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Umbria Jazz 2001

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by W. Royal Stokes
Photos by Giancarlo Belfiore, Perugia, Italy

There are those who enjoy awarding first place to one or another of the overseas jazz festivals and this writer, having over the past two decades attended a number of them, is not immune to that temptation. While many such gatherings offer a variety of styles, from blues and gospel acts to traditional, Swing Era, bebop, and subsequent developments in jazz in attractive settings, my winner's five stars go to Italy's Umbria Jazz.

Perugia, with a history and architecture dating from the Middle Ages and earlier, is a constant presence that instructs and inspires the visitor to this charming city. The three-decade-old festival provides, along with its indoor paid-entrance venues, several outdoor stages free to the public. That constitutes a gift to the community and to tourists that bespeaks the generous civic spirit of festival founder and producer Carlo Pagnotta and the local governing body. The acts on virtually all stages except the huge outdoor ticket-requiring Giardini del Frontone repeat daily throughout the ten days. One of several one-time indoor performances was "Dee Dee Bridgewater Sings Kurt Weil," the opening-night Gala in the opera house Teatro Morlacchi.

Backed by a nonet, this major jazz singer opened with two dedicatory offerings: an unabashedly erotic "Let's Do It," a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, which had her scatting a mile a minute and twisting her body into a pretzel; and, honoring Louis Armstrong, a deep-voiced "Basin Street Blues" with Ms. Bridgewater simulating trumpet choruses. The Kurt Weil portion of the program was a cabaret act that goes a long way toward explaining why this Memphis-born vocalist, who settled in France a decade and a half ago, is called the "Darling of Europe" and "Josephine Baker II," for her stage presence is riveting. "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" had her donning a shawl and slapping her hips in time. On "September Song" she rang every ounce of emotion from this paean to late-blooming love and for "Alabama Song" she drew from the Doors' and Jim Morrison's funky upbeat reading of the song. "We'll make it short," she promised, introducing the encore, "Air Mail Special," but it turned into an extended jam, the band pulling out all stops, the headliner dancing ecstatically, and patrons hanging precariously over the sills of their boxes to catch the avalanche-like duet of drummer Andre Ceccarelli and percussionist Minino Garay. Altogether a class act!

Three units that impressed me for their musicality, originality, creativity, and uninhibited swing had me returning for more -- or wanting to in the case of the first-named group, which performed only once.

Marco Zurzolo & La Banda MVM, who departed the festival after their Saturday noon set in Teatro Morlacchi, were from Naples and for this reviewer this band holds second place, after Dee Dee, in the festival's program for all-round excellence. With the leader on alto saxophone, a trumpet and four-reed front line, bass, two trap drummers, percussionist, and accordion player, the MZ & LB MVM blended folk materials of their native city and Southern Italy, romantic Greek strains, strolling-musician effects, mainstream, bop, and outside blowing, and world-class solo action by all band members for a boiling two hours of untrammeled excitement. No doubt about it, La Banda MVM is a unique musical experience and provided for these ears some of the hottest sounds they have recently heard.

The John Pizzarelli Trio, with the leader on guitar and vocals, pianist Ray Kennedy, and brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, performed for a packed house in the tiny and charming Bottega del Vino nightly at midnight. A roller-coaster set opener, "Should I," was followed by a dreamy "When Lights Are Low." Kennedy tore up the keyboard on "A Shine on Your Shoes" and John's single-string picking of the melody on "These Foolish Things" thrilled. "Saving My Love For You" was a tour de force of scat and on "Oscar Night," a Kennedy original, the composer, displaying sheer virtuosity, was all over the piano with "circular-breathing" attack. The final choruses of the number were a four-alarm fire.

When one closed the eyes while checking out the Swedish Esbjörn Svensson Trio, with the leader at the piano, Dan Berglund, bass, and Magnus Öströ>m, drums, one wondered, a la early Louis Armstrong contemporaries, what accessories or instrument alterations were conspiring for such unorthodox sounds. The only one this observer discerned was the reverb-creating pedal of the bassist, who elicited voice-like moans from his upright and on one locomotive-force selection brought down the house. Esbjörn employed rolling two-handed bass rumbles and dived into the piano for guitar-like pings, and drummer Öström combined rifle-shot rim shots on his snare with wild dances across his cymbals. Among the tunes the trio used for its stunning performance were Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie" and an appropriately titled original, "The Chapel," for the session took place in the historic Oratorio Santa Cecilia, a centuries-old worshiping space.

Of the nearly fifty other groups that held forth at Umbria Jazz 2001, most of which I was able to catch a set or part thereof in the course of my noon to 3 a.m. wanderings up and down the Corso of the Centro Storico and in and out of innumerable narrow vicoli, I especially dug the vocal gymnastics of Amori Imperfetti's Carla Marcotulli and the combo's Raymond Scott Quintet-like idiosyncrasy; Linda Hopkins' belting of the blues; the street-stomping Olympia Brass Band of New Orleans; the antics of electric bassist and singer Hiram Bullock, who was so carried away on "Dear Prudence" that he -- never missing a beat -- leapt upon the top of the piano and then climbed into the steel scaffolding that supported the outdoor Heineken stage canopy; virtuoso multi-reed-playing John Surman with String Quintet; the Johnny Nocturne Band with sultry Kim Nalley on vocals; the Ray Gelato Giants, a powerhouse British band; The Parsons Dance Company's visually arresting "Kind of Blue"; the immaginativeley boppish Ishish Quintet from Australia; trumpet star Dave Douglas' Sextet, with eclectic pianist Uri Caine; the Gil Evans Orchestra, Led by Miles Evans and chock full of solo talent, including trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Conrad Herwig, saxophonist Bob Berg, and pianist Gil Goldstein; and two excellent aggregations of young players, the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble and the Monterey Jazz Festival Honor Band.

One-night-only acts at the 4400-seat outdoor Giardini del Fronte included the Brad Mehldau, Ahmad Jamal, and Keith Jarrett trios; the John Scofield, Gato Barbieri-Enrico Rava, and Courtney Pine bands; the Wayne Shorter Acoustic Quartet; the Diane Reeves Quintet; Marc Ribot & Los Cubanos Postizos; Michel Camilo & Tomatito; Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento; and Paolo Conte's "Razmataz."

No doubt about it, for this long-time observer of the European scene, other jazz festivals there would be hard put to knock Umbria Jazz out of first place.

[This review originally appeared in the October/November 2001 issue of Jazz Ambassadors Magazine(JAM) and is reproduced here with permission. The JAM version contained only the Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gabriella Grossi photos.] copyright © 2001 W. Royal Stokes

W. Royal Stokes is a contributor to the annual Down Beat Critics Poll and author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000).