(Bergamo Jazz Festival. 18-20 March 2022. Round-up by Andy Hamilton)
The first post-Covid festival returned to Bergamo’s main venues, now beautifully restored – most notably, the magnificent Teatro Donizetti, with its frescoed ceiling. The first gig there was the Fred Hersch Trio with Drew Gress (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). Joined by Enrico Rava on flugelhorn, they performed “Child’s Song” by Hersch, followed by “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”, on both of which Rava was superbly inventive, pausing for thought between compelling ideas. Hersch is a very fine pianist, but a little polite for my taste – not quite a Petrucciani, Moran or Mehldau, on the last of which, more later. “Polite” is never a description applied to maestro Enrico Rava’s work, while Baron showed his mastery of a “less is more” aesthetic. A highlight was the very free interpretation of “The Song Is You”.
The second set that evening featured Jeff Ballard’s Fairgrounds, with Logan Richardson (alto saxophone), Charles Altura (electric guitar) and Joe Sanders (bass). Sometimes one’s view of an artist changes – or maybe they’ve changed. I first heard Richardson at Bergamo a few years back, when his band gave an in-your-face performance of coldly macho jazz-funk. This time he was a much more interesting and reflective player, stylistically indebted to Ornette Coleman and perhaps Steve Coleman. The quartet began with Booker Ervin’s “A Lunar Tune” from The Freedom Book (1963) – a modal composition, with no connection to any Moon-featuring standard that I could hear. There are many great compositions from this era that have failed to enter the repertoire, and Ballard should be applauded for interpreting it. It was followed by his ballad “Alone”, then Ornette Coleman’s “Chronology”. With the possible exception of a drum solo piece, this was an excellent and intriguing set.
The festival highlight, for me, was Brad Mehldau – the greatest jazz pianist now performing. His grey beard made him look like Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and he seemed more relaxed than I’ve seen him previously. The Donizetti Theatre, a large venue, was packed for a challenging ninety-minute solo set. It was an art more than entertainment presentation, though leavened by Beatles and Radiohead compositions – astute concessions to contemporary audience taste. Though I’m not as convinced as Mehldau evidently is by their quality as vehicles for improvisation, the effort must be made. Featured were Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and “Little By Little”, The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”, “Your Mother Should Know” and “She Said She Said”, and Neil Young’s “Old Man” – continuing the jazz tradition of exploiting the pop music of the day, even if some of it is now fifty years old.
Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” totally convinced, but generally my preference was for older material, and for Mehldau originals such as “Waltz For JB” and “In The Kitchen” – a motoric, boogie-woogie-ish blues with clever key-cycle quirks. On Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me”, Mehldau moved far out in his explorations, and on Brahms’ “Rhapsody” (op. 79, I think no. 2) also showed his mastery in jazzing the classics. Clearly a genius.
Other recitals, at more chamber-ish venues, included Jakob Bro/Arve Henriksen/Jorge Rossy. After fifteen minutes the first piece burst into violent life, thankfully, producing a fragile lyrical intensity. The Danish guitarist was shoe-less, playing controls and pedals with his toes. Henriksen, on trumpet and pocket trumpet, had a seraphic, Buddha-like smile – he also had it at breakfast in the hotel the next morning – and his New Age tendencies have never been to my taste. Rossy gave the performance some needed muscle, however; with his beanie hat, he reminded me in appearance of the late Paul Motian. A piece by Bro, dedicated to Tomasz Stańko with whom he played with for some years, was filled with an East European folk plangency, and echoes of Bartok scales. “Beautiful!” murmured the woman next to me as the performance ended, though for me, the trumpeter’s contributions made it a little precious.
The Régis Huby Quintet is a band of strings and trumpet sonorities, offering segued performances that blend improv, soundscapes, noise and ambient. Drummer Claude Tchamitchian played electronics, including vinyl applique noise, and I was glad finally to catch guitarist Eivind Aarset live, after listening to his music over many years. The fine trumpeter Tom Arthurs took the Henriksen role, and the leader produced memorably distinctive work on semi-acoustic and solid-body electric violin.
Finally there were the idiosyncratic and historic locations that Bergamo specialises in. Ava Mendoza‘s solo gig took place in the Academia Carrara. She stood before an array of pedals, and in front of Giotti’s Death Of Antigone. Her rock-based approach, reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock, favoured texture rather than melody – though the set ended with a bluesy vocal, and the encore was two blues compositions in Robert Johnson style. It was interesting to compare her approach with the purer jazz sound of Charles Altura from the previous evening – two very compelling stylists.
The Mazurek/Mitelli Duo performed in a room inside the Porta Sant’Agostino, part of the fortifications built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. Gabriele Mitelli played cornet and soprano sax, and worked with electronics and voice, while Rob Mazurek was on trumpet, pocket trumpet, percussion and electronics. I saw him at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in the 1980s, when he was a sharp-suited young hardbopper, and the transformation is total. Now you’d call him a grizzled veteran, the suit long abandoned for crumpled informality.
Their set opened with a multiphonic trumpet blast from Mitelli, then a fragile melody on muted trumpet from Mazurek, against quietly pulsing tones on electronics. Mazurek stabbed with seeming casualness at electronic modules, while he quietly jangled a mass of small cowbells tied together with rope. The duo’s playing was raw, uninhibited and real. Their sonic cornucopia, wild and free, is one of the most exciting and convincing meldings of electronic and acoustic forces I’ve heard.
I can only mention the two amazing vocalists from the festival’s final night at Teatro Donizetti. Michael Mayo and his trio played pieces from their recent debut album, and it was a joy to hear such excellent material performed by such a simpatico band. Mayo is a virtuoso, especially in his mix of falsetto and conventional tones, and his scatting. Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba – another virtuoso in the best sense – led an exciting band mixing jazz, guaracha, charanga and salsa, and featuring diva Aymée Nuviola who’s inherited the mantle of Celia Cruz. It was a fitting finale for a festival with an uncanny ability to present the music’s state of the art.