Bennett and Gaga, Snarky Puppy and The Bad Plus/Joshua Redman top triumphant Umbria Jazz Festival

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Umbria Jazz is a brand and like all brands it’s judged by its success – in this instance success is measured by the size of the audience and the number of tickets purchased. By this yardstick this year was the most successful for a long time – 450,000 visitors and ticket sales of 35,000 (for a €1.5 million income).Glorious weather and a return to more ‘jazz’ programing were the key factors in this year’s huge success. Daily temperatures of around 35 Celsius ensured that all the out door concerts – be it the free shows on the Corso Vannucci or the main ticketed show in the 5,000 capacity Arena Santa Giuliana – were well attended and ran with no interruption.

Not all nights in the main arena were a sell-out by any means – it was the pure jazz nights that had the smallest attendances, which is not actually surprising – but it was heartening to see that Umbria Jazz bosses Carlo Pagnotta and Enzo Capua still view Umbria Jazz as a ‘jazz festival’ and although there were a couple of non jazz nights in the main arena (they of course were the ones that sold out) on the whole Umbria 2015 was a feast of jazz.

The most anticipated show in the main arena was Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga (above) – the show had sold out within weeks of being announced and on the day an extra 1000 standing tickets were sold – most of whom it is a fair bet had come to see Lady Gaga. The pair sang their way through around 26 songs – Bennett’s signature tunes were met with polite applause whilst Lady Gaga’s costume changes were met with howls of approval – and what they lacked in length or quantity were made up with her enthusiasm for the material, she has chosen her songs well and ‘Lush Life’ and her tour de force ‘La Vie en Rose’ were excellent. Bennett played the straight man perfectly – the aging James Bond to Gaga’s Pussy Galore.

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Bennett’s voice may not be at its peak anymore but when he is within his limits, it is as good as ever, ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ was just brilliant. This is a tough show (each singer has their own band on stage) and with such a glamorous companion to keep up with, it is no wonder he needs at least three days between gigs to recover. The Bad Plus/Joshua Redman and Snarky Puppy night was a wonderful night of fantastic music. Joshua Redman has found a real home alongside The Bad Plus – you can see that this collaboration will last for a very long time – Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King are as tight together as cogs in a watch – this enables Redman (above) to be able to play in and out, to construct fierce solos (‘Faith through Error)’) or quiet beautiful melodies (‘The Mending’, ‘People Like you’) – to really extend himself but at the same time fit in with the synchronicity of The Bad Plus.

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Snarky Puppy, on the other hand, just have a great time and it pours off the stage and over the audience like a tidal wave. Led by bassist Michael League (above), who hammers out the grooves and prowls the stage, prodding the other members to take a solo or change the pace. Snarky classics such as ‘Binky’, Flood’, ‘Whitecap’ and ‘Shofukan’ were all high energy and great fun.

Stefano Bollani with Jim Black (drums), Paul Santner (bass) and the excellent Jason Adasiewicz (Vibes) made a great show with, ‘Sheik yer Zappa’, Bollani’s vision of some of Frank’s finest. Starting with a funky ‘Cosmic Debris’ and a great ‘Bobby Brown’, Bollani came into his own on his piano solo work out of ‘Peaches en Regalia’ the showman teasing every note he could from both piano and keyboard, on his knees at times, as if in reverence to the tune. Adasiewicz played his part too using Mallets and bow ‘Lumpy Gravy’, and ‘Uncle Meat’ perfect for his frenetic approach. To top it off Bollani sang a very kitsch solo piano version of ‘I’ve been in you’ complete with appropriate facial expressions – just wonderful!

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Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were in a playful mood and fortunately played for the audience more than for themselves. After two improvised tunes they launched into ‘You’d be so easy to love’ (Cole Porter) followed by a great version of “Cantaloupe Island’ with both players visibly enjoying the workout. Miles Davis ‘Solar’ was next ‘Lineage’ ‘Maiden Voyage’ and ‘Spain’ concluding the set which even included some community singing, led by Corea with both players as much at ease as I have ever seen them.

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Other arena shows included Robert Glasper, Cassandra Wilson, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (sold out), Subsonica (sold out) and the Brand New Heavies and Incognito. The Teatro Morlacchi, a beautiful old theatre with stalls and five tiers of boxes featured three distinct themes of pure jazz. From the establishment came – Charles Lloyd, Brad Mehldau, Bill Frisell, Miguel Zenon, Ravi Coltrane and Dianne Reeves (above).

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There was a series entitled young Jazz featuring – Jacob Bro, Maria Faust, GoGo Penguin, Theo Crocker, Vijay Iyer, Aaron Diehl and a brilliant collaboration between 80 year old drummer Han Bennink (above) and ‘youngsters’ Ben Van Gelder (alto sax) and Reinier Baas (Guitar). Bennink the most unorthodox of drummers, dressed in shorts and hippie head band, sat stage rear, using virtually every part of his body to strike his kit with extreme violence, contrasting so comically and yet with absolute musical perfection with the two young men at the front – smartly dressed and playing it totally straight – you had to be there to fully appreciate this show.

The third element of the Morlacchi shows were the Italians (as you would expect) Enrico Rava, Giovanni Guidi, Danilo Rea, Antonio Farao, Giovanni Tommaso, and the oldest gigging guitarist in the world (according to pianist Dado Moroni) 90 year old Franco Cerri. Umbria is a true feast for the ears – yes, there are some non jazz nights - the night Subsonica played in the arena Perugia was brought to a standstill – there were just so many people the police were having to turn cars away – the Corso Vanucci was so crowded it took about 30 minutes to fight your way through the crowds from one end to the other – a five minute walk usually.

But if it’s jazz you want, and top quality jazz too, then the 10 days of Umbria Jazz has it all. The location is beautiful; food and wine are relatively inexpensive (we found a place with a view of Assisi – where one drink and as much finger food as you could eat cost €7). If the weather is good and the programming is as good as this year, then it will be hard to find a better festival to visit next year.

– Tim Dickeson (report and photos)