistry.

With his quartet featuring Jason Rigby on tenor, Mark Guiliana led a set that epitomized what a drummer’s music can be—loud and rhythmically intricate, but also overwhelming. The post-Trane abundance felt contrived rather than organic, like music that was trying too hard to be too hip.

That last night was indeed about drummers, with Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee Quartet, featuring Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Brian Drye on trombone and Michel Godard on tuba and snake. In that band, similar to Ray Anderson’s Pocket Brass Band, only Bernstein kept things interesting, never failing to excite with his inventive soloing.

Otherwise there was limited appeal in blowing animal whistles and using multiphonic percussion as gimmicks. It’s funny how second-line grooves are revered when they come from the supposed cutting-edge scene, but derided when they are authentic.

Cape Town native and historical drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo was the exact opposite of the previous show—raw and sincere, going full-throttle toward glorious tumult, oozing rhythm with organic frenzy.

The band participated in that maelstrom with gusto, creating an impulsive storm of definitely Aylerian power. Following the leader’s fiery bedrock of energetic colours, Jason Yarde’s alto and soprano sax romped from mournful strains to sheer explosions with piercing and relentless engagement. On tenor Shabaka Hutchings added extra gravitas to Moholo-Moholo’s inventive and churning rhythmic figures.

Heartfelt and lyrical, the final concert was a luminous way to end a festival that keeps a firm identity. DB

  • Herb_Alpert_-_Press_Photo_01_%28credit_Dewey_Nicks%29_copy.jpg

    “I like to just click on songs that touched me and see if I could do them in a personal way — especially if it’s a well-known song,” Alpert said about selecting material for his new album.

  • Les_McCann_by_C_Andrew_Hovan_copy.jpg

    McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

  • 1_Black_Men_of_Labor_Second_Line_Parade_copy.jpg

    The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

  • image002_copy.jpg

    ​The Blue Note Quintet includes Gerald Clayton, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer. The all-star collective embarks on a North American tour this month.

  • 24_Emmet_Cohen_GABRIELAGABRIELAA_copy_2.JPG

    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.