Review: Umbria Jazz Festival

Despite arriving five days into the event Bob Weir still found plenty to entice in Perugia, including Vijay Iyer, the Mingus Big Band and Gregory Porter

Arriving five days into the Umbria Jazz Festival, in Perugia, I missed Paolo Fresu, Roy Hargrove, Kurt Elling, the Quincy Jones 85th birthday celebration with a host of guests, and an assortment of Brazilians. No matter, there was plenty of enticing music to come.

Perugia needed careful consideration of what to see because there was much overlapping with two and sometimes three appealing events at the same time. Music was everywhere in this historic hilltop city; in the large arena, the National Art Gallery, the beautiful old theatre, two large open-air stages, in restaurants with lunch, dinner and late jam sessions and from buskers and parades on the streets. The midday sessions in the Art Gallery were a welcome innovation since I was last there four years ago. Piano recitals by Ethan Iverson (ex-The Bad Plus) and Danilo Rea were relaxed and intimate. The accordion duo of the Francesco's Ponticelli and Diodati was more excitable and eccentric and great fun.

The Teatro Morlacchi was the place for the festival's best jazz groups. I greatly enjoyed the Billy Hart Quartet with Joshua Redman, Igor Butman & Moscow Jazz Orchestra featuring a future star in pianist and singer Oleg Akkuratov, a classy US-Italian quartet jointly led by Fabrizio Bosso (t) and Giovanni Guidi (p) and the Vijay Iyer Sextet (even better - more relaxed and expansive - than when I saw them a few days earlier in Warsaw) (Iyer pictured above by Tim Dickeson). Best of all were the freewheeling Mingus Big Band's brilliant interpretations of the late bassist's famous compositions. Fables Of Faubus with a thrilling extended alto sax solo by Alex Terrier (pictured left at the mic by Tim Dickeson) was possibly the outstanding performance of the festival.

The two town stages presented a great variety of music every afternoon and evening. There were local student groups, American college bands and several appearances by Rockin' Dopsie and a talented young Sicilian trio, Snips, fronted by a future star of jazz and blues guitar, Matteo Mancuso. The Funk Off marching band paraded the main thoroughfare each day to considerable popular acclaim. Clarinettist Anat Cohen entertained often for dinner and supper jazz in an always crowded restaurant. Late jam sessions by a good Italian group and guests were similarly packed every night. La Feltrinelli bookshop had launches for a fine book on jazz in Puglia by Italian journalist Ugo Sbisa and the story behind the new Impulse CD, Both Directions At Once, by John Coltrane expert, discographer and collector Yasuhiro "Fuji" Fujioka, who played an important part in the discovery and release of the "lost" tape. 

I avoided the main arena for several pop, rock and quasi-soul performers but there were two double bills of genuine jazz appeal. The bands of Kyle Eastwood and Pat Metheny were paired for an enjoyable concert. Both bands included Brits (notably the pianists Andrew McCormack with Kyle and Gwilym Simcock with Pat) and the leaders seemed inspired by their younger colleagues.

The festival ended in style with two of the biggest jazz vocal stars. Melody Gardot was accompanied by a string quartet and rhythm section for a rather low-key performance of originals in French chanson style. This contrasted agreeably with the 100-piece orchestra (directed by Vince Mendoza, pictured right) that supported Gregory Porter singing his Nat King Cole favourites. A rousing and altogether joyous conclusion to what is still one of the world's best jazz festivals.

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