Roy Hargrove, Vijay Iyer and Paolo Fresu fire up Umbria Jazz 2018

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This year was the 45th anniversary of Umbria Jazz and it proved to be one of its most successful with some 33,000 tickets sold to jazz fans who attended 250 concerts. The festival's organisers have long acknowledged that the main arena capacity of 5,000 seated or 7,000 standing is simply too big for the majority of jazz artists to fill. Thus, only three out of 10 shows there featured jazz artists, with the Quincy Jones 85th Birthday Concert (below), and two brilliant double-bills of Kyle Eastwood/Pat Metheny and Melody Gardot/Gregory Porter capable of filling the space.

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Yet, the real beauty of Umbria Jazz lies in the intimacy of the smaller venues and also the Corso Vannuci, the main street of this hill town where the jazz programming centres on the Teatro Morlacchi and the Galleria National dell'Umbria.

Stand-out concerts at the Morlacchi included a burning set by trumpeter Roy Hargrove (pictured top) who gave everything from the outset, while his quintet, featuring Justin Robinson on alto sax, were immensely impressive. The Mingus Big Band were equally exciting and rabid – no prisoners taken here – with the force and relevance of the music belying its age. Their forthcoming residency at Ronnie Scott's in October is a must see.

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Trumpeter Paolo Fresu played two shows – one with his well-known Devil Quartet and one with his new Lumina Project (above), the latter a piano trio plus voice and cello. Lumina is a concept album about light with its 10 pieces each titled 'Light' in 10 different languages. The album was conceived and produced by Fresu with compositions and lyrics by the band. It's an intriguing work, the cello and voice harmonising beautifully, with an outstanding performance from pianist Marco Bardoscia. The trumpeter joined the group for the last five pieces, while his ethereal flugelhorn playing was the icing on the cake.

Another top-notch performance came via vocal kingpin Kurt Elling, who was at his masterful best, with guest trumpeter Marquis Hill adding another dimension to the music.

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Probably the best show came at the end with Vijay Iyer (above) who featured tunes from his recent ECM album, Far from Over. This demanded concentrated listening with incredible playing from Steve Lehman (alto) Mark Shim (tenor) and Graham Haynes (cornet). Iyer interjected more mellow piano solos to add balance and context to his really deep and complex music.

Elsewhere, the Galleria Nationale dell'Umbria featured mostly solo piano and duets, the most enjoyable of which was Antonello Salis (piano, accordion) and Simone Zanchini (accordion, electronics), Their continuous set featured a melange of around 50 well-known tunes ranging from Zappa's 'I Am The Slime' to Ravel's 'Bolero' via Ennio Morricone's theme from the film 'The Good the Bad & the Ugly'. This was a joyous romp full of humour and alternative time signatures, all very cleverly and seamlessly sewn together.

The best of the solo piano sets came from Ethan Iverson (above), who played his first ever public solo concert, before which he admitted to the audience that he was 'slightly worried'. He needn't have been. All of the class and imagination you would expect in his playing from playing in The Bad Plus for years was there, all delivered with a convincingly deft touch.

Dan Kinzelman brought his Ghost Project to the festival: a very interesting combination of three saxes and one trumpet. Featuring through composed pieces with incidental percussion, the writing and playing different and interesting. I was lucky enough to watch a rehearsal of the show and the care and precision in the compositions was extraordinary.

The best set at the Galleria came from Gianluca Petrella (trombone, electronics) and Pasquale Mirra (vibes). A highly talented and inventive musician, Petrella has found an ideal partner in the brilliant Mirra – both musicians capable of stunning solos and chilled ensemble playing.

Story and photos by Tim Dickeson