Craftsmanship, Refinement Guide Umbria Jazz Festival
Posted 7/16/2013

A certain level of craftsmanship and refinement imbues the texture of daily life in Perugia, an Italian hill city of 160,000 situated between Rome and Florence that was initially settled more than two millennia ago. This is evident in the buildings, many constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries; in the proportions of the public plazas and snaky medieval warrens; and in the food, which is famously excellent.

A similar sensibility guides the aesthetics that Umbria Jazz Festival’s artistic director, Carlo Pagnotta, has followed since launching it in 1973 as a one-day event. Pagnotta organizes the entertainment like an 18th century grand duke preparing a pageant, matching sounds with spaces, juxtaposing international figures from jazz and pop with Q-ratings from high to mid-level, young up-and-comers, the best and brightest from Italy’s exceptional pool of jazz talent and high-level funk, cabaret, gospel and swing acts who perform in gardens adjacent to a mansion backdropped by a 180-degree view of the valley below.

For the summer festival’s 40th-anniversary edition, held July 5–14, Pagnotta recruited as many artists as possible who had visited Perugia from the onset.

One was Keith Jarrett, who played the first of more than a dozen Perugia engagements in 1974 with a long, tabula rasa solo recital, but whose previous Perugia appearance, a 2007 concert with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (the Standards Trio), ended on a sour note. Six years ago, Jarrett, annoyed by flashing cameras and cell phones from the audience, had uncorked a profane tirade stating his feelings about the practice before addressing his instrument, and, after concluding, abruptly aborted an encore when several enthusiasts could not or would not restrain themselves. His response was treated as a scandal by the Italian media.

Hence, collective tension was palpable in the moments before Jarrett took the stage with his Standards Trio at the sprawling Santa Giuliana Arena on July 7. Jarrett strolled out, noticed some red lights (they were not discernible to me from my seat, 20 rows back and several sections to the side), said, “See ya later,” and walked off. Pagnotta, who rarely addresses the audience, made an impassioned plea for good behavior and respect. Jarrett’s manager, Steven Cloud, repeated the message.

As the trio came onstage, the stage lights went off, apparently at Jarrett’s request. A single low beam focused on Peacock as Jarrett, almost invisible to most of the audience, launched a long, creative introduction to “Green Dolphin Street,” then constructed a solo that contained more than a trace of Ahmad Jamal strategies. He conjured a lovely intro and a fresh improvisation on “Yesterdays.” An Ornette Coleman blues ensued, but Jarrett seemed unable to find a pathway, although DeJohnette produced a bad-ass solo. There followed “Blame It On My Youth,” on which Jarrett developed the melody with exquisite melancholy. The set concluded with a rolling, stomping, four-to-the-floor blues that evoked Jarrett’s musical production of the ’70s.

The trio left the stage for 10 minutes while the piano was tuned. The stage lights came back on, but Jarrett seemed off his game, unable to gain traction. He played a very straightforward “In Your Own Sweet Way,” couldn’t generate anything fresh on “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” did “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” as a slow, literal blues and ended with another plaintive ballad. As the trio bowed, someone took a photo. Jarrett grabbed his black festival towel, waved it to the first few rows like a toreador taunting a bull, and walked off the stage.

Another disappointment was the absence of Sonny Rollins. The tenor saxophone titan had agreed, in honor of the occasion, to perform with Italian trumpet stars Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu at the arena, but he cancelled his summer tour on doctor’s orders a month before the concert.

Such shoes can’t be filled, but Jan Garbarek—who switched to the arena from a midnight concert at the festival’s main indoor venue (Teatro Morlacchi, a five-tiered, 785-seat theater with ceiling frescoes that opened in 1780)—tried his best.

Joined by Rainer Brüninghaus on piano and keyboards, Yuri Daniel on electric fretless bass and Trilok Gurtu on his hybrid drums-tabla-and-cymbals set, Garbarek led the ensemble through an accomplished 90-minute performance, navigating his signature mix of folk forms from several continents, European classical forms and harmonies, pan-cultural rhythms and various streams of jazz expression, the components knit together by the leader’s instantly recognizable tone on curved soprano and tenor saxophones and Brüninghaus’ spur-of-the-moment fugues.

Singers dominated the main stage during the festival’s first half. Opening night featured Diana Krall, with violinist Stuart Duncan, keyboardist Patrick Warren, guitarist Aaron Bejakian, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins, mixing 1920s and ’30s repertoire from her latest album, Glad Rag Doll (Verve). Krall accompanied her vocals on her own vintage piano, which imparted an apropos sound for the material, counterstating her lack of surface affect with rich chords and voicings, revealing deep emotional layers beneath.

Subtlety was absent from both partners on a program featuring singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist Ramsey Lewis. For the first half, Lewis (joined by a high-chops quintet with Henry Johnson on guitar, Dean Gant on keyboards, Charles Heath on drums and Joshua Ramos on acoustic and electric bass) presented a soporific set of soul-jazz, primarily his hits, forcing Bridgewater to channel the hardest-working-woman-in-showbiz side of her personality in order to rouse the crowd during her segment. After effective collaborations with Lewis on “Broadway” and “Save Your Love For Me” that benefited from his subtlety and understatement, Bridgewater brought Edsel Gomez to the piano chair for a set of funk and fusion that mirrored the soundtrack of 1973, when Bridgewater debuted in Perugia. She sang hard, but her phrasing and articulation were immaculate and reflected a point of view. Her intonation was not pitch-perfect but did the job. Her creative chops and fearlessness were off the charts. And she sold each song with dancing and practiced showmanship that a performer 30 years her junior might envy. The breadth of Bridgewater’s personality matched the size of the venue.

Working at similar levels of energy but not letting you see him sweat was r&b star John Legend, who presented an intense, polished, blue flame concert comprising primarily his original ballads and dance numbers but also covers of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and John Lennon. He sang them in his focused tenor while guiding the band through well-crafted arrangements on his piano. Totally in control, Legend led the younger crowd through ebbs and flows—a set that highlighted his craftsmanship.

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Diana Krall (Photo: Giancarlo Belfiore/Umbria Jazz)

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