On July 5, octogenarian “saxophone colossus” Sonny Rollins (pictured above) received the Baiocco d’oro—a golden penny—from the Commune of Perugia, capital of the Umbria region in Italy and home of the 39th annual Umbria Jazz Festival, which runs through this Sunday.
The festival’s resident New Orleans-style parade band—a 16-piece unit called Funk Off—had already marched the length of the Corso Venucci playing the infectious “St. Thomas,” Rollins’s mid-’50s composition (which remains his best known). As they did so, they gathered an accumulating crowd that spilled behind the musicians as they strode, horns still blaring, into the Sala dei Notari, the vividly illustrated 13th-century structure that still serves as Perugia’s City Hall.
After another chorus or two, Rollins emerged from a side door, helped down the stairs by festival officials and over to the dais, where the mayor presented him with a proclamation. Rollins offered four words of thanks in Italian, which sent the crowd into estasi. He also received the small but precious gift of ancient Umbrian money—literally, the coin of the realm.
That rather formal phrase certainly befits Rollins, an undisputed member of jazz’s royal lineage. Also, in a country where inflation of the lire once ran rampant—and which even under the euro is in severe economic straits—there’s no money like the old money.
Not that you would have an inkling of all this from the crowds packed cheek-to-jowl along the Corso, the main (and pedestrian-only) concourse, which serves as summertime Party Central in this hilltop city. Even after the last concert on the Corso has ended at midnight, and even mid-week, the plazas overflow with thousands of high-styled young adults. As late as 2 in the morning, one still needs to juke and deke with the NFL’s best in order to make any headway.
On Wednesday night, many of them may have headed to the Corso after hearing Erykah Badu at the main arena, which was tightly packed for her highly stylized concert. But that was the exception. Previous nights’ concerts — by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding and the supergroup Spectrum Road (with rock legend Jack Bruce on bass and the jam-band hero John Medeski on keys) — have drawn disappointing crowds.
Veteran festival-goers suspect several reasons for this. First (and most obviously), Italy is economically depressed to a desperate degree; the Corso is packed for the festival’s free events, but few of those in attendance are spending 55 euros ($67) for the big-name performers, or even the 23 euros ($28) charged to sit in the small grandstand.
Yet another reason may be a degree of “headliner fatigue” among Italian festival-goers. Some of these artists, such as Rollins and Hancock, have appeared at Umbria multiple times in the last five years. So have several of the groups performing daily at the free outdoor stages. And familiarity, while not breeding contempt, may nonetheless have fostered some apathy — even for brilliant musicianship — among those strapped for cash.
Several of the big-name concerts have also proved unsatisfying from an aesthetic standpoint. Hancock’s group offered a mixed bag of electronics and lovely acoustic-piano work — all of it dreadfully overamplified, resulting in slapback echoes and a muddy mix. The resultant sonic image did no favors for the busy rhythm section (bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence, Jr.) and just about overwhelmed guitarist Lionel Loueke’s contributions as well.
Sound problems have characterized many of the sets at the Arena Santa Giuliana, site of the main stage. In Spalding’s group, the horns disappeared under the rock-volume barrage of the drums. The sound for Spectrum Road — which honors the short-lived but ferocious Tony Williams Lifetime of the early ’70s — was just a hot mess, loud and also muddy. (Not that it would have mattered. Despite the presence of guitar avatar Vernon Reid and the terrific drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, the music stalled more than it snarled and postured where it should have preached, raising the question of how these four top-notch artists could have ended up with something so unpalatable.)
Since these groups have all brought their own sound engineers, one can only assume that the arena provides especially tricky acoustical problems which prove insoluble in the course of a single concert.
Yet two performances managed to make the arena sound comfortable and almost intimate. The first, from the Hollowbody Band of guitarist John Scofield (no stranger to amplified volume), created a strong bond between the leader and another highly respected guitarist, Kurt Rosenwinkel. And the set from the new Sound Prints quintet, co-led by saxist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas (both at the top of their game) stands among the best shows I’ve heard anywhere this year. (The band will tour the States this fall, and we can only hope they find their way to the Jazz Showcase sometime in October.)
In Sound Prints, the leaders have delved into the 1960s music of the prolific Wayne Shorter, much of it composed and recorded in the context of Miles Davis’ mid-’60s quintet. But none of Shorter’s pieces were on the program. Instead, on a series of all-new pieces inspired by Shorter’s singular artistic presence, the band conjured up fleeting images of the period without latching onto any of them. (Shorter is said to be collaborating with Lovano and Douglas on some new songs for this band.)
Another revelation this week has come in the form of a small band with a big sound, the Pedrito Martinez Group, led by the eponymous Cuban percussionist and including just a pianist, bassist and second percussionist. “Just a pianist,” however, barely describes Araicne Trujillo, who also sings; her classically honed, encyclopedic command of the keyboard fills this quartet with enough melody and harmony for a small orchestra.
Martinez himself begs heroic comparisons, not simply for his blistering technique, but especially for his ability to integrate, in his technique, rhythms that would normally be played by two or three percussionists wielding congas, bongos, scrapers and the three-headed batá drums. Martinez’s group has drawn raves in New York. Performing twice each day at Umbria, he may wind up with as many fans here as he has at home. —Neil Tesser
Photo credit: John Abbott