Bill Frisell, Franco D'Andrea feat. Han Bennink and the Italian new wave signal JAZZMI's ambition

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Bill-Frisell

 Milan's new jazz festival is inspired by London and it's one to watch

To reach the Blue Note jazz club, you have to cross a flyover on the edge of the city centre. A motorway roars beneath you. The UniCredit building, with its twisted spire, looms out of the fog. Behind it are the shadows of more towers – banks and apartment buildings, Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale – their aircraft warning lights pulsing crimson through the gloom. 

Milan isn't what you imagine when you think of Italy. It's not the Italy of La Dolce Vita – a crumbling outdoor museum where the pace of life is borderline non-existent. The Lombard capital is an economic powerhouse: a centre of finance as well as fashion. Among Italians, the Milanese have a reputation for productivity and ambition. They want to get ahead.

In that respect, JAZZMI, the city's new festival, feels typically Milanese. One of its co-founders, Luciano Linzi, used to work for the Umbria Jazz Festival, but he was ready for a fresh start. Much like Milan's financial sector, he looked to London for inspiration, and it shows. JAZZMI is only in its second year, but it already feels a lot like the London Jazz Festival – everything from the slick marketing and the graphic design to the shape of the programme: 150 events spread over 11 days (exhibitions, talks, masterclasses and film screenings, as well as gigs) at venues from the centre to the suburbs. Like London, there's something for all tastes: Laura Mvula and De La Soul or Mulatu Astatke, the Arkestra and French experimentalist Eve Risser. Take your pick. And, like London, this embarrassment of riches means plenty of horror-show clashes to contend with.

On Thursday night, after a fair bit of agonising, I pitched up at the main venue, the elegant Teatro dell'Arte (which once hosted Miles Davis and John Coltrane) in the Triennale Design Museum, to see Bill Frisell's Music for Strings, just as Joe Lovano was taking the stage on the other side of town. I'm very glad I did. It was one of the highlights of the week. In fact, I can't really offer you a review so much as a list of superlatives. All four of the strings – Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman, viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts – are musicians in the truest sense of the word. There's something innocent, almost naive, about the way they play – sat round in a semi-circle, like the members of a village hall reading group (Bill Frisell's book club), exchanging encouraging nods and sheepish smiles as they feel their way through the music. Together they gave us subtle, softly spoken accounts of tunes from the guitarist's extensive back catalogue – all fragmented melodies and lilting grooves – along with covers of 'What The World Needs Now' and an ingenious reimagining of 'For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)', which melted into a cello feature full of thrumming chords and burbling bariolage.


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Better still was their unstated take on 'Blue In Green'. God I love that tune: the enchanting strangeness of its chord progression and the simplicity of the melody, so full of longing and of loss. Done well it's the most devastatingly beautiful composition in all of jazz, and the strings played it very well indeed. It was the kind of set that stayed with you for days. Later in the week, watching pianist Harold López-Nussa (the latest young Buena Vista acolyte to salsa out of Cuba) burn through yet another flashy, feature-length solo, I thought about it again. Frisell played one, 30-second improvisation in the whole of his set. Every note was in the service of the music and it meant so much more.

On the same stage the night before, Chicagoan trumpeter Rob Mazurek and Tortoise guitarist and ex-AACMer Jeff Parker, gave one of the more challenging performances of the festival. Their improvised soundscapes veered between dark and playful, bracing and lullabye-sweet. Parker took care of the scenery, layering drones and spinning fragile finger-picked loops, while Mazurek went exploring, manipulating the hunting horn squawk of his piccolo trumpet, triggering field recordings (bells, rattles, bird calls) from his laptop, and adding the occasional burst of shamanic vocals. I drifted in and out, but there were some genuinely compelling moments. Once Mazurek's piccolo clashed so hard with Parker's drones the sound seemed to fracture and distort in your ears. Later the guitarist responded to a crystal clear trumpet line with a burst of mad distortion and a figure that sounded like a Led Zeppelin guitar riff ravaged and degraded by the centuries.

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The most satisfying thing about JAZZMI's programme, for a visitor like me, was its coverage of the Italian scene. The usual suspects were all there – trumpeter Paolo Fresu, pianist Stefano Bollani – but there were lots of names we don't often see in the UK. Trombonist Gianluca Petrella won a stack of rising star awards in the early 2000s and has worked with both Carla Bley and Pat Metheny. I'd heard of him, but I knew nothing of his latest project, Cosmic Renaissance, a five-piece who released their self-titled debut in the summer of 2016. Their sound is a kind of gritty, alt-rock fusion, carried along by a churning undertow of bass, drumkit and percussion, but prone to sudden flare-ups – with Petrella unleashing bestial wails and storms of electronics and burning trumpeter Mirco Rubegni adding angular scribbles.

