David Virelles at Umbria Jazz Festival 2023 | Credit: Josef Woodard

This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on July 20, 2023. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.

As I write this, I’m in Perugia, Italy, basking in the seasonal heat (not necessarily the globally-warmed kind) and steeped in the annual poly-sonic banquet that is the Umbria Jazz Festival. Assisi is just down the road, a half-hour train ride away, and other treats await in this region, lesser known than Tuscany, but well worth the visit, on or off festival time.

The hilltop city of Perugia brims with layers of history, from the Etruscan walls and wells of pre-BC centuries to Roman architecture. In the much more modern era, an important landmark is, in the last 50 years, the Umbria Jazz Fest that has been making its way into the upper reaches of the world’s jazz festival culture. To many, the very word “Umbria” has a jazz association.

Thanks to the festival founded by Carlo Pagnotta, music ripples in the city air for ten summer days and nights, from the mainstage arena shows to the opera-boxy vintage venue of Teatro Morlacchi (circa 1780) and the intimate performance “Sala Podiani,” in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. On the streets, outdoor stages and buskers keep the air thick with musical ululations, from the 11:30 a.m. wake-up call march by the hip brass-drums group Funk Off to music after midnight. Our street-facing room in the Hotel la Rosetta was rarely a quiet retreat for 10 days, and who’s complaining?

Scenes from Perugia 2023 | Credit: Josef Woodard

As with many jazz festivals, pop music sneaks onto the menu, partly as a way of bankrolling more specialized music in the line of actual jazz. So it goes with this festival, with an arena line-up framed by Bob Dylan as opener and blues-rocker Joe Bonamossa, along with trusty crowd-cullers Ben HarperStewart Copeland’s cheesy “Police De-Ranged for Orchestra” shindig, and the jazz-flavored party-stoking of Snarky Puppy.

A general spotlight went to Italian pianists of note — Stefano Bollani, the eminent Enrico PieranunziDanilo Rea, and Rita Marcotulli. Italian trumpeters also got their due, my favorite being lyrical veteran Enrico Rava (in duet with American piano titan Fred Hersch), elegant moodster Paolo Fresu, and solid mainstreamer Fabrizio Bosso. Wildman trombonist Gianluca Petrella fell into electro-acoustic grooves of his clever devising with his group Cosmic Renaissance.

For my ear’s money, the more interesting and subtle or conceptual pianists came from the Caribbean, in the form of cerebral Cuban-born dynamo David Virelles (an artist deserving — and slowly getting — more respect on the world stage), and Panamanian-born Danilo Pérez’s trio with John Patitucci and Adam Cruz, a thrilling encounter with the former bandmates of late, great Wayne Shorter’s last band. Wayne was in the wings, in spirit.

Samara Joy (left) and Olivia Trummer at Umbria Jazz Festival 2023 | Credit: Josef Woodard

An unofficial guitar hero day started with museum solo sets by individualist ruffian Marc Ribot — including a wild take on “Stella by Starlight,” mischievously deconstructed and flecked with references to late avant-garde guitar god Derek Bailey. That night’s highlight came with a powerful show by deceptively easy going guitar legend Bill Frisell’s new band, Four, in the Morlacchi.

On the list of surprise delights, and artists ripe for further investigation (for me and other music-interested parties), were the fascinating and lyrical German singer-keyboardist Olivia Trummer and Italian drummer Enrico Morello’s “Cyclic Signs,” a captivating avant-tinged quartet sans chordal instruments, with shades of Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill in the mix.

You’d think my taste for pasta and jazz would be oversaturated by now. But no. Bring ‘em on.

Arts & Lectures and Global Culture, Oh My

Samara Joy | Credit: Courtesy

As much as this Umbrian jazz trip took me far away from life in the 805, it also brought it all home, serving as a reminder of Santa Barbara’s links to the greater cultural world. Three of the more significant Umbria acts — Herbie Hancock, dazzling newcomer Samara Joy, and authentic national treasure Rhiannon Giddens — are also pillars of the upcoming season of the UCSB Arts & Lectures musical roster. Hancock, still vital, funky, deep, and energized at 83, shows up at the Granada on April 17, 2024. Ambi-talented Giddens, recently hunkered down in Ojai as music director, will appear both with her partner Francesco Turrisi (the duet heard in Perugia, and at Ojai) at the Granada on April 23, 2024 and as new head of the Silk Road Ensemble, at the Granada on November 9.

As for the vastly gifted and virtuosic — and highly personable — Joy, whose stock has zoomed upward since nabbing this year’s Best New Artist Grammy, news of her show at the Granada on December 8 is something of a booking coup. Her Umbria appearance at the Morlacchi was more than warmly greeted: having appeared at the festival for the past two years, her show in the “big house” had the feel of a command performance by a returning heroine. She had me at her new lyrics for Charles Mingus’s “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” and her drama-fueled “Guess Who I Saw Today.”

Needless to say, after all these years, Santa Barbara’s cultural landscape would be a much bleaker place without Arts & Lectures, which keeps us entertained and enlightened, not to mention plugged into the world’s cultural riches. It’s an ever-moving target, as is A&L’s programming vision.

Music Academy Corner

On Sunday, July 23, the Music Academy finds a fruitful excuse to collaborate with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), to the tune/visualization of “BEYOND CONVERSATION: Radiant Frequencies.” Academy fellows will perform music in collaborative sync with famed visual artist Awol Erizku, whose work as painter, sculptor, photographer, and conceptualist earned him a New Yorker profile. Music is central to his aesthetic, from Miles Davis’s Nefertiti to the hip hop niche of Drill, and photographer of Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, and others. It sounds like the makings of this week’s most enticing cross-cultural event. Info here.
The Academy’s “Picnic Concert ” series, featuring Academy Fellows and some of the area’s choicer picnicking grounds, continues this Friday, July 21, with a program including the premiere of Études by Samuel Carl Adams (son of John).

Check the calendar here.


Nate Birkey at SOhO, 2022 | Credit: Josef Woodard

It’s no coincidence that beloved jazz trumpeter-vocalist Nate Birkey often pops by for his eagerly-awaited SOhO shows around Fiesta time. Birkey, who spent many years in Santa Barbara before moving to NYC many years ago, and who has released ten albums under his name and earned positive reviews in DownBeat magazine, was a founding member of Spencer the Gardener. The Gardener literally goes to town with high-profile shows during Old Spanish Days, and Birkey heads west to join the band, booking a show or two to call his own.

Birkey, whose last album was the potent and romantic Rome, with Italian musicians, plays SOhO on Monday, July 24 with West Coast compadres Jim Connolly on bass, Peter Buck (the non-REM one) on drums, and pianist Jamieson Trotter.

(Full disclosure: Birkey and I have been musical collaborators many times over the years, and I am a principal owner/situationist at his label, Household Ink Records. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that readers should run, not walk, to catch his next SOhO show.)


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.