The Jazz.com Blog
July 16, 2008 · 0 comments
Below is Ted Panken's second dispatch from the Perugia, Italy, where he takes time out from the vino rosso and musica fantastica to send us this update on the Umbria Jazz Festival. He reports on some memorable guitar music, as well as a performance by Cassandra Wilson. For Panken’s first dispatch from Umbria, click here.T.G.
Every day at 12:30 and 7:15 in the dining room of the Sangello Hotel, a four-star facility with all the modern amenities, located atop Perugia’s formidable city wall constructed around 1300 (give or take a century), the members of the Coolbone Brass Band, Rockin’ Dopsie’s zydeco band, The Good Fellas (Gangsters of Swing), and singer-songwriter-guitarist K.J. Denhert’s band, join an assortment of press junketers and journeyman tourists to dine from a buffet table. The spread is set up, as my wife noted, the way her relatives did it in Sicily when she was a teenager. There is a soup, a roast (usually pork); a prepared dish of chicken and/or fish; a pasta with a different sauce each day; grilled vegetables; roasted peppers in olive oil; beets, artichokes, and eggplant in olive oil; plates of such salumeria meats as brasiole and mortadella; a selection of cheeses with cantaloupe; a three-tiered server containing apricots, peaches, pears and plums, next to a plate of watermelon; a custard; and bottles of vino rosso, vino bianco, and aqua minerale, either naturale or frizzante. Intriguingly, the coffee and cappucino is instant Nescafe.
Food is food and music is music, but one so inclined might analogize the contrasts contained within this daily feast to the assortment of musical flavors presented during nights two, three and four of the 35th annual Umbria Jazz Festival.
For example, the organizers decided to turn Teatro Pavone—the older (1740) of the two tiered theaters deployed for mid-size concerts (it was originally the theater of the nobility; the ceiling looks like a giant sunflower)—into guitar-lover heaven by booking Pat Martino and Bill Frisell at different times. No jazz lover needs to be told that both are virtuosos with diametrically opposite approaches to their instrument, but it is another thing to hear it in such an acoustically pristine environment.
On Monday, Martino, jockey-thin, dressed in a white shirt, black vest, and black pants, led his quartet, which includes the first-class pianist Ricky Germanson, through seven tunes. Barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of jaw-droppingly high-degree-of-difficulty solos, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody, and an enviable sense of form. He didn’t announce titles, but the first five tunes—two of them based on “Impressions,” John Coltrane’s “So What” variant that was a favorite of Wes Montgomery, Martino’s early hero—sounded like originals. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; you’d have to hear him again to determine whether the solos are setpieces or spontaneous inventions. No such questions obtained for “Round Midnight” and “Oleo,” on which Martino cracked the smallest smile as he wove a rich harmonic web. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
While Martino’s band is there for support and interpolation, Frisell—who is seemingly able to call up guitaristic vocabulary from Hendrix to Mali at a moment’s notice with his fingers and pedals—goes for the equilateral triangle effect, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson. The repertoire comprises songs and decisive melodies, spanning vernacular pop—Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” Hendrix’ “Band of Gypsies,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “You Are My Sunshine”—to hardcore jazz—Monk’s “Misterioso, “Skippy” and “Jackie-ing,” Lee Konitz’ “Subconscious-Lee,” a variant on the Charlie Christian solo on “Benny’s Bugle.” The band displays implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines, creating musical flow from the environment the way the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 13th and 18th centuries conjured their images and structures in response to the tones of Perugia’s sky and the planes of its topography.
That guitarist Marvin Sewell, Cassandra Wilson’s musical director, belongs in the same conversation with the aforementioned maestros, was abundantly clear throughout Wilson’s Monday night performance at Santa Giuliana Arena. Wilson is touring Europe in support of her strong new Blue Note date, Loverly, with all her cohorts from the record—Sewell on guitar; Herlin Riley on drumset; Lekan Babaola, out of Nigeria, on percussion and handrums; and Reginald Veal on bass—excepting pianist Jason Moran, replaced this summer by 21-year-old New Orleans-born pianist-keyboardist Jonathan Batiste. Wilson is the voice and the star, but, whether the repertoire is blues (“St. James Infirmary,” “Dust My Broom”), pop (“Wichita Lineman”), or the songbook (“A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Them There Eyes,” “Till There Was You”), she functions as one of the band. The vocalist weaves in and out of her extraordinarily tight, creative unit, driven by the drummers and Veal, who function interchangeably as an interlocking Afro-Gulf Coast coro and a swing rhythm section, and by the creative soloing of South Side Chicago native Sewell on acoustic and two different electric guitars, and Batiste, who seems to have liberated his imagination on this tour, as evidenced by his investigations on the piano strings as well as his strong New Orleans to the future pianism.