Umbria Jazz Reaches Half-Century Mark


In a sense, the Umbria Jazz Festival has been such a formidable and evolving part of the international jazz festival landscape for so long, it was almost surprising to find that this year marked only its 50th anniversary — despite the singularity of the milestone. Other festivals in Europe have scaled the half-century mark, including this year’s edition of Norway’s Vossa Jazz festival, joining the elite 50-plus club that includes Newport, Monterey, the Molde Festival in Norway and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

What gives the Umbria festival’s 50th a special distinction is the fact that it is still run by its stalwart founder, Carlo Pagnotta (with help from an avid team, including the New York-based Enzo Capua).

For 10 days each July, the UJF takes over the scenic hill town of Perugia, bringing its strong roster of acts from Italy, America and elsewhere to three main concert stages: by night, the 1780-vintage Teatro Morlacchi, and by day, the intimate Sala Podiani venue in the impressive Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. The Sala Podiani was the site of many an engrossing solo set this year, from numerous pianists (my favorite being inside-outside adventurer Cuban-in-New-York David Virelles) to Marc Ribot’s vibrant and rough-hewn solo guitar work — a decidedly inward/outward-bound venture. Alice Coltrane acolyte harpist Brandee Younger’s trio also enlivened and enlightened the museum venue.

Meanwhile, free stages around the old town with roots going back to the Etruscan era B.C., and buskers all along the main boulevard kept the town in a constant state of musical/sonic action from roughly noon to midnight every day.

Over the years, Pagnotta has made sure to use the Umbria fest as a ripe forum for the riches of Italian jazz, sometimes overlooked in the international community. Pianists were strongly accounted for this year, including Stefano Bollani, Danilo Rea, Dado Maroni and the underrated veteran Rita Marcotulli (featured on the immaculate Italian-crafted Fazioli instruments). Sometimes, these players’ abundant technical and extroverted expressive gifts seemed overstated or diluted by crowd-baiting tendencies, from the otherwise serious Bollani’s comedic clowning to the cheeky name-that-song gaming in Rea’s wandering setlist of pop tunes and standards.

Trumpeter Paulo Fresu is a regular here, and his Ferlinghetti program at the Morlacchi lavished in his customary romantic and lyric-minded eloquence, while robust trumpeter Fabrizio Brosso aims a more mainstream path. Mainstream ideas are of scant interest to the wily and inventive trombonist Gianlucca Petrella, whose acoustic-electric-elastic groove vehicle Cosmic Renaissance proved nimbly transfixing.

Among the Italian contingent, some of the most memorable music-making came from a group we can unofficially dub “the three Enricos.” Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi’s noon solo set demonstrated his eminence as a lyrical soul-searcher in the post-Bill Evans mode, a virtuoso with no pressing need to show it. Trumpeter Enrico Rava, the ever-young veteran, fashioned subtle and compelling phrases on flugelhorn alongside pianist Fred Hersch. And drummer Enrico Morello’s Cyclic Signs quartet — sans choral instrument — made one of the festival’s boldest left-of-center impressions, with echoes of Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and a signature sound and malleable probity all its own.

Pop music makes its way regularly into the program, as a measure for bringing crowds into the 4,000-seat arena, but always with curatorial care in check. It can be safely reported that the “pop” portion of this year’s festival slipped in the side door of jazz festival compatibility through their embrace of improvisational tactics and genre-blurring instincts, opening with Bob Dylan and closing with blues-rocker Joe Bonamassa, with jazz-poppy Snarky Puppy somewhere in its own special idiomatic midzone. Also in the mix was Ben Harper, ever flexible in terms of where he fits on the genre spectrum, as composer, soul-fueled singer and especially as a natural wonder on lap steel.

Two orchestra-festooned projects failed to register artistic rewards: Kyle Eastwood’s “Eastwood Symphonic” setting of music from father Clint’s filmography scored few points, partly because the music that suited the films so neatly didn’t translate well to the expanded orchestral/jazz band context. A funked-up arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s classic theme to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly leaned mostly towards the latter two adjectives.

Drummer Stewart Copeland’s “Police Deranged For Orchestra” — with orchestra mostly providing window dressing services — managed primarily to remind us of Sting’s brilliance as a songwriter, and the notable lack of his signature voice on the Police songbook.

Among the strongest arena fare on the menu came from surefire artists such as Brad Mehldau (sounding supremely present and always in search mode) and Branford Marsalis’ crack quartet, but also powerful, distinctive vocalists with causes related to the African-American experience. The gifted singer Somi is a young up-and-comer deserving ever greater attention for her refreshing blend of jazz, West African leanings and R&B with a twist or three, her mission effectively abetted by an ace band featuring guitarist Liberty Ellman.

What to say about the national American treasure that is Rhiannon Giddens? She appeared in expansive duo format with her Italian life/musical partner Francisco Turissi in a striking arena set, winning new admirers while validating the already-devoted among us. To call her a roots musician misses several other cultural facets and creative avenues, which make her flexibly suited to this jazz festival setting — and just a month after she headed up the respected classical/contemporary music Ojai Music Festival in California.

Surprise treats of UJF 2023 included Virelles’ fascinating hour-long solo piano adventure, from abstraction to structural focus to traditional Cuban melodic roots and back, and the startlingly fine and innately inventive German vocalist-pianist Olivia Trummer, in duet with Italian drummer Nicola Angelucci (also Bosso’s drummer).

Some of the most memorable shows transpired at the Morlacchi, including Bill Frisell’s engrossing and limber new Four band (with supple saxophonist Greg Tardy), Kenny Barron’s trio and the innovative cross-stitchery of Danilo Pérez’s trio with John Pattitucci and Adam Cruz. During that bracing set, the musicians’ late, great former “boss” Wayne Shorter’s spirit seemed to somehow lurk in the wings.

As a fortuitous, festival-related coup de grace, vocalist of the moment and Grammy-crowned Samara Joy closed out the fest’s jazz portion (before the Bonamassa blowout), having rightfully elevated from smaller stages in previous years to a prime valedictory spotlight. Her set’s highlight was a sparklingly kinetic version of Charles Mingus’ “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird” with new lyrics that she remembered starting to write a year earlier, in her room at the festival-centralized Hotel Rosetta. She nailed it — both on paper and onstage.

Suffice to say, the UJF, at 50, is in a fine state of health, with prospects for a bright future. DB

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