Festival Round-up: European Jazz Expo 2011 in Cagliari

EUROPEAN JAZZ EXPO, PARCO MONTE CLARO, CAGLIARI, SARDINIA, MAY 26-29, 2011 (Photo credit above: Agostino Mela)


Rita Marcotulli‘s trio (photo below) with Gianluca Biondini and Javier Girotto, and the perfect sunset which greeted Marcotulli’s Premio EJE
Tigran Hamsayan with Jeff Ballard– Big names of Italian jazz Stefano Bollani, Stefano di BattistaMaria Pia de Vito for vocal versatility
– And an easily overlooked unsung hero: pianist Max Tempia
– And the Brits: ex-Glaswegian Nick the Nightfly, Filomena Campus Quartet, Ray Gelato – The see breeze in Cagliari, always there in the collective memory of Sardinians, and in reality
– A great gig to end: Enzo Pietropaoli Quartet– A large good-natured crowd in a city park
– At 25 Euros for 50 gigs, over four days, astonishingly good value
Rita Marcotulli. Photo credit: Agostino Mela.

One of the very first things which the visitor to Cagliari notices is the cooling breeze from the sea. The locals talk a lot about it. Cagliari is an historic seaport, the wind, which is an integral part of that history, made several appearances, during the festival, both welcome and unwelcome. The wind has its rights in Cagliari: afrer all, it was here first.

It made its first scheduled appearance in the title of the opening concert. “Il colore el Maestrale,” was a festival commission given by guitarist/composer Mauro Palmas and an orchestra is a special re-working of material from Palmas’ 2011 album. For Palmas this wind, the “Maestrale” or Mistral, originating in North Africa, is a “vehicle for memories.” Palmas in his notes talks about not hiding behind the harbour wall, but allowing the wind to bring back strong recollections from a career in music. On this occasion, the music was accompanied by back-projected images. In the first movements the beauty and the colours of the landscape brought folky melodies. There were other themes invoked, such as the taming of the interior, using footage of quarrying, but the main direction of the music was to inspire emotions and a sense of place, and one Sardinian exile told me it had indeed struck a strong emotional resonance in her.

For me it was the appearance of veteran launeddas player Luigi Lai which stole the show. The launeddas is a traditional wind instrument sounding like bagpipes but reliant on human breath and on circular brathing technique. Lai is a powerfully rhythmic player, the band members were swaying and moving in rhythm, the audience cheered him to the echo. The presence of a musician like Lai typifies the fierce pride which Sardinians have for the island, its history and its folk tradition. To travel to a European jazz festival like EJE Cagliari is to witness a community showing itself at its most characterful and best.


A lovely moment occurred in the Piccola Arena. Sardinian singer Elena Ledda and italian pianist Rita Marcotulli were being presented with their joint award the Premio EJE, the festival’s main prize. I turned round and my eyes caught the evening sky. While a speaker was paying tribute to one of the guiding spirits behind the original “Jazz in Sardegna” festivals of the 1980’s, Alberto Rodriguez, the sky spoke too. Perhaps the ultimate sitter-in at a jazz gig is the deep red of a perfect Cagliari sunset.

There was another connection with nature and history to be made at that moment. Sardinian sculptor Pinuccio Sciola who works with Sardinian basalt rock, has been a friend of the festivl since the early days and has made the awards given to the artist of the year every year. He once welcomed Don Cherry and Sun Ra in the early days to be his houseguests, and to show them around his “stone garden.” Cherry, apparently returned the compliment and played for the sculptures and the doves. Sciola was also honoured at this concert as the “Symbolic godfather” of the festival.

I caught the first half of Ledda and Marcotulli’s performance. “I silenzio delle donne” was a fesitval commission in which the pianist and singer worked with three dancers – Monica Casadei, also responsible for the choreography, Gloria Dorliguzzo and Sara Muccioli. What stays in the mind is Ledda’s warm and characterful voice, Marcotulli’s wonderfully supportive and piano playing, and above all a beautiful sense of structure and line in each song, which gave shape to the dancers movements, entrances and exits.

Entry to the festival was completely free on Friday, and this was the day when a colourful arrangement of childrens’ play equipment received the happy attentions of crowds of youngsters. As the evening proceeded, and the teenagers came in to the park in droves, a British visitor could not fail to be impressed at how good-humoured it all was. I could see no alcohol-fuelled anger whatsoever.
Gianluca Pellerito. Photo credit: Agostino Mela.

Another highlight of the Friday was the appearance of seventeen year-old drummer Gianluca Pellerito. Pellerito, I was told, had been brought to a Berklee jazz school audition panel in Perugia at the age of eight, and had already captured the panel’s attention. He has since been remarked on by Peter Erskine, and studied with him, and goes regularly to the US. Though never outgunned musically, he looked physically slight in the company of far older players. The group led by American saxophonist Michael Rosen powered through funk-oriented versions of Chick Corea’s Spain and “Take Five.” Pellerito will surely in time get to discover and hang out with players of his own generation.

