New Ensembles, Inspired Pairings Animate Umbria Jazz Fest

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Guitarist Pat Metheny (left) and bassist Ron Carter perform as a duo at Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy, on July 13.

(Photo: Umbria Jazz Festival/Facebook)

Over the course of its 44-year history, Umbria Jazz has evolved into a true people’s festival. The charming Italian hilltop city of Perugia literally blossoms during festival time (it took place this year from July 8–17), swelling with revelers. Nightly double bills hit the Arena Santa Giuliana, a converted soccer field at the bottom of a hill near the teeming Corso Vannucci, Perugia’s main thoroughfare.

There was an assortment of rewards on the Corso, including daily and nightly free stages in the Carducci Gardens and a huge street stage at Piazza IV Novembre. Guests also had the opportunity to take in museum and restaurant performances (including several by the guitar-vocal duo Tuck & Patti) and daily matinee and midnight shows at the august opera house Teatro del Pavone.

Three consecutive—yet delightfully varied—evenings of guitar mastery served as the centerpiece of this year’s fest. Spinning tales in azure blue, Buddy Guy hooted and wailed on July 11, his fiery Stratocaster solos encouraging guitar aficionados to rush the stage. With his caramel-covered charcoal voice, the guitarist delivered masterworks from his repertoire to an appreciative crowd.

The following evening offered the imaginative billing of a new unit featuring guitarist John Scofield, pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana. (Kamasi Washington’s volcanic octet also appeared on that night’s program, but it was Scofield, Mehldau and Guiliana who won the day.)

The group achieved such a smooth handoff of harmonic responsibilities that an actual bass player wasn’t missed. The role was filled admirably—and often creatively—by each member of the trio. At one point during the performance, Scofield slung his guitar over his back and plunked down a bass line on a stationary bass guitar. Meanwhile, Mehldau provided deft undergirding on his keyboard and Guiliana used his electronic accouterments to explore his own unique subterraneous sonic territory.

Mehldau’s misdirection on “It Was What It Was” and Scofield’s original “Love The Most” highlighted this performance by a trio that should record—and soon. Mehldau’s dexterous touch on several keyboards was endlessly inventive, and Guiliana was a revelation, lending adroit rhythm atmospheres to Scofield and Mehldau’s mastery.

A duo performance by guitarist Pat Metheny and Ron Carter on July 13 was simply transcendent. Kudos to the Detroit Jazz Festival for initially bringing together these two musicians, who share a similar artistic generosity. Carter, in a splendid blue suit, must have inspired Metheny to complement his usual jeans with a Carolina blue suit jacket. The pair essayed Carter’s “81” and Lalo Schifrin’s “Down Here On The Ground,” showing their mutual love for Wes Montgomery.

Elsewhere in the set, each musician took a moment in the spotlight alone. For his solo performance, Metheny coaxed lush, orchestral soundscapes from one of his custom guitars, which boasted both guitar and harp-like strings. Carter, for his turn, played an exquisite “Willow Weep For Me” with classical variations. For guitar heads, this duo performance capped off an incredible three-night Umbria run that was a sumptuous survey of the instrument.

Teatro del Pavone hosted a five-day residency of matinee performances by the Joey Alexander Trio, with Daniel Chmielinski on bass and the crafty Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums. The series afforded ample opportunity to view the palpable progress of the precocious young man who turned 13 on June 25.

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