Review: Bergamo Jazz Festival 2013

Andy Hamilton finds Gregory Porter's performance of staggering virtuosity and commitment the highlight of this year's Bergamo Jazz Festival, Italy

The historic city of Bergamo hosts this leading event in the Italian jazz calendar, with some wonderful venues that provide a backdrop for some fantastic music. This year, to my surprise, the highlight was vocalist Gregory Porter, who – I was warned by the editor – is a commercial act with a large fanbase and contested jazz value. Born in Los Angeles in 1971, Porter is certainly the new star of vocal jazz, with two albums, Water in 2010 and Be Good in 2012. But in the wonderful Teatro Donizetti, he stole the festival with a driving act of blues, jazz and popular vocals.

He’s absorbed the influences of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, and through them, Nat King Cole – indeed, in him, the Cole influence on soul singers reappears. Having heard and been amazed by Kurt Elling at the London Jazz Festival in November, I can vouch that Porter compares in vocal power, but is warmer and more engaging than Elling in person. His persona in fact is very distinctive, especially in terms of headgear – a balaclava with cloth cap on top in what looks like early 20th-century US street style.

There were simply no negatives in a performance of staggering virtuosity and commitment. Perhaps Porter is superior on soul numbers, and on his own compositions, compared with his interpretations of jazz standards such as I Fall In Love Too Easily and Bye Bye Blackbird. Black Nile by Wayne Shorter was mostly scat, while Coltrane’s Equinox was an unusual and compelling choice. The final of several encores was a solo Mona Lisa, in tribute to Nat King Cole. Porter’s group featured the amazingly virtuosic Yosuke Satoh on alto sax, impersonating or perhaps really a Japanese street-kid, the equally amazing Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass and Emanuel Harrold on drums.

Not aiming to compete in terms of popular audience and direct emotional engagement, Mary Halvorson’s Quintet provided a different kind of highlight in terms of artistic depth and seriousness. Featuring Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums, the music was mostly tuneful and groove-based, with some quirky, engaging shifts in direction. Halvorsen is a very unobvious stylist on electric guitar – a frequent collaborator with Anthony Braxton, whose influence is apparent in terms of openness to experiment, and musical resourcefulness. The set comprised the suite Sea Cut Like Snow, whose opening seems based vaguely on Nature Boy, and whose compositions showed a distinctive voice. Ches Smith is a very tuneful drummer, but there seemed to be some health and safety issues, as he licks his fingers before rubbing them on the drums.

The Peter Evans Trio with John Hebert (again) on bass and Kassa Overall on drums were the foil to Halvorson in terms of New York left-field players. The trumpeter deployed his full range of extended techniques, as heard in his work with Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson. The result didn’t quite pull me in as it had with Halvorson, and seemed drier, though with drums perhaps over-amplified. But this was fine playing nonetheless.

Giovanni Guidi’s Quintet featured Dan Kinzelman on tenor and clarinet, Shane Endsley on trumpet, Thomas Morgan on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The young Italian pianist and leader, who has just released a trio album on ECM (reviewed in Jazz Journal June 2012), offered music generally in the pulse-no-metre groove, gentle and distinctive, teetering between in and out both rhythmically and tonally. This was a very distinctive set. Other festival highlights included the Uri Caine & Han Bennink Duo (pictured above), and the all-Italian Dino & Franco Piana Septet, led by one of the leading figures of Italian jazz since the late 50s, in partnership with his son. The 83-year-old trombonist was a Jimmy Giuffre lookalike, bespectacled and professorial, here accompanied by Young Turks. Their sonorous originals, plus a Gerry Mulligan number, featured subtle arrangements taking their cue from Miles Davis’s The Birth of the Cool.

Less impressive was the Hermeto Pascoal Group, who seem to be getting less subtle with every year, and John Scofield's Organic Trio, with Larry Goldings and Greg Hutchinson, which only came to life after 45 subdued minutes. However, they can be forgiven because at that point Scofield dug into the most glorious funk, showing that he’s still a master of improvised guitar playing.

Photos by Gianfranco Rota

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