Piano stars, Shorter, Cullum, Collier and more light up Umbria Jazz 2017

Umbria Jazz is one of the largest festivals in Italy attracting visitors from all over the world for its 10-day programme. Tens of thousands flock daily to the hilltop town of Perugia for a feast of music that lasts from midday until the wee small hours of the morning. The main event happens in the Arena Santa Giuliana, a large 4,000 capacity stadium and also at the beautiful Teatro Morlacchi in the centre of the old town. The theatre shows are at 5pm and midnight and it is at these that the real magic of Umbria Jazz happens.

Carlo Pagnotta, the founder and artistic director of Umbria Jazz, is a lover of piano jazz – for him the more the better. So this year he programed a wide range of it from leading players in a series of duos such as Hiromi & Edmar Castaneda, Stefano Bollani & Egberto Gismonti, Chucho Valdes & Gonzalo Rubalcaba (below) and a brilliant concert featuring two pianos and five pianists with Kenny Barron, Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, Eric Reed and Dado Moroni all playing Monk classics. The pianists played solo or in duos, sometimes swapping over half way through a tune, for a really memorable experience that gave a new slant on familiar material.

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Umbria strives to remain a 'jazz' festival but has always included pop and rock artists (to help pay for some of the free music that fills the streets during festival time), and this year the electronic pioneers Kraftwerk (below) brought their 3D audio-visual show, and Brian Wilson appeared play his classic 'Pet Sounds' repertoire.

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Both were well attended – Kraftwerk were extremely slick although typically a little mechanical – and musically not the most challenging but visually stunning. Brian Wilson (with Al Jardine from the original Beach Boys Band) was a mixed bag – Wilson himself obviously not in his prime, but Jardine still carried off the songs from 50 years ago (and more), with the band, including Jardine's son, fabulous as they ran through a non-stop stream of classic hits.

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The UK was well represented by Jamie Cullum (above, in the arena) and Jacob Collier (below, in the theatre). Cullum's show (one of the better attended in the arena) went down a storm – his boundless energy and enthusiasm keeping the crowd on their feet singing and dancing till way past midnight, he was brought back for encore after encore.

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Jacob Collier (who also played her last year) has grown in stature and stage craft very quickly – his show last year was over-sold leaving fans standing outside the theatre waiting for returns – but this year in the larger theatre everyone got in. The packed auditorium was full to the roof and Collier did not disappoint – his manic style and audience sing-along's left him and the crowd ecstatic but exhausted at around 2am.

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There was also a 12noon series of very interesting concerts in the National Museum of Umbria. Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash played three times – their show billed as a 'Duologue' and that it was – the brilliant understanding and connection between them creating some wonderful moments. Similarly, the duos between Emile Parisien/Vincent Peirani and Gabriele Mirabassi/Roberto Taufic were terrific. But the best was saved for last with the Linda Oh Quartet (above), who played on the last day. Bassist Oh is best known for her role in the Dave Douglas Quintet (and for her stellar work with Pat Metheny's acoustic quartet) is a great composer and her band featuring Ben Wendel (tenor saxophone) Matthew Stevens (guitar) and Rudy Royston (drums) create wonderful soundscapes, with Wendel the stand-out soloist.

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Other highlights from this year's festival were the Tomasz Stańko Quintet with Enrico Rava (above), two masters who play so well together; a great gig from Riccardo Fassi with his Taniko band featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock, playing the music of Frank Zappa. Wayne Shorter played two sets in the arena – one with his quartet (Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade) and then with the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia conducted by Clark Rundell – the first half vintage Shorter but the second rather long and meandering with the orchestra overpowering.

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Ladies night featured Dee Dee Bridgewater (above) doing her Memphis album with an opening set from Ladies! featuring Renee Rosnes (piano), Anat Cohen (clarinet) Melisa Aldana (sax), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Noriko Ueda (bass), Allison Miller (drums) and Cécile McLorin Salvant on vocals (pictured below). It was this band that that stole the night. McLorin Salvant is emerging as one of the best female vocalists around. Her range and tone are superb and she's certainly on course to become one of the jazz greats.

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Umbria is a big festival and Perugia itself a wonderful city to host such a prestigious event, however numbers at the arena shows this year were thin to say the least (especially the pure jazz nights). The main arena now seems to be too big for the size of audience the artists are attracting and an alternative slightly smaller one is going to be difficult to find. It begs the question that without a radical change in the way either the festival is financed (with more input from the sponsors) or in the way that the festival is produced (a dilution of jazz and more pop and rock acts) that the long-term future of this great festival in its present form is unsure.

– Story and Photos by Tim Dickeson

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