Review: Vienne, Umbria & San Sebastian

Bob Weir enjoys great jazz at three European jazz festivals - Vienne, Umbria and San Sebastian - but sees troubling economic and demographic signs

A month at these events prompts some thoughts on problems for the future of the major European jazz festivals. They are still prolific on the Continent. Almost every sizeable town in France, Italy and Spain seems to host a jazz (or jazz-related) festival during the summer.

But there are worrying signs. The economic situation has clearly resulted in fewer people willing to pay for the big arena jazz attractions. Ticket prices averaged about €40 (some concerts were over €50). There also appears to be a limited number of topline jazz attractions with many artists playing year after year and the fees for formerly guaranteed stadium fillers are getting prohibitively expensive. Consequently many arenas were less than half full and this presents a real challenge for the organisers. The problems were particularly acute at Vienne and Umbria although bad weather on many days was a factor.

All three festivals had big pop names to attract large crowds and presumably to subsidise the jazz. Vienne had Kool And The Gang, The Commodores, Robert Plant (pictured right), Jamie Cullum and Sergio Mendez. Umbria offered the Daptone Soul Review, Ray Gelato (who drew the short straw against the World Cup Final and torrential rain), Natalie Cole and The Roots. Ray Davies, George Clinton and Echo & The Bunnymen were at San Sebastian. Several happened to be highly enjoyable for the broadminded jazz fan but the intention was obviously to attract a much broader audience and they mostly succeeded.

Despite all of this, all three festivals supplemented the major concerts with earlier and later strong jazz attractions in smaller venues either with free entry or at greatly reduced ticket prices. These concerts were consistently well attended.

The conclusions to be drawn are that pure jazz acts on the big stages (six to eight thousand capacity), with only a very few big-name exceptions, are failing to attract the large crowds of only a few years ago and that ticket prices are excessive. In contrast, lesser-known but top quality performers do fill the smaller venues. So promoters might have to consider using only big pop stars for the large arenas or abandon them to concentrate on presenting jazz in the small-to-medium size venues. Exorbitant artist fees and excessive ticket prices also need to be reviewed in the current economic climate.

If the biggest names are considered to be necessary for reasons of prestige then there will have to be significantly greater commercial sponsorship (as San Sebastian gets so effectively from long-term supporter Heineken). I am not suggesting that the three festivals are in crisis but I think that Vienne and Umbria in particular need to address their serious problems before next year.

Enough preaching - now for the music.

Vienne (28 June to 12 July) as usual presented two or three groups each night in the large Roman amphitheatre. There were excellent all-jazz nights by Paulo Conte/Paolo Fresu, Stefano Bollani (pictured left) with the Orchestre National de Lyon/Youn Sun Nah, Manu Katché/Daniel Humair/Moutin Factory and Bobby McFerrin/Kenny Garrett. There were nights of gospel, funk, soul, Brazilian and African music. The blues was represented by Buddy Guy and Lucky Peterson (subbing for an ailing Jeff Beck) - with both on great form. The two big pop names, Robert Plant and Jamie Cullum (playing a jazzier set than usual backed by a terrific big band), were each supported by quality jazz - Ibrahim Maaloof with Plant and Thomas Dutronc/Angelo Debarre (playing thrilling updated Django) with Cullum. The outstanding night was an amiable appearance by Quincy Jones talking about his eminent career, presenting some of his talented discoveries and conducting his old and new compositions with the local Amazing Keystone Big Band. The closing all-nighter (which I missed) was reportedly the best for some years with Gregory Porter and Tom Harrell headlining a packed programme.

The free-entry jazz at Vienne was abundant and of a generally high quality. The Midnight Club and the even later Jazzmix marquee had full programmes, the former including Zara McFarlane and Vinicius Cantuaria and the latter had the big crowds dancing to a variety of cutting-edge attractions. There were also two stages at the Cybele socialising area presenting local and American student bands throughout the day. Jazz education has always been a priority at Vienne. Artist-in-residence Youn Sun Nah popped up all over the place as did five street-marching bands.

The Umbria (Perugia) festival (11-20 July) may have had trouble filling its large arena but the concerts by Eliane Elias/Stefano Bollani, Dr John (with a Louis Armstrong tribute) and the two piano nights (Herbie Hancock with Wayne Shorter (pictured right)/Monty Alexander and Hiromi and Michel Camilo/Gonzalo Rubalcaba) were outstanding. The two vocal nights (Natalie Cole/Fiorella Mannoia and Take 6/Al Jarreau/Mario Biondi) were less to my taste. Concerts pre- and post- the main events in the beautiful Teatro Morlacchi were the focus for more satisfying jazz. John Scofield's Uberjam Band, the Buster Williams Quartet, Snarky Puppy, the Ambrose Akinmusire Sextet, the Christian McBride Trio, Cecile McLorin Salvant, the Paolo Fresu Quintet, the Francisco Cafiso Quintet, Roberta Gambarino and an imaginative tribute to film composer Armando Trovajoli by a big band and star guests all gave excellent performances to packed houses.

There were stages all around the town with free-entry shows by student bands and fringe music groups from midday to the early hours. Thirteen-year-old local alto saxist Angelo Reinone sat in with some of them and his precocious talent is already so remarkable that his is a name to watch. Jazz in several bars and restaurants, the Funk Off marching band and a bewildering array of buskers added greatly to the festival's lively appeal.

San Sebastian (23-27 July), with music from 5pm to well after midnight on 11 stages (seven of them free entry), was notable for its efficient organisation and genuine welcome to visitors. The big pop attractions (including Ray Davies, George Clinton, Echo & The Bunnymen) played on the largest stage facing the beach and attracted crowds of up to 15,000. Three stages were dedicated to jazzers' needs. The atmospheric Plaza De La Trinidad offered brilliant shows by Enrico Rava, Bobby McFerrin (pictured left), John Scofield, Dave Holland and a rousing finale by Dee Dee Bridgewater. The only disappointments were Nicholas Payton playing Sketches Of Spain and the chaotic Sun Ra Arkestra, both of which verged on travesty. The Victoria Eugenia theatre had enthralling concerts by Muhal Richard Abrams (solo) and Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet plus humour and pathos from L'Orchestre D'Hommes-Orchestres with a cabaret presentation of Kurt Weill's music.

The large Kursaal Auditorium was equally appealing with concerts by the Chick Corea & Stanley Clarke Duo playing Return To Forever material, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Quartet (both in magisterial form) and a spirited jam by Bugge Wesseltoft 'N' Friends. Among the free-stage offerings were enjoyable shows by Snarky Puppy, René Marie (singing Eartha Kitt), Ibrahim Electric and a host of DJ sets with Spanish bands. A popular feature of San Sebastian for the press (scribes and snappers) was the lunchtime visits to the modernistic Basque Culinary Centre. This year the delicious food accompanied short concerts by Toshiko and Eric Reed.

It helps that all three festivals are located in beautiful towns - historical, architectural and artistic - with plentiful accommodation options and abundant eating places (the restaurants in Vienne and nearby Lyon are among the best in France and the pintxos (tapas) in San Sebastian are to die for).

Details for next year on approximately the same dates can be found on the websites, and

All photography by Tim Dickeson

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