Live reviews

Bergamo Jazz 2023. Part 2.

This is the second of Sebastian’s two reports on the 2023 Bergamo Jazz Festival (*)

I had never been to the city of Bergamo, the backdrop and setting for the Bergamo Jazz Festival. It is fabulous. The wide avenues of the ‘Città Bassa’ have the grandeur of a capital city, even though the population is only 120,000. On the other hand, the tight hilly streets and glorious squares up in the ‘Città Alta’ are magical. This is the city of Pope John XXIII, of Donizetti, Locatelli…and also stracciatelli ice cream… nine DOP cheeses…and UNESCO world heritage status for its architecture – as one of six towns with 16c. Venetian defence systems – and also as a “Creative City of Gastronomy”. Challenges on a visit to Bergamo might be…to try to find a bad meal…or to work out why there are quite so many “Emily in Paris” lookalikes everywhere. Yup, I failed at both.

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A classic shot of the Piazza Vecchia. Phone snap.

The jazz festival has a strong heritage too. Formed in 1969 as “Rassegna Internazionale del Jazz” with Maynard Ferguson and Cannonball Adderley as the American guests and Giorgio Gaslini (1929-2014, who wrote the score for Antonioni’s “La Notte”) as the local hero. These days it is meticulously organized by a good team.

As I mentioned in the first piece in praise of the contribution of Maria Pia De Vito, this year’s edition was well programmed, and keeps jazz at its heart. There were over 30 events in eleven venues… The locations are definitely a part of what makes it special… here are the concerts I attended…


Rita Marcotulli and Paolo Fresu. Photo Luciano Rossetti/ Bergamo Jazz

The Festival’s main (and swankiest) venue is the city’s horseshoe-shaped opera house, which was built in 1800 and renovated in 1964 and in 2017-20, and has a capacity of 1154. My personal highlight was the double bill on the Friday with Cecile McLorin Salvant and her band in the second half, (reviewed here) and the duo of Paolo Fresu and Rita Marcotulli in the first. Fresu is one of the very great lyrical trumpet players and flugelhornists, and in Marcotulli he has an accomplice whom he has known and who appreciated his playing ever since the Sardinian was a teenager. The warm welcoming mood was set from the start with Jobim/Elis Regina’s “O Que Tinha de ser”, continued with with soulful renditions of Italian classics like “Mia Terra” by Pino Daniele, and then reinforced and the end with a deliciously langourous Charlie Haden, the last note held endlessly pianissimo, transfixing the audience into awed silence.

Hamid Drake’s Alice Coltrane tribute. Photo Gamba-Phocus/ Bergamo Jazz

There were two other double bills in the splendid surroundings of the Donizetti. Hamid Drake brought an all-star tribute to Alice Coltrane, his very high-class band really getting settled in the groove of “Journey into Satchidananda”. This is a very personal project: Drake talked about how Alice Coltrane had “given purpose to his life” and “shown him the way. The main debate afterwards seemed to be whether French/ Guadeloupean dancer/reciter Ngoho Ange had added to or distracted from the music. I’m in the latter camp. The first half was the quartet of the much-hyped alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. There is an art to creating a seamless transition for large numbers of an audience from the stage to the merch desk. It is an art in which she sets the standard.

Richard Bona Trio: Photo Giorgia Corti/ Bergamo Jazz

The final night’s double bill was two trios: Richard Galliano‘s New York Tango Trio with Adrien Moignard and Diego Imbert. The Bergamo audience is warm, gracious, attentive, and this outpouring of melody was just right. Then Richard Bona’s incredibly classy trio with guitarist Sylvain Luc and drummer Nicolas Viccaro. Bona has such a joyous and infectiously lively personality, all I want to do is to quote a 2016 album review by John L Walters: “To catch a fragment of Richard Bona’s music [..] is to down a neat shot of pure summer happiness.” That’s it.

MIXMONK having fun. L-R: Joey Baron, Robin Verheyen. Bram de Looze. Photo Gamba-Phocus/ Bergamo Jazz


Just one abiding memory of the concert by the MIXMONK trio of saxophonist Robin Verheyen, pianist Bram de Looze (both from Belgium) and the great Joey Baron stays in the mind: the look of wonder that kept crossing de Looze’s face as he marvelled at yet another piece of astonishing prestidigitation from the drummer. Verheyen has a particular kind of gentle, ethereal saxophone sound (not unlike the South African Buddy Wells), and I can understand exactly why pianist Marc Copland and he have struck up such a strong rapport. The band was set up to celebrate the Monk centenary. Their first album (on Universal Belgium) is now nearly five years old, the second from 2022. I particularly liked the tripping lightness of “Eronel”, with Verheyen on soprano.

The second half was a major commission from the City of Culture programme for a cross-generation large ensemble, the “Panorchestra” which had its premiere here and will go to the other cultural city Brescia in the autumn. The guest soloist here was Jonathan Finlayson, and in Brescia will be Steven Bernstein. This was a chance to witness how Italian large ensemble arranging and soloing have their own individual character and heritage. As an expression of freedom it has such a strong and conscious and deliberate identity. This set, however, was a lot to try to take in at one late-night sitting…


Amaro Freitas. Photo Giorgia Corti/ Bergamo Jazz

There were three very different piano recitals in glorious venues.

Amaro Freitas at Teatro Sant’Andrea. When the great Ed Motta first heard the self-released debut album “Sangue Negro” (2016) of Recife-born Amaro Freitas, he wrote: “Amaro Freitas is writing a very important chapter of instrumental music produced in Brazil. Lots of hope and challenging, progressive art. Great respect.” London-based Far Out Recordings has gone on to help him to write more of that story. Freaitas has incredible poly-rhythmic feel, sweet lyricism and no limits. Thank you Bergamo Jazz. Watch out Jazzahead!

Nik Bärtsch at Teatro Sant’Andrea. John Bungey wrote in a review of the solo piano album “Entendre on ECM : “Nik Bärtsch is one of that esteemed band of musicians whose work you can recognise within 30 seconds.” Absolutely true. The joy of hearing him live is to witness how he creates such a range of effects by preparing the piano, and above all making extraordinary sounds using a whole range of natural resonances. He has recently released a book of sheet music, mostly the music from ‘Entendre’.

Django Bates at Sala Piatti. This is another gem of a venue in the ‘Città Alta’. Django Bates to give an early outing for the material, new compositions, for a solo piano album which he is likely to record in the summer. The duo at the end with Maria Pia De Vito in ‘Horses in Rain’ (mentioned here) was a special moment, but the new music also has a strong appeal. From the emotionally effective and gently succulent re-harmonisation of “Bridge over Troubled Water” to the sense of a flourish in “Yard Games” to the driving idees fixes of “Dancey Dancey” there was a lot to enjoy… and to look forward to when the album eventually appears.

(*) Sebastian was the guest of the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti

LINK: Bergamo Jazz Festival website

Categories: Live reviews, Reviews

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