Jan Garbarek Shines in Larger Role at Umbria Jazz Festival
Posted 7/23/2013

Earlier this year, as the organizers of Umbria Jazz were preparing for the 40th anniversary of their summer edition in Perugia, Italy, they faced a major problem.

Sonny Rollins, who has played there frequently, had agreed to join Italian trumpet heroes Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu at the Santa Giuliana Arena, a capacious open-air facility a couple of hundred feet below the apex of the hill upon which the old city sits. But one month before the concert, Rollins—citing a slow recovery from a respiratory ailment—canceled his summer concerts. Faced with the gnarly proposition of replacing him with an available artist with a comparable Q-rating, the festival arranged with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek to transfer to the larger stage from a scheduled midnight concert at the Morlacchi Theater (a 780-seat theater built in 1780).

The arena was packed at 9:30 p.m., when Garbarek took the bandstand with his curved soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and flute, accompanied by Rainer Brüninghaus on keyboard and Fazioli grand piano; Yuri Daniel on electric fretless bass; and Trilok Gurtu on his singular hybrid drumkit, which includes multiple tablas, multiple cymbals, three toms, a snare drum, a bass drum, a djembe, a conga and buckets filled with water.

With Garbarek playing curved soprano and Brüninghaus plugged-in, the ensemble stated a long folk melody over a drone. They elaborated and developed the melody and the rhythm, and then transitioned to a lilting ballad. Gradually, the members began to draw upon their respective arsenals: Using the keyboard’s piano sound, Brüninghaus developed the first of several fugues that featured interesting left- and right-hand counterlines—a strategy mirrored by Gurtu, who struck the drums alternately with hands and sticks, shifting textures like a wizard.

Garbarek uncorked a solo that transitioned to another series of Gurtu-Brüninghaus exchanges on which they matched sounds in a practiced way that seemed more calculated to impress the audience than animated by imperatives of discovery. Brüninghaus laid out, and the trio developed a melody that evoked first a Moorish flavor à la Chick Corea, then took on an Indian connotation. Garbarek sold the refrain with his trademark intense, full-bodied soprano sound, rounded rather than piercing, his personality coming through on every note. Daniel followed with a bass solo that developed nicely, but soon devolved into a crowd-pleasing, thumb-plucking showcase.

Later, Garbarek and Gurtu stopped talking past each other and began to dialog on a folkish ballad. Brüninghaus uncorked a graceful classical piano interlude on the Fazioli. Gurtu postulated ideas on tabla, and Garbarek built a fierce statement, deploying much vibrato. There was a tangoish section, another drum solo and another Garbarek melody that elicited creative piano variations, slightly Gershwinesque, underpinned by a strong left-hand groove that transitioned into Brüninghaus’ own brand of New York stride, a touch dissonant, but mostly tonal over a left-hand strut.

Brüninghaus returned to keyboard, and Garbarek moved to tenor saxophone, stating an African song with a vocalized sound, sculpting elegant phrases over an interlocking bass-tabla groove. On the following rubato ballad, Garbarek remained on tenor; as the tempo gradually ratcheted up, he paid more attention to developing the harmonic material than he had done previously. The piano took the fore with complex lines and right hand-left hand interplay, before another duo with Gurtu emerged that had the feel of a virtuosic set-piece consisting of extraordinarily hard-won licks. Then Gurtu stole the show, eliciting an orchestral array of drum timbre. Garbarek picked up the flute, and offered exotic sounds to much applause. The vibe coalesced, and the ensemble played several more songs before winding the ritual down to an exhilarating close.

For more of DownBeat’s coverage of Umbria, including performances by Diana Krall and Keith Jarrett’s “Standards Trio,” click here.

Ted Panken


Jan Garbarek (Photo: Giancarlo Belfiore/Umbria Jazz)

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