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Reeds player Francesco Bearzatti's Tinissima Quartet brought more fire, rattling through the tracklist to their latest album, This Machine Kills Fascists, a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The music describes a journey from Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma to New York, opening with wispy textures and the sound of a wooden whistle, taking in locomotive grooves, bluesy refrains, bursts of gravelly overdriven guitar and fruity clarinet breakdowns full of theatrical glissandi. One of the group's trademarks is playing frantic bebop heads over rock'n'roll grooves, which sounds like the kind of madness you babble into your voice memos at 4am, but works surprisingly well. On tenor Bearzatti recalls Michael Brecker. He's a master of rhythmic invention too and pushed it right to the edge during his solos. Trumpeter Giovanni Falzone was even more varied. He can do everything from smokey and balladic to blazing and free. I can live without the bursts of throat singing and falsetto squeals though, impressive as they are.

Roots & Future, an original commission by the festival marking the centenary of the first jazz recording, was another highlight. It was led by Franco D'Andrea, widely regarded as Italy's greatest living pianist, who jelly rolled Morton up with Thelonious Monk on free interpretations of trad jazz classics, including 'Livery Stable Blues', 'Original Dixieland One Step' and 'Tiger Rag'. Daniele D'Agaro added caterwauling clarinet to the rasping, tightly muted trombone of Mauro Ottolini (a brilliant instrumentalist who appeared in several other bands during the festival). Eccentric Dutch drummer and musical absurdist Han Bennink played snare, the floorboards and his own head, signalling the end to each tune with a tourettes-ish yelp, and once by falling over – eliciting a crackly guffaw from revered American record producer Michael Cuscuna who was at the festival to give a talk and sat just to my left. "People take jazz too seriously. I like a bit of humour." For the second Encore, D'Andrea came out alone and played a masterful rendition of 'Summertime'. He used barely two octaves of the piano's range, but there was so much interest. His reharmonisations of its well worn chord sequence were bewitching. Yet again I thought about Frisell, and of the great Stan Tracey.

But enough about the old masters. Italy's new generation has promise too and I made a couple of genuine discoveries. There were some exciting moments in a set from Ghost Horse, a young six-piece who opened for Mazurek and Parker and mashed grungy riffs with washes of guitar, beatific brass chorales and trombone and tuba multiphonics. And I enjoyed Purple Whales, a sextet led by young pianist Simone Graziano, who played inventive, guitarless takes on Hendrix tunes, combining swirling textures and undulating grooves with slamming aggression, richly textured cello, and vocals. Both Graziano and the group's second keys player, Alessandro Lanzoni, sounded sparkling. Their set was made even better by the trippy setting – a wood-panelled box on the first floor of the Triennale next to a gallery full of giant toys, which you reached by a suspended walkway that doubled as the nose for a wall-sized Pinocchio's face. No word of a lie. Pursuing a cabinet of disgruntled dolls while listening to an abstract take on 'Voodoo Child' felt brilliantly weird.

Every effort has been made to work this festival into the fabric of the city and Milan has given JAZZMI has some brilliant venues to play with. Another favourite was the recently reopened Palazzo Litta – an opulent 17th century mansion that played host to Life Size Acts, an exhibition of photographs by Roberto Masotti, photographer both for ECM and Milan's Teatro alla Scala, one of the world's great opera houses.

On the final day of the festival, I tagged along as Linzi raced around town introducing some of the free gigs (there were 60 in total throughout the week). The quality of the music was variable, but there were more great venues. At the city's Museum of Science and Technology evening concerts were taking place in the ballroom of a transatlantic steamer and – when the sun began to set and flocks of screaming starlings came home to roost in the trees – we took the lift an ear-popping 31 floors up the Pirelli Tower and looked out on the city's financial district from above as a young trio hotel lobbied their way through some standards.

Linzi has big plans for the future of JAZZMI, including joint commissions and partnerships with other European festivals, and he wants to expand the lineup even further, bringing in more acts from France and Scandinavia. It's already incredibly exciting – a festival made in London's image, snapping at London's heels.

– Thomas Rees 
– Photos by Luca Vantusso (Bill Frisell) and Angela Bartolo (Gianluca Petrella and Francesco Bearzatti's Tinissima Quartet 

JAZZMI returns 2–11 November 2018. For more info visit www.jazzmi.it