I also caught, briefly an energetic young Mallorcan band . The Balearic islands have historic ties to Sardinia, and to see such associations renewed through a significant Mallorcan presence at a jazz festival was a heartening sight.

As the evening progressed and darknss descended , the action moved over to the main stage, the Arena, for two shows with strong British connections:

Nick the Nightfly is an Italian phenomenon. Nick – it is his stage name – hails originally from Glasgow. Through his artistic stewardship of the Blue Note in Milan, and especially through a popular jazz show on Radio Mote Carlo, he is a highly popular figure in Italian jazz. He sang the lively self-penned songs from his 2010 album “Nice One,” had a large crowd dancing and cheering enthusiastically.

Kai Hoffman and Ray Gelato. Photo credit: Marco Floris 
Another musician who knows how to energize a crowd is Ray Gelato. His band of top flight UK musicians such as Alex Garnett on tenor sax and Seb de Krom on drums and characterful singer Kai Hoffman took over from Nick the Nightfly with scarcely a pause, and got a great lively reaction from an enthusiastic young Italian audience.
This crowd, mainly of teenagers, grew massively after nightfall, but the whole atmosphere was relaxed, unthreatening good-natured.

On Saturday the wind made a brief unscheduled appearance at around 6pm. It made a serious attempt to disrupt a wonderful set from the trio of Rita Marcotulli, accordionist Gianluca Biondini and the Argentinian soprano and baritone saxophone player Javier Girotto, based around the CD “Variazioni su tema” (SARDCD 0016). To see the players also coping with high winds, yet keeping up both a feverish pace of work, and their happy conversational interplay, without ever flinching, spoke volumes about their professionalism.

I hadn’t heard Biondini (photo below) before. He is a world-class player in the same league as Richard Galliano, and the miracles of stepping on tiptoe through Marcotulli’s gorgeously shifting harmonies, while avoiding any clash of the two chordal instruments was joyous. Saxophonist Girotto brings expressive range to the group: there is often a rawness and a fervour on his soprano which can take the collective vibe to a different place. Or, for contrast, he has punch and assertiveness, but also warmth, on baritone. On the tune “La Vanita” he adapted his playing remarkably, to match to perfection the snatched articulation of the accordion.

Gianluca Biondino

Marcotulli as composer has won the prestigious David di Donatella prize this year for her work on a recent film score. This trio with its summery upbeat feel and its catchy melodiousness, is ideal festival fare, should have festival bookers seeking out slots. They had the worst of the wind. Sardinian sages, I was told, were predicting that the wind would subside after nightfall. And they were right.

Earlier in the day we were able to listen to the nicely contrasting style of Norwegian pianist Helge Lien’s trio. Lien achieves stillness, concentration which often stands out in relief against the busy-ness of his bassist Frode Berg. The delicacies of Lien’s Bill Evansish introspection in “Hyll” risked getting lost in the setting of a park, but the sound engineers were doing a great job capturing his elegant piano touch. It was interesting on a weekend surrounded by Italian musicians who tend to produce singable, melodic, emotional material to be exposed to Lien’s more cerebral and detached music.

Maria Pia de Vito. Photo credit: Agostino Mela.

Maria Pia de Vito‘s set was a joy. She is fearlessly versatile, yet impeccable in everything she attempts, from a sensuous and thoroughly engaging duo ballad with piano, to fiendish bebop heads to beatboxing. Some commentators lament the limitations of the vocoder-synth, but Maria Pia de Vito used it creatively on a song with a happy poppy undercurrent similar to Jamie Cullum’s –“Get Your Way.” A Cullum-De Vito collaboration one day? Who knows?

The Italian audience (see top picture/ credit :Agostino Mela) on the festival’s busiest day made sure that they were in their seats early for Stefano Bollani. There was standing room only, even for the soundcheck. I counted fifteen photographers capturing the action for posterity. Bollani’s “Visionari” band plays extrovert confident music. The focus is on the leader. The powerful clarinet player was having to work his socks off just to get a delayed ripple of applause for solos in which he had given his all. Bollani, on the other hand, would garner immediate applause mid-solo, just for switching from Rhodes to piano. This was extrovert music, powerfully played to an enthusiastic and packed house.

I caught briefly the cheery Italian band Funk Off, who were leading a great party set. They are well-drilled, bob up and down to stand and play on cue. Sonically, those of us who think and listen low were getting a treat. Funk Off has a bass clef anchor and engine of a sousaphone and three baritone saxophones. That was the sound audible from the distance echoing through the trees as the blaring of trumpets, melted and dissipated like the ice cream sculptures feom Isola del Gelato in the Piazza Yenne.

Saturday night in the arena. Photo credit: Marco Floris

The busiest point in the festival was the appearance of Alpha Biondy on the main arena stage. A reporter from L’Unione Sarda has already reported that the reggae star from Cote d’Ivoire turned the park into a “dancefloor sotto le stelle” (as in picture above. Anyway, the party went on afterwards at the elegant modern T-Hotel. Nick the Nightfly did a late set and was living up to his name, welcoming sitters-in up on to the stand at a lively jam session which went on into the small hours.


Tigran Hamsayan, Photo credit : Agostino Mela.

