Bergamo Jazz Festival, 2024

The 2024 edition of the Italian festival included John Scofield, Bobby Watson, Don Moye, Ernie Watts, Dave Burrell and Salvatore Bonafede

Bergamo Jazz Festival, 2024. Clockwise from top left: John Scofield & Josh Dion; Dave Burrell; Vicente Archer; Bobby Watson; Don Moye. Photos © Rossetti Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, except Burrell by Giorgia Corti

Festival director Joe Lovano offers a brief but theatrical opening to every concert – “In the moment of now” is his mantra. “It’s my great pleasure to introduce some of my best friends in the music,” he adds – and he has lots of friends. They make this probably the most impressive Bergamo line-up I can recall.

John Scofield is a friend. He looks gaunter, but his playing is strong as ever. His fat, plangent sound stood out on Miles Davis’s Decoy, though not all his subsequent work has matched it. The set by his excellent band, Yankee Go Home (Jon Cowherd, Vicente Archer, and Josh Dion), is a curate’s egg. The opener is outstanding, with Cowherd on searing Korg, but his soloing on piano is blander. Joe Lovano joins the band for one piece, finding subtle interplay with Scofield.

Bobby Watson’s cross-generational band is state of the art. The older generation is Victor Jones (drums) – prominent in large, pink-framed shades and pink jacket – and Curtis Lundy (bass). Younger players are Wallace Roney Jr (trumpet) and Jordan Williams (piano). Like Don Moye’s, this band follows the apprenticeship model, though Watson’s seems stricter – Jordan Williams follows instructions. The saxophonist has lived the jazz life, and he’s rotund compared to when I last saw him 40 years ago; he sometimes sits down when not playing. Outstanding performances include In A Sentimental Mood, Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit and Victor Lewis’s Red Bank Heist, a tribute to Count Basie, the Kid from Red Bank. The wonderful encore is, I think, In Case You Missed It, a Watson original from Art Blakey’s Album Of The Year (1981).

Famoudou Don Moye Plays Art Ensemble of Chicago on their 50th anniversary. His band, featuring Moor Mother (voice), Eddy Kwon (violin), Simon Sieger (piano, keyboards), Junius Paul (bass) and Dudù Kouate (voice, percussion) come onstage chanting from the wings, playing tintinnabular percussion. The first piece is accompanied by the chant “Malachi Favors Moghostut”, the original Art Ensemble bassist. Moye’s present bassist Junius Paul is superb, and eventually creates a swing groove with drum, then Sieger plays left-hand on piano, right-hand on Hammond B3. The set comprises short, chamberish pieces, and the result is a delightful mix of jazz and global, with spoken contributions by Moor Mother and Dudù Kouate. Sieger is a true multi-instrumentalist. At breakfast the following morning, I overhear him explaining to Moye about “the only mistake I made [in the gig]”. The apprenticeship system is still thriving.

Jazz players should connect with their audience, but the price of doing so can be poor material … Doky had added jazz chords to make the Oasis song less boring

Ernie Watts’ saxophone sound is one of the most distinctive and gorgeous in jazz. A commercial career in film music and backing The Rolling Stones hasn’t been at the expense of his art, and I’d say he’s still neglected. The concept of his Modern Standards Quartet echoes Herbie Hancock’s A New Standard. Like Wallace Roney Jr in Bobby Watson’s band, bassist Felix Pastorius is son of a famous father. Pianist Niels Lan Doky echoes John Shuttleworth in leather jacket, glasses and slicked-back hair, but his playing is no ironic pastiche. The set opens with Prince’s It’s About That Walk, followed by a Lan Doky original, then Oasis’s Wonderwall. Jazz players should connect with their audience, but the price of doing so can be poor material, as Herbie knew – New Standard was a producer/label concept. Doky had added jazz chords to make the Oasis song less boring, and he switches from acoustic to synth at Fender Rhodes setting. EW Ballad – EW for Ernie Watts – is followed by Chameleon from Headhunters – drummer Harvey Mason was on the 1973 album, and has worked with Watts for many years, commercially and in jazz. Other Teatro Donizetti highlights include Miguel Zenón’s eventful state of the art Latin jazz, and Abdullah Ibrahim’s moving, elegiac solo set.

The atmospheric Teatro Sant’Andrea featured piano recitals including Dave Burrell’s. His style hasn’t changed much since Windward Passages in the 80s – plangent free stride is what caught my attention when I reviewed that beautiful HatHut release. As leader he’s not well-represented by recordings, but has appeared on many fine albums by such as Beaver Harris and David Murray. At Bergamo, the opening piece resolves into a slow blues. My Funny Valentine becomes churning, gut-wrenching free jazz, wringing from the instrument sounds it’s never before made. Over The Rainbow then Summertime – Burrell picks songs even my students should know. The last piece is the new, affecting Just Me And The Moon, a title given by his wife Monika Larsen. Encores are (I think) Joe Lovano’s Until The Moment Was Now, and a stride version of You Go To My Head with Don Pullen-like gestures. Burrell has the weight of Harold Mabern – it’s not a classical-based technique, but to call it “heavy” is misleading. Tall, slow-moving and slow-talking, not a word or gesture wasted in his speaking or playing.

Sicilian maestro Salvatore Bonafede is soft-spoken, a non-hustler – he doesn’t bring copies of his new CD SAL (for serenity and love), or even mention it at the gig. I last saw him at a memorable solo recital at Rome’s Casa del Jazz in 2007, and loved his solo album Dream And Dreams (CAM 2005). His set with beefy tenorist Emanuele Cisi features melodic, groove-based free jazz, looser than freebop. Köln Jarrett is a model – bluesy, gospelish. Conversations With Elvin is an original composition that distils Charlie Parker blues. On My One And Only Love, the duo play the verse; eventually the refrain appears, in a free, rhapsodic interpretation, which Lovano joins on soprano sax. Bonafede’s jazz/classical approach is similar to Pieranunzi’s, and they share a love of Bill Evans – but their styles are wonderfully distinctive.

Vocalist Naïssam Jalal’s Quest Of The Invisible set is reduced through laryngitis – she plays flute, recorder and ney only, with long-time musical partner, bassist Claude Tchamitchian. The room at Academia Carrara is filled with still-life paintings featuring musical instruments. The memento mori theme is apt especially for the haunting Le Temps which, she explains, says that “time is a curse, and a blessing”. It’s an apt theme for a outstanding festival.

Bergamo Jazz Festival, 21-24 March, 2024