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Review: Umbria Jazz Festival

By Mike Zwerin

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 month.

The Keith 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..

Jarrett's 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" together.)

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.

One night 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.

These 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 plugged in.

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.

Disappointments 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.

Outdoors, free of charge all day long, there were marching bands in the streets and blues, rock, gospel and choir groups on the squares.

A 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.

The ensemble went out of its way to risk chaos nightly, true to Evans's conviction that "insecurity is the fountain of youth."

Mike 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.

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