Five "Jazz" Concerts
Le Ciminiere Amphitheatre, Catania, Italy
July 13-27, 2004

In a time of the year that's unfortunately pretty much devoid of any live music, here come two announcements that bring a ray of hope: first, a series of concerts (called The Summer Festival), featuring artists such as Bill Frisell (a duo with Petra Haden), the Marc Ribot Trio, the Dave Douglas Sextet, and the Uri Caine Trio. There's also an announcement of a concert by Superband, a group that under its name (a bit funny, if you ask me) hides famous people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Brian Blade. I decide that the game is worth the candle, thanks also to items such as: the place of the concerts being in open air, and with good acoustics; the fact that one can reserve a seat in a certain section of the amphitheatre; that the concerts start at a quite reasonable 9.30 p.m.

Besides the actual appeal of the announced names (and here I can say I witnessed a couple of surprises), I was extremely curious to check how many people would attend the concerts, given the fact that in this time of the year a lot of people leave town.

What "kind" of music I heard is an interesting topic. While some of the groups could truly be filed under "jazz", it's also true that (the nowadays quite common) polystylism and the presence of DJs made it impossible to put all the music that was heard under the umbrella name of "jazz". To tell the truth, the audience didn't seem to worry about this kind of problems. But I think it can be said that at this very moment the expression "jazz festival" is mainly read as meaning "non-rock festival", whereas for "rock concert" something is meant that: a) starts at an impossible time; b) features a "standing-only" type of accommodation; c) presents for the most part some worthless non-entity that the "specialized press" has decided to praise to the sky, for whatever reason.

Bill Frisell/Petra Haden
The first concert is by the Bill Frisell/Petra Haden duo. And whereas Bill Frisell needs no introduction, Petra Haden is still introduced as "the daughter of" - a fact that makes it really easy to understand the disappointment of all those who arrive at the concert hoping to witness the polystylistic guitar filigree played by Frisell, only to find that the concert shows Petra Haden as the lead, with Frisell in an (quite subtle, and creative) accompanying role. Not too many people tonight (less than two hundred?), maybe because the ads were too late in coming. Everybody is ready for mild weather, instead the night gets really cold, a factor that makes everybody - both audience and artists - really uncomfortable. Petra Haden wears a jacket, Frisell makes do with just a shirt. Though the temperature doesn't appear to be promising, it's really a good concert: Petra Haden has obviously studied singing, and she can be quite expressive without using vibrato or melisma, her vocal style being quite appropriate for things like Moon River (which opens the concert), old standards, a Tom Waits song, and some country & western. Frisell is very good at complementing the vocals, weaving rich tapestries of sound and modern-sounding loops by using just a Telecaster and a couple of pedals. Sometimes Petra Haden plays the violin, without adding much. All in all, a concert where the artists' colloquial approach played in their favour.

Marc Ribot Mystery Trio
I was personally very curious to hear this new line-up by Marc Ribot, a player that I've seen a few times, starting from the time when he was the guitar player in Lounge Lizards (about twenty years ago), then as a solo artist playing the by now to be expected wide palette of styles, then with the Cubanos Postizos, a project that was maybe a bit too monochromatic to last, but which was nonetheless based on a solid idea, and where the players were in great empathy with each other and possessed quite remarkable technical resources. Here the bass player is the solid and reliable Dave Hofstra (who plays an electrified, thin-line instrument), the drummer on this date being Deantoni Parks. The first surprise is that two musicians are added to the Trio: DJ Mutamassik and guitar player Morgan Craft. The first person I see is a nice black child sitting in her pram: she's the daughter of the DJ, so she's baby-sitted by a member of the promoter's team ("they're doing their soundcheck"). Then, the child starts losing her patience, and here comes daddy, a black man six feet tall who I immediately decide must be a professional sports player of some sort.
We go in. About three hundred and fifty paying customers. I notice excitement in the air. The concert starts, and it's the familiar mix of a thousand ingredients, from a blues tune to a wild guitar piece, from a ballad to a Mediterranean air with sampled voice. Nothing wrong with it, but we've heard this polystylistic mix so many times that I think nowadays it's not possible to present it anymore - as somebody has indeed done - as a "quality item", regardless of its execution. And it's here that things go really, really wrong. Hofstra is the axis, while the drummer plays a lot but absolutely lacks precision, so the whole group plays like it's walking on quicksand. Compared to the Postizos, here Ribot appears to proceed as if "by instinct", so that each moment seems to magically appear without much logic. The work of the DJ is nothing special, but it's at least pertinent to what's going on. The most perplexing player is the other guitar player (who, by the way, is the man I thought to be a professional sports player), who appears to have started playing the guitar (it's a Fender Stratocaster that goes "pìng!") not too long ago; he appears fearful of losing the beat (in fact, this is what happens a couple of times!), and also laughs like somebody who's quite afraid, and embarrassed to be on stage. All in all, a real disaster, which made me even more dubious about Ribot than I already was after seeing him in June, playing with John Zorn.

