Umbria Jazz Festival highlights

Ron Scott | 8/2/2018, 11:38 a.m.
Covering the Umbria Jazz Festival was somewhat of a surreal experience.
Gregory Porter Ron Scott photo

Iyer, who likes extending his playing beyond the traditional jazz barriers was joined by his regular abled sextet that included alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and Graham Haynes on coronet and flugelhorn.

The sextet flirted with tradition before leaping into a free form that encompassed classical phrasing. The music is explosive as a firecracker, always exciting but never harsh on the eardrums. “The title refers to problems in America and other parts of the world,” said Iyer. “The struggle against racism and fascism is ‘Far From Over,’ the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and equality is ‘Far From Over.’”

David Byrne was a big deal at the festival. He was one of the artists most were looking forward to seeing, which made sense because he is a creative innovator. He is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, record producer, actor and writer whose music covers categories from new wave, post-punk and worldbeat.

Before his introduction—David Byrne “American Utopia”—the stage was bare, no piano, drum set-up, bass, nothing. His 11-piece ensemble hit the stage, all wearing gray three-bottoned suits like Byrne.

The concert became a jump-up dance party when Byrne demanded security to stop harassing people, who were trying to dance: “If you stop them from dancing, the concert is over.” Nuff said!

The musicians Aaron Johnston on bass drum-snare/hi-hat and Daniel Freedman on bass-snare/hi-hat had their instruments strapped to them, allowing the entire ensemble an opportunity to take up the entire stage, marching and falling into some creative choreographic moves. Having the musicians carry their instruments while opening the stage up for various modes of creativity is genius.

Byrne asked Janelle Monae’s permission to use her song “Say My Name.” Accompanied by a strong marching beat, they called out the names of African-American men and women who have been victims of violence, interspersed with chants of “Say his/her name.” Among those are recent victims of police brutality, including Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Kimani Gray, Michael Brown and Miriam Carey. Emmett Till was also included.  

The ensemble was a real force and guitarist Angie Swan was outrageous.

The singer/songwriter Somi introduced the audience of Perugia to Harlem as she sang such songs as “Like Dakar,” a ballad of displacement through gentrification, something that happens in Harlem as well as in Africa. The song “Alien” refers to immigration. Somi is a storyteller with an activist perception in the tradition of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba (who shares her African roots). These songs were from her latest CD “Petite Afrique” (Sony Music).

The Not A What quintet that featured pianist Giovanni Guidi, trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, saxophonist Aaron Burnett, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joe Dyson. This young quintet played with the intensity of a roaring bullet train on “Straight Life” and eased into the station for their encore, “My Funny Valentine.” The musicians met 12 days before the gig and rehearsed all of three hours. Despite their brief collaboration, the performance was effortless.

Kurt Elling’s distinctive vocal instrument, that tenor intonation and phrasing, sets him apart from other males in the jazz pool. His choice of material is usually off the beaten path, such as his rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “I Have Dreamed” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” all from his latest release “The Questions” (Sony Music). For this live outing, Elling featured a fellow Chicagoan, the trumpeter Marquis Hill. “He’s a natural fit,” said Elling. His encore was an a capella “I Remember Jon Hendrix” with Hill.