Jazz Festival 2019 turns Umbria into a dream state — full of love, longing

‘I will keep doing what I do’ Kenny Barron tells me. ‘After so many years, at this age, I can’t learn anything else, so I will continue to play, and play…’’

We are sitting outside the famous Brufani Hotel, overlooking the beautiful landscape of Umbria down below. It’s a breezy, pleasant afternoon, excellent time to relax. Barron needs that: he has just finished a dazzling set of solo performance in one of Perugia’s marvellous palaces, enjoying himself, in full concrentration — so typical of him at work — over Steinway, for which he was full of praise afterwards.

76 years old, he’s been counted now amongst the grand old men of jazz, with a journey that encompasses nearly six decades and hundreds of recordings, and a style which distinguishes him as a master of the instrument, with an impeccable technique, touch and profound sensitivity. There are very few who has command over the lyrical language that Barron represents.

He smiles and thanks humbly when I tell him that every improvisation I heard from him — be that solo or with masters like Stan Getz (he was an inseparable part of his group in nearly five years)- is pure poetry. We speak a lot about the past, and memories with monuments such as Coltrane, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones — and many others- before I leave him alone at the table, in reflection, about, perhaps, a new composition.

George Benson presents his new album dedicated to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry

Barron is one of the giants — hundreds of musicians — who visit and spread their sounds in Umbria Jazz Festival this summer. Although there are more than a dozen similar — some of them large scale- events, for many of them Perugia, has a special place in their minds and hearts.

The city center of the old town is one of the most mesmerizing in Italy, a fantastic setting for the sense of freedom and awareness Jazz as a genre represents.

It is also one of the most welcoming social environment, where people cherish these musicians deeply, never ceasing to astonish them when on stage by their enthusiasm and keen intuition to hum along, not missing a single note. Whatever sub-genre jazz represents, it seems to find a welcome here, turning Perugia into a hub each year this 10-days long event takes place.

Yes, there are other major events, extending across France up north trough Switzerland, Holland to Scandinavia.

But this time I could not help but notice that, in terms of scope, gusto, and versatility, Umbria Jazz passed by a long time ago, for example, Montreux or North Sea, becoming ‘primus inter pares’ among the jazz festivals of the continent.

It definitely bears the crown, especially when one considers that the genuine figures of jazz have had less and less place in many of them, with rock or pop invading, due to commercial concerns.

This one has always had, thanks to its director , Carlo Pagnotta, a consistent line in keeping the jazz as we know it in its backbone. It gives priority to improvisation and innovation; keeping a fine balance between what the audience wants and actually needs.

This year’s excellent booklet — meticulously prepared, with every relevant detail included — is telling enough. Nearly 290 events — excluding the spontaneous street performances, such as that of the excellent flute player Michela Calabrese and many others—in twelve locations, mostly free, make the festival unmissable.

Bobby Broom’s Organ-isation is a powerhouse of improvisation — pure jazz.

This year I had missed the gig of the first night, with one of the masters of blues and jazz guitar, Robben Ford, was playing with his band. Yet, I knew what to pay attention to from second day on: To listen to Bobby Broom, one genuine master of guitar, who belongs to those underrated.

It’s been ages I had seen him; it was when he toured with a band named E.S.P. during the 1980’s, and when I heard his sound in a concert in Stockholm, I had a clear sense that there was a committed artist to the spirit of jazz, no matter what. True to what I then thought, three decades later, Broom was deep into his style — reminiscent of Grant Green — with his organ trio, which features two excellent musicians Koby Watkins on drums and Ben Patterson on organ. There, during the festival theygave, almost every night, an unmistakable taste of pure dedication to the art of improvisation.

The rest of the festival has been a rich palate of sounds and notes. What’s noteworthy, in passing, that the inclusion of Nick Mason’s project on The Saucerful of Secrets — with full of memories of Syd Barrett — and the King Crimson in two consecutive nights of Umbia Jazz was a reminder for the audience that this was a year of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. And one shouldn’t forget the connnections Robert Fripp, the founding father of the King Crimson, to Jazz, at a time the rock was bent on simplifications.

On various stages, in time of writing these lines, there goes on a parade of jazz musicians, alone or together. Impressive has been the arch created by the festival organizers to open a medieval hall at the National Gallery of Umbria, for master improvisers to show their skills solo. Barron was a curtain raiser, playing the standards mostly — to be followed by other piano virtuosos — Joachim Kühn, Benny Green, and the bass colossus, John Patitucci, until the weekend where it all ends.

Richard Bona’s ‘Bona de la Frontera’, with guitar maestro Antonio Rey, melting Africa and Flamenco into one pot, mesmerized the crowd at Arena Santa Giuliana

On the main stage, where you hear the major sound, the programmes have been impressive: We heard the unmissable vocalist Allan Harris with his band, Diana Krall backed by Robert Hurst and Joe Lovano. We witnessed Michel Camilo, on a solo flight, almost destroying the Steinway piano with his sharp chops, we saw the joy of dancing of the crowd when George Benson with a band working like a clockwork around his guitar.

The crowning moment, so far, deep half way into the festival, was the night that placed Spain in focus. If Chick Corea with his Spanish Heart Band left the audience at awe with how vitale this 78-year old genius still is, it was simply mesmerizing — under the parial lunar eclipse — listening to Richard Bona with his Spanşsh friends from Andalucia.

It was pure magic, a musical miracle that took place, with the young flamenco maestro Antonio Rey on guitar, Maya Rey on vocals, Thomas Potiron on violin, Francesco Jimenez on perscussion and Pedro Higueras tap-dancing.

This would be the one to be remembered from Umbria Jazz 2019, but, as I wrote, this is only half way into it. We heard, too, Ralph Peterson, Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce, Antonio Wonsey and Curtis Lundy playing the music of their late guide and boss, Art Blakey. We heard Terence Blanchard and Stefano Di Battista and a young Marquis Hill. But still to come are Charles Lloyd, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, Peter Erskine, Eddie Gomez, Dado Moroni and many others.

‘’I love this town’’ told Kenny Barron, to a small, fortunate crowd ready to listen to him. He is not alone. Each year, jazz musicians gather here to get inspired, and share their grand imagination.

As I was listening to Bona and his friends, Jorge Pardo appeared at my side. He had just finished his concert with Chick Corea, sharing all his heart through saxophone and flute. Watching Bona and Rey in duet, we found us small-chatting about Istanbul, my hometown, and our longing for great music nights there, once upon a time, during Istanbul Jazz Festival.

The world is changed to negative, we agreed instantly. ‘’There is so much bad stuff, madness everywhere around us now’’ Pardo, this wonderfully soft-mannered man, whispered into my ear.

‘’But we, we the musicians are the only ones who tell the truth and value of beauty, in a time, fighting evil. We will get back to who we really are, human beings…’’

I couldn’ agree more.

Observations, impressions, opinions: @yavuzbaydar4. Editor -@ahval_tr, ahval_en. Contributes: @ArabWeekly, @SvDKultur, @el_pais. https://yavuzbaydar.com/