Umbria Goes Pop


John Scofield performs during a Beatles tribute at Umbria Jazz Winter in Italy.

(Photo: Umbria Jazz)

In contrast to the summer edition of the Umbria Jazz Festival, Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, usually drives straightahead, programming jazz with minor twists. So, it was a stretch to open the festival, which ran Dec. 28–Jan. 1, with music that has its roots in classic pop. But on opening night, the audience embraced a doubleheader jazz homage to legendary pop artists: Italian singer Mina Mazzini and The Beatles. Judging by the resounding crowd approval, it turned out to be programming genius.

In the Teatro Mancinelli, renowned Italian pianist Danilo Rea and his trio paid tribute to Mina, the nonconformist queen of Italian music who dominated the country’s charts in the ’60s and ’70s. Rea took on her lyrical “Grande Grande Grande,” the swinging “Se Telefonando” and the Brazilian-tinted “La Banda.” The pianist’s allure came from hinting at Mina’s melodies and capturing the emotion in her music, while at the same time using the tunes for spirited improvisation.

“The Magic and Mystery of the Beatles” was a colorful trip through their music that was smartly arranged by maestro Gil Goldstein, who conducted the Umbria Jazz Orchestra and Orchestra da Camera di Perugia. It was a grand affair that featured guitarist John Schofield and began with “Golden Slumbers” and moved into “Let It Be,” with Scofield taking the lead and closing the piece with a jolting guitar solo. There was a lot of chart reading that stiffened the first part of the performance, but that loosened with “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey,” as Sco faced the audience for the first time.

Particularly impressive was the band/orchestra’s creative take on “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul. But at times, the orchestra sat out as Scofield, Goldstein on keyboards (and accordion), Jay Anderson on bass and Lewis Nash on drums played as a rousing quartet.

The standing ovations for both segments of the evening showed that the right kind of pop music in the right hands makes for great jazz. Both shows were performed three times, as were most sets at the festival.

Two members of the new crew of jazz pianists, Isaiah J. Thompson and Sullivan Fortner, played to sold-out audiences in Palazzo del Popolo spaces—each showing his unique take on melding tradition with modernity in their trios. Thompson played in a range from thunder to ragtime, while Fortner also performed with swinging beauty on a New Orleans gumbo tune, a fetching rendering of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” and a dedication to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire that he said “popped out of nowhere” while he was practicing Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” in 3. But the special revelation of Fortner’s shows was Michela Marino Lerman, the fast, bebopping tap dancer who dazzled the crowd.

Behind the main-stage action, Motown cover band the New Orleans Mystics and the San Francisco-based blues band Mitch Woods & His Rocket 88s kept the dance flame flaring for the lunch and dinner crowds at Ristorante al San Francesco. After the Roman Catholic high mass on Jan. 1 at the magnificent Duomo di Orvieto—a Gothic cathedral considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in Italy—the Every Praise & Virginia Union Gospel Choir, featuring J. David Bratton, rocked the house with its soul-stirring, jazzy and funky music.

Also on New Year’s Day at Palazzo del Pop, a trio of vibraphonists—Joel Ross, Warren Wolf and Joe Locke—played in what promised to be a vibes smash. But the summit started out with a crash, as if it were a Locke showcase where he took the reins and mainly had the younger players comping while he sped his way through “Bags’ Groove” and “Maiden Voyage.” After that, there was more equity in the leads and improvising, beginning with Wolf’s sublime reading of “Body And Soul,” and the most successful tune of the show, “Centerpiece,” led by Ross, while Wolf and Locke played delicious harmonies on the theme. DB

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