FESTIVAL REPORT: Bergamo Jazz Festival 2016

Festival Highlight: Louis Moholo-Moholo's Five Blokes
L-R: Alexander Hawkins, Shabaka Hutchings,  John Edwards, Jason Yarde,  Louis Moholo-Moholo
Photo Credit: Gianfranco Rota

Bergamo Jazz Festival 2016
(March 17-20 2016, Various venues in Bergamo, Italy. Festival report by Andy Hamilton)

Bergamo, not far from Milan in Lombardy, is blessed by some fine venues, providing an ideal setting for the first-rate programme created by festival director Dave Douglas. The opening gig at the Teatro Sociale in the Old Town featured the group Franco D'Andrea Traditions Today. Italian pianist Franco D'Andrea has been fascinated by early jazz from his beginnings, and regards the formation of the Louis Armstrong "Hot Five" – trumpet, clarinet, trombone, banjo, piano and drums – as "magical". "It still has a lot to offer to the jazz music of our times", he comments. His trio with Daniele D'Agaro (clarinet) and Mauro Ottolini (trombone), he says, "contains the essence of the sound", with clarinet representing reeds, and trombone representing brass – plus piano in a variety of roles. The result is a compelling postmodern ensemble.

Trombonist Ottolini was a colourful musical presence, deploying a collection of mutes. The trio was supplemented by hyperactive drummer Han Bennink, not looking or acting his 73 years – though as Peter Brotzmann once said rather ambivalently, with Han he knew what was going to happen next, and it was the unexpected. No doubting his time feel though, and Bennink remains one of the finest of European drummers – even here, just on snare drum, which he sometimes muffled with a towel, or with his heel. Caravan was idiomatically interpreted as jive misterioso, and director Dave Douglas joined the quartet for I Found A New Baby.

Franco D'Andrea Traditions Today feat. Han Bennink
Photo Credit: Gianfranco Rota

Subsequent festival main events were at the historic Teatro Donizetti, in similar "teatro all-italiano" style though larger. First of these was the Joe Lovano Quartet. Lovano was born in Cleveland in 1952, to a Sicilian father. His set was very Coltrane-ish, featuring probably the best band I've heard him lead – Lawrence Fields on piano, Peter Slavov on bass and Lamy Estrefi on drums. On This Day, Bird's Eye View and Our Daily Bread were originals, then Dave Douglas joined Lovano for the latter's compositions Full Sun and Full Moon.

Joe Lovano: Photo Credit: Gianfranco Rota

Clarinettist Anat Cohen appeared with her Quartet: Gadi Lehavy (piano), Tal Mashiach (double bass) and Daniel Freedman (percussion). Born in Tel Aviv, Cohen comes from a jazz family – her brothers are trumpeter Avishai and saxophonist Yuval Cohen. The quartet opened with Milton Nascimento's Lilia. There were then two originals by the leader, Ima – Hebrew for "mother" – and In The Spirit of Baden, a dedication to guitarist Baden Powell, not the Boy Scout founder. The audience loved it, but I found this set was one to listen to and not watch. The quartet are fine technicians, but seemed to feel too pleased with themselves – the leader in particular would play a phrase and then smile beatifically. The visual problem was a symptom of a deeper one, and I was reminded of the anecdote about someone passing Stan Getz's dressing room and hearing him practising – then stopping, and saying to himself, "The wonderful sound of Stan Getz...".

The immensely enjoyable main set by the Kenny Barron Trio might perhaps have done with a little more of Cohen's chutzpah. (But then there's no pleasing a critic…) It featured Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums, and coincided with the release of the trio's Book of Intuition on Impulse, featuring much of the same material. This was a real delight, reminding us that Barron is one of the most important of contemporary jazz pianists.

Mark Guiliana. Photo Credit: Gianfranco Rota

The standout event in the smaller Auditorium of Piazza della Libertà was by the Mark Guiliana Quartet featuring Jason Rigby (tenor sax), Fabian Almazan (piano) and Chris Morrissey (double bass). Guiliana has collaborated with Brad Mehldau, David Bowie on Blackstar, and Dave Douglas; his recent album Family First showcases some intelligent, attractive compositions, some of which we heard. The burly tenor of Rigby stands out in the group, and the band ring the changes in terms of pace, mood, and instrumentation such as duets within the group. The first number was rock-inflected, followed by a composition in additive rhythm; the subsequent ballad was full of space and dramatic gestures. This was sophisticated postbop, with involving original compositions.

Billy Martin's Wicked Knee featured Steven Bernstein (slide trumpet), Brian Drye (trombone), Michel Godard (tuba) and Billy Martin (drums). Martin is known from post funk-jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, while Bernstein is leader of Sex Mob. The three brass instruments and drums created what the leader describes as "ragtime funk", and this was a fun show, engaging if not musically profound.

But other performances paled in comparison with the festival highlight, and final gig: Louis Moholo-Moholo's Five Blokes featuring Jason Yarde (soprano, alto and bass sax), Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax), Alexander Hawkins (piano) and John Edwards (double bass). Born in 1940 in Cape Town, Louis Moholo-Moholo was and remains an icon of South African jazz – forced into exile in the era of apartheid, he moved to London with colleagues Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana. They formed the legendary band of the 60s, subject of the Five Blokes' tribute composition For the Blue Notes.

Moholo-Moholo hit the ground running, and hardly let up – offering a balance of inside and outside, free jazz and groove, ecstatic and gentler moments. The mix of compositions focused on the anthemic or hymn-like, including the Dudu Pukwana composition B, My Dear. Their amazing set made one proud to be British, and I'm not totally joking here – there must be few audiences outside this country who'd anticipate ecstatic jazz of this order by four Britons and one South African exile. There was a Brotherhood of Breath-intensity to this performance, with an incandescent power that made you rub your eyes in disbelief that it was only five blokes producing it. True burning free jazz.

LINK: Bergamo Jazz Festival website

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