Dave Douglas Freak In
Can you think of a dumber name? Anyway, as long as the music is good all is forgiven. In the program notes to the concert, the music was introduced like this: "kaleidoscopic and energetic electric jazz, a follow-up to both Bitches Brew and On The Corner". I'll immediately admit that I've always had my (heavy) dose of reservations about Dave Douglas (whom I consider to be one of the most overvalued jazz players of the last decade along with Uri Caine). I still remember the heavy dose of disconcertment when I listened to the album on which he had insipidly arranged (and performed) some tunes by Joni Mitchell - a CD that I bought, and which I immediately gave away. As for the concert, I really don't know what to say about "kaleidoscopic", but "energetic" it wasn't - instead, it reminded me of an amoeba made of smoke. Miles is very, very far - and talking about On The Corner it's enough to recall the clear pages written by Lester Bangs about that tense album to laugh for the absurdity of the comparison. There's more than a bit of Davis, and also some Don Cherry - I wonder why nowadays practically nobody mentions him - in Douglas's trumpet playing. The line-up is good: Gene Lake is a drummer who plays a lot but who also possesses a lot of intelligence, Brad Jones on double bass is never upfront but plays quality stuff; compared to the leader, tenor sax Marcus Strickland sounds like the devil; again, I am quite perplexed by Jamie Saft's treated Fender Rhodes - he plays the same solo he played (three times in one night) when I saw him playing with John Zorn, about three weeks ago; DJ Olive does a nice job, but I think the stuff he plays could be played by any keyboard player with average ability and a couple of expanders, only with less effort and theatricality (may I say that the king is naked? that in many of today's jazz line-ups the DJs play the same role that was played by the gratuitous use of electricity thirty-five years ago?). Douglas is ok, but the music is nothing to shout about, a couple of times inviting us to sleep (this, Bitches Brew?!). About three hundred people for a concert that would have paled not only when compared to Miles in his electric prime, but also to a fusion record by Herbie Hancock (for instance, Crossings).

Here's the night of the big event, the night of the monsters of jazz, with an audience of 1.200 (or maybe it's 1.400?). And here comes the surprise: while absolutely everybody is expecting a night of "classy entertainment" - theme, solos, three fast ones, a ballad, then a drum solo - the four musicians play for almost two hours some really subtle, intense, tense, concentrated music. Totally unexpected - just like the start of the concert, when Shorter hits the music stand (yes, they'll read from sheet music) and Holland plays like he's still tuning. An hour later, when the lights go brighter, one could see the audience in the central sector all wide-eyed, totally baffled. Brian Blade - a jazz drummer who lists among his favourite musicians such artists like Joni Mitchell (he's played with her) and Laura Nyro - plays a fantastic concert, his snare and hi-hat very dry (à la Tony Williams on Out To Lunch), his toms quite deep and dark. Holland's timbre still possesses that beautiful roundness we remember so well. Hancock and Shorter are like each other's shadow, their arpeggios and melodic lines overlapping beautifully. Shorter plays a lot, mostly on tenor; sometimes his lines seem to bend over themselves in a way that resembles more an experimentalist like Roscoe Mitchell than players of the "modern jazz revival" field. Hancock plays with the expected musicality and finesse. There's also to be said of a clear P.A. and of a competent mixing work (at the end of the concert Hancock will rightly thank the sound engineer), so that a big-sounding drumset and an airy soprano can happily coexist. As a brief encore: Cantaloupe Island.

Uri Caine Trio
Maybe because Superband played just the previous evening; maybe because - at the very last minute - it's announced that the concert by the Uri Caine Trio is to be held at the venue called Mercati Generali (a well-known venue not too far from the town); well... tonight at the concert there are just one hundred people. The concert starts at 22.30. I think it can be said that, when taken on its own terms, the concert was not that bad. But it's exactly those terms that left me cold. Drew Gress on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums are a good rhythm section, inventive and full sounding. Maybe they lack in subtlety, but when taking into account the way the leader plays - always as many notes as possible, with a heavy-fisted attack - maybe they have no other choice. The piano is without a doubt an instrument that invites one to overplay, but here Uri Caine's musical pronunciation appears more suitable to classical music crescendos than to creating something subtle (and so sometimes the rhythm section has no choice but to play "against" the piano). This was really quite apparent when, at about a quarter to midnight, Uri Caine started playing Monk's Round About Midnight (still there are people who say that American people lack a sense of humour...), easily making the song sink under the weight of his academic rhetoric.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Aug. 12, 2004