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Saturday, April 27, 2024

Bergamo Jazz Festival, 2024

By David Cristol

Bergamo Jazz Festival had its 45th edition from March 21 to 24 with an uncommonly versatile programming courtesy of Joe Lovano, who introduced and attended most of the shows and was a benevolent presence throughout. An average of five concerts a day were spread over two distinct parts of the city, the fairly modern Città Bassa (downtown) and the ancient Città Alta (uptown), with excellent free jazz acts sharing the schedule with mainstream concerts.

Dave Burrell. Photo by Giorgia Corti 

Travel shenanigans meant it was unlikely I’d make it in time for Dave Burrell’s solo performance at Teatro Sant’Andrea, much to my regret. But after the drive from Milano I was immediately directed up the narrow streets of Bergamo Alta and could hear the jazz master (whose 1969’s Echo on BYG Actuel remains one of this scribe’s favorite records, as well as the earlier Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid on which he participates). Joe Lovano introduces the set, and we hear the catchphrase “in the moment of now” for the first time – a recurring mantra at each of his MC appearances. There could have been no better way to launch the fest. All seats occupied, I retreat to the wooden stairs at the back of the venue, which turn out to be the best spot in the house, slightly perched and with a good view on the artist. The blistering set had me totally attuned to the cubist approach to jazz styles and standards, encompassing abstraction and Monkish / Taylorish attack on the keys. Diffracted blues, limping stride, cluster clouds, inner rhythms, insistence on chords or transitions other musicians – and listeners – do not usually pay attention to, are some of the elements of Burrell’s style, which doesn’t try to be pretty. From its origins to the fire music years, it feels like the whole of jazz is explored. Clichés are avoided like the plague, but we recognize fragments of standards like “Summertime”, “Lush Life” in a wildly original version, while “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is shattered to bits and “My Funny Valentine" sprinkled with purposefully “wrong” notes, dissonance being another province of the pianist. His art of is that of exasperation, questioning, turning the themes upside down. For all that, the implementation is straight to the point, no loitering about, and it’s wonderful to hear the 84-year old musician so forceful, inspired and relishing the opportunity to perform. This is concert-of-the-year material. “Just Me and the Moon” is played for the first time. "Time is up but let's break the rule," Burrell enthuses before launching into another workout. Lovano later expresses his satisfaction to have had him perform at the start of the fest, when the audience’s attention is still fresh and complete.

Moor Mother. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

Poetess and performer Moor Mother aka Camae Ayewa is now regularly present at European festivals, bringing her spoken words to a variety of projects instead of repeating the same show over and over, a hunger for encounters which is to be commended. Her albums are a testament to her openness to extended creative vistas. Onstage, in the last couple of years she lent her deep low voice to a duet with Nicole Michell, a Denardo Coleman-led tribute to his father with jazz band and symphony orchestra, while remaining a key element of Irreversible Entanglements alongside Luke Stewart et al. She was also supposed to perform in a duo with Archie Shepp but the gig was cancelled. Before playing in Don Moye’s AEC tribute at this festival, she joined forces with African-born and Bergamo resident Dudù Kouate (also of Moye’s band), master percussionist, expertly handling instruments I'd be hard-pressed to name, from water bowls to musical bottles through a turtle-shell-shaped piece of wood, pipes, whistles, talking drums and a singing bow. Mother reads social-conscious texts from sheets of paper or a book while generating electronic layers with the other hand. Her whispers are equal parts vocal and textural and her prose wavers between despair and hope, certainty of the nearing end of days and the need to keep the life flowing somehow. Gestures accompany speech, texts are crumpled and swept away while the artist calls to “shake loose the spirit”, gets irate as to whom has a right to citizenship, or makes the sound of her footsteps resonate in the microphone. The association of portentous drones and lush percussion strikes a fine balance between current angst and ancient wisdom. The already dim lightings gradually fade away, the duo ending in complete darkness and without amplification.

Naïssam Jalal. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

With “Quest of the invisible”, flutes player (and singer, but not today as she’s deprived of her voice by a common cold) Naïssam Jalal aims to give the audience a moment of serenity and meditation in a world agitated by worrying spasms. A few months after hearing her “Healing Rituals” quartet at Jazzdor Berlin, Jalal and the ever-graceful bass player Claude Tchamitchian reconvene, this time as a duo and with a different repertoire, though in the same spirit, in a small, packed museum hall. Behind the players, paintings of musical instruments provide an ideal backdrop. The low-key, intimate formula suits the music even better. Softness and warmth prevail, although towards the end Tchamitchian dances with his double bass, accompanying his bow strokes with low-pitched growls. He is the jazz element of the pair, earthy, playing rhythm, while the ney and other flutes are played in traditional, droney, melismatic rather than jazz fashion.
Famoudou Don Moye “Plays Art Ensemble of Chicago”. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

