PERUGIA, ITALY, 2 August
2001 - For an art form that is supposed to be either stuck, going
out of style or becoming fused beyond recognition - and which we are
told represents only 2% (and shrinking) of the market - there seems to
be a lot of life left. At least judging from the more than 200,000
people who heard a lot of good music at the Umbria Jazz Festival last
Jarrett Standards Trio pulled an overflowing crowd of 4,400
fans, at an average of $75 a ticket, in the Giardini del Frontone on a
Friday night. If there were such a thing as "the best," the
Jarrett trio might very well be it.
That it was acclaimed by
an audience of, say, 10 percent the size of a rock concert's, was
already a happy surprise in relation to that infamous 2 percent. In
addition they get points for sophistication. Given all the good faces
cheering such good music, well, all bets were off..
rare combination of melody, romanticism and modernity appeals
particularly to Italians. And to begin with, remember, he plays
recognizable standards, no matter how abstractly. With their
combination of finesse and playfulness, the empathy between him and
long-time associates Gary Peacock, bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette
provokes an innocent spiritual exchange. (They really do "play"
After the intermission, Jarrett announced very
slowly, with great condescension: "No - flash - cam-eras. Nicht -
Nein - Nyet - Non" - as though he were speaking to an assembly of
dunces of who cared what nationality. This was followed by a ripple of
jeering. Then he sat down at the keyboard and played such a lovely,
soul- searching version of "Out Of Nowhere" that there were
cheers once more. Jarrett is famous for invoking the enigma of an
insensitive person playing sensitive music.
earlier, the Gardens had been almost as full for the piano trios of
Brad Mehldau and Ahmad Jamal, which split the bill. Neither better nor
worse than Jarrett - this is not Wimbledon, there is no champion -
just different, they were all at the height of their art.
three fine trios on successive evenings underlined the fact that the
good old pianoforte is probably the most cutting-edge improvising
instrument of the day. The clarity of the sound, loud enough to reach
the back of the garden 100 meters away, was unreal. It was as though
the acoustic instruments were somehow amplified without needing to be
It is always a surprise to be reminded how local
most "international" jazz festivals are. The musicians may
be multicultural, but the public tends to hail from only as far away
as the nearest big city. South of the Alps and thus off main-stem
touring circuits, Perugia is more local than most. This magical
Renaissance city two hours north of Rome in the hills of Umbria is not
a major population center. The Festival pretty much takes over the
place for ten days, though it is at the same time a university town.
For such a sophisticated mix, very few in the passing parade were
bilingual. Neither English nor French would get you through the day.
One wonders about the quality of Italian foreign- language teaching.
But jazz teaching appears to be flourishing - or in any case the
genes are. Italy is currently producing some of the most interesting
players in Europe. Here, they were the pianists Enrico Pieranunzi and
Stefano Bollani, the saxophonist Stefano di Battista and, most of all,
the trumpet duo of Paolo Fresu and Enrico Rava, who was awarded the
prestigious Danish Jazzpar Prize for 2002.
Something of a
folk hero, Chet Baker
lived in Italy and learned to speak the language while serving time in
prison in Lucca for drugs, and you can sense his funky spirit hovering
over many Italian trumpeters.
In the afternoons, there was
an "Australian stage" in the recently restored Oratorio
Santa Cecilia . Coming from a faraway country with a small, mostly
white, population, their authenticity was impressive. Particularly
alto-saxophonist Bernie McGann. On the surface it might seem that
McGann is derivative of Ornette Coleman, although he is pure and deep
enough to have played something like that anyway.
included Gato ("Last Tango in Paris") Barbieri, who did not
go out of his way to say anything of interest. The quartet of the star
guitarist John Scofield
plays mostly for dancing on the U.S. jam band circuit these days, and
it was not interesting enough for such an enlightened public sitting
down and listening too hard for Scofield's own good.
free of charge all day long, there were marching bands in the streets
and blues, rock, gospel and choir groups on the squares.
weeklong series of midnight concerts by the exciting Gil Evans
memorial big band was directed by the composer's son Miles in the
historic Teatro Pavone and featured such major soloists as Bob Berg,
Gil Goldstein, Lew Soloff and Hiram Bullock.
went out of its way to risk chaos nightly, true to Evans's conviction
that "insecurity is the fountain of youth."
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of
several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.