The first gigs of the day were at 11am. The reputation of Tigran Hamsayan, Armenian-born, a former student of Alan Pasqua in California, and now a resident of New York, precedes him. He was the winner of the Monk piano competition and has garnered a second and a third prize on subsequent appearances in the Martial Solal competition. It was an intriguing prospect to hear him in a park completely open to the public. Beyond the hedges behind the stage were Sunday morning joggers, each in his or her own headphone-enclosed world, oblivious to what was going on. There was the occasional sound of children from the swings of a nearby playground. And yet Hamsayan’s musicianship and dazzling pianism held the attention completely. He justifies easily his place among the elite of young piano players. His set consisted of originals, mostly infused by the Russian-Armenian heritage, with oriental scales, He was joined for two numbers at the end of his set by master drummer Jeff Ballard – no less – on fabulous form. The closer, “Leaving Paris,” a Hasayan origina,l penned when the pianist-composer was in his teens, had echoes of French chanson and Chabrier, and completely caught the mood of a Sunday morning.

5pm presented an interesting choice of unfamiliar acts. The stages being so close together, it was possible to sample a couple and to stroll on. I tried Roberta Alloisio’s charmingly melodic modern folk take on seventeenth century courtly love. And the childhood memories of “goats and oats” of the original female Jamaican dub poet Jean “Binta” Breeze. But the artists who made me want to linger and listen were a duo of trumpeter Andrea Tuffanelli, a proud native of Puccini’s home town of Torre Del Lago, with that kind of characterful, reliable, supportive pianist who forms the backbone of any jazz scene, Max Tempia from Biella. While Tuffanelli pleased the crowd with his lead trumpet high notes, reaching up into Maynard Ferguson territory, Tempia provided imaginative and creative support throughout. They played a medley based on Puccini arias, reinforcing the strong dual roots which in Italian jazz has in vocal music and in the localities and regions which give pride and a sense of belonging.

Stefano di Battista and Gino Castaldo, Photo credit : Agostino Mela.

Stefano di Battista  brought an all-male group to pay tribute to the legendary women of our time. There wasn’t a weak link in the band. Jeff Ballard introduced “Lara Croft” with an imitation on drum kit of an arcade shoot-em-up game which will stay in the mind. Jonathan Kreisberg brought synth sophistication and earthy bluesiness to his guitar contrbutions. However, the spoken introductions by journalist Gino Castaldo were over-wordy, and testing the boundaries of relevance, like an explanation that Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova might really have been Molly Bloom because she had been launched into orbit on Blooms Day, for example…. To me, the whole ended up as more than the sum of its parts. The crowd were getting into the energy of the performance, and di Battista is always an interesting composer.

Bill Saxton/ Charles Tolliver. Photo credit: Agostino Mela

New York tenor player Bill Saxton had as guest the legendary trumpeter Charles Tolliver, sprightly as he approaches his seventieth year . His composition “The Ringer,” a mode-shifting son of Horace Silver’s “Song to My Father,” and a ferociously fast Saxton original “Blues for Obama” were the highlight of the quintet’s lively set.

Filomena Campus brought some of the elite rhythm section players from the London scene – Steve Lodder on piano, Dudley Phillips on bass and Winston Clifford on drums. In a well-judged set, Campus shone in the peaceful Sardinian song “No potho reposare.” She rounded off the set in a lively bossa tribute to Brazilian stage director Augusto Boal, with Campus reaching up well into head-voice, and the trio hiting the groove hard.

One of the strongest performances of the festival came right at the end. A quartet led by bassist Enzo Pietropaoli, and consistig of much younger players who clearly revere him and thrive in his company were playing originals from the album Yatra (Jando Music). Drummer Alessandro Paternesi’s drumming was creative and explosive. The audience seemed to make a beeline for these popular musicians.


“One park, four days, 50 concerts, 8 stages.” These key facts about European Jazz Expo Cagliari 2011 had been neatly displayed in the advance publicity. But, digging deeper, there is quite some history here. A jazz festival has taken place in Sardinia’s capital since 1980, and the European Jazz Expo since 2004. This year the organizers have been able for the first time to move the festival and Expo from the Fiera or trade fair area on the city’s outskirts, into the city centre, into Monte Claro park, and to hold the event in May. They are an experienced team, and it shows. There were a lot of people involved in the smooth running of the festival and the expo, from top caterers to paramedics in bright orange, from security staff to volunteers and litter-clearers, all going purposefully and effectively
about their business.

Photo Credit: Marco Floris

A couple more statistics are that the maximum price of a season ticket giving admission to everything on the two paying nights was amazing value: 25 Euros. The festival drew a crowd of several thousand.


I was the guest of EJE Cagliari. The festival interested me because of the line-up, the location, but also the fact that trying out a new venue for the festival, even for an experienced team, would present challenges. In the event, experience does count, and this first festival in a new home appears to have surpassed the expectations of its promoters and partners. Visitors will also find, as I have that Cagliari has fabulous food, great beaches, and is a city with a history stretching back into antiquity. and a cooling breeze.

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