The Famoudou Don Moye “Plays Art Ensemble of Chicago” event had a special significance for the festival and its recurring visitors. On March 20, 1974, the AEC had one their first Italian gigs in the very same venue, the Donizetti Theatre, as tonight’s show, subtitled “50th birthday: the Bergamo concert." In 1974, the band induced strong reactions from the audience, split between enthusiasm and hostility. 50 years later, Moye pays tribute to his colleagues, whose names are celebrated throughout the performance, and very much keeps alive the spirit of the Art Ensemble of old. On a personal note, an AEC concert in 1998 (with original members minus Joseph Jarman) was an epiphanic exposure to “Great Black Music”. I don’t remember it – I was immersed in the music and impressed at the huge number of instruments onstage, notably Roscoe Mitchell’s percussion cage, eccentric attires and face paint – but a friend recently reminded me that a good chunk of the audience had left the venue.
Not so in Bergamo! But whether in 1974, 1998 or 2024, the AEC’s operating methods are not everybody’s cup of tea. Freedom has as much edge today as it had back in the day (I’m thinking even more but wasn’t born yet). Again, the stage is extensively cluttered with percussion instruments of various sizes, colors and shapes (played by all members of the band, chiefly Dudù Kouate and Moye), in addition to two drum sets, piano, organ and trombone (all three by the extraordinary Simon Sieger), bass by Junius Paul, violin by Eddy Kwon, poetry and electronics by Moor Mother. The ritual begins by everybody chanting a West Indies sounding psalmody from the slide. The tone is set, the concert will be full of surprises. Indeed, each piece feels like a new ceremonial. Small groups are formed with a high turnover of instruments. Everybody moves about on stage, not standing in one defined spot, depending on the need of each piece. Deceased members of the group are referred to in turn: Malachi Favors Maghostut, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, in Moor Mother's lyrics and the leader's intonations. “Ancient to the future” is still relevant today, but Moye's syncretic project now encompasses not only the afro-am community but also personalities such as Marseille-based Sieger and Brooklyn composer of Asian descent Kwon who wowed audiences as a solo vocalist of operatic proportions. The aggregate of contrasting characters appears as the logical next step, music as a unifying factor of artists from different continents and stripes. A timely reminder that the AEC have – along with a few others – kicked open the doors of jazz and let in all of its components and eras, in a savant hodgepodge, off beat on first impression but precise in execution and spreading knowledge in the process. An extremely joyous concert, which featured classics such as “Nonaah”, “No time left”, “Ohnedaruth”, “Odwalla” and “Funky AECO”.

Abdullah Ibrahim. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

The solo piano performance by Abdullah Ibrahim took place at the Donizetti, where he had opened the 1975 edition as Dollar Brand. The South African master delivered a nostalgia-tinged set, the delicately played keys not quite reaching the back rows of the large venue, which sometimes felt, in this fragile acoustics context, akin to a coughers’ convention. Spotting an empty seat closer to the stage, I discreetly ambled towards the front rows to better immerse into the last half. The themes and playing were disarmingly simple, and simply enunciated – no fireworks – the artist in a musical reverie, expressing heartfelt thoughts, wisdom and peace. Scraps of tunes appeared and reappeared, and it felt like Ibrahim wouldn’t have played differently if he had been practicing at home, browsing through favorite themes, some of which heard on recent albums Dream Time  (2020), Solotude (2022) and 3 (2024), as well as earlier ones. A touching continuum, a walk through the artistic journey of the idiosyncratic musician, who got up to face the audience at the end and sang an unhurried acapella homesick chant, expressing his longing for his beloved country where he’s unlikely to return.

Bobby Watson Quintet. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

Less relevant to this blog, but worthy of mention for sheer musical quality were two mainstream jazz acts. The Bobby Watson Quintet performed a roaring blast of hard bop, very much in the tradition but with so much drive and sincerity that it couldn’t help but win over audiences, including this listener. The 70-year old alto saxman directed the proceedings while playing, with support by a crew on their A-game, including Curtis Lundy on bass and Victor Jones on drums, both delivering flamboyant solos and hard-as-nails accompaniment. Young Wallace Roney Jr (son of Geri Allen and Roney Sr) on trumpet joined the leader on the front line with plenty of skills while Jordan Williams comped like there’s no tomorrow on piano. Erstwhile member and musical director of the Jazz Messengers, Watson played in the wide-ceilinged venue like he would have in a cramped NYC jazz club, talking to his colleagues onstage, keeping them on their toes. Their faultless sense of timing made for an irresistible set, authenticity always a winner.

Pérez, Patitucci, Cruz. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

At Teatro Sociale, the trio of Danilo Pérez (p, elp), John Patitucci (b, elb) and Adam Cruz (dm) also was a treat, the two former Wayne Shorter acolytes and the drummer delivering an effortless, restrained yet ever-astonishing set. Tributes were paid to Shorter (with a ballad that he could have penned in the Weather Report years), writer Toni Morrison and social activist Angela Davis. Panama-born Pérez is a presence not unlike Herbie Hancock, seemingly floating above the proceedings while also being very much “in the moment of now” . The Steinway grand sounded gorgeous, with impossible time signatures made simple for all to enjoy. Groove, synth landscapes, calypso-funk, quasi-waltz, a seamless melding of improvisation and composition, and, as an encore, a completely rewired "'Round midnight", of which only snatches could initially be spotted, added up to a pristine performance, with absolutely no filler to bemoan about.

Scofield and Lovano. Photo by Luciano Rossetti

The John Scofield's “Yankee Go Home” project, on the other hand, proved uninspired, in similar fashion to the drowsy Hudson Quartet from a few years ago with Scofield, Medeski, Grenadier and DeJohnette. The one moment of surprise came through the guest appearance by Joe Lovano, enlivening things up for a ten-minute “The creator has a masterplan” instrumental remake. The other tunes were firmly in none-too-subtle country-rock territory, Scofield even bearing a striking resemblance to actor Robert Duvall on the ranch these days.

With its program not adverse to a big gap in aesthetics, Bergamo Jazz 2024 was a big success in terms of attendance, with 14 sold out concert out of 16, an audience of nearly 7000. Next edition will be March 20-23, 2025.