In the mid-thirteenth century, Franciscans shared meagre fare in contemplative silence here in the refectory, attached to their 13th-century San Francesco church. In this once-sacred space – now called the “Ristorante San Francesco” – the jubilant Italians Italians rock out to blues, soul and jazz rhythms as Umbria Jazz Winter blasts in the New Year in Orvieto.
I thought about those Franciscans as we joined in the Ristorante San Francesco Jazz Dinner a couple of nights ago, singing along with Italian guests (mostly) to “Respect” sung by Chicago blues singer Chick Rodgers, (who dedicated this song to Aretha Frankln).
The rounded Romanesque arches of the former Franciscan refectory now frame the stage where top blues and jazz musicians perform at the Jazz Lunch and Jazz Dinner events of Umbria Jazz Winter. As Chick Rodgers belted out blues favorites, enthusiastic fans filled their plates with Umbria specialties at the buffet table in the center of the restaurant. The wooden-planked refectory tables are long gone.
Perched on a volcanic rock plateau and once an important Etruscan city-state, the splendor of medieval Orvieto has backdropped Umbria Jazz Winter for the eighteenth year. No doubt about it: the music is enhanced by the historical/cultural richness of the venues. Gospel takes the Gothic vaults off the elegant black and white-striped catherdral and jazz rhythms fill the 13th century civic palace, Palazzo del Popolo, built of tufo rock and topped with unusual curved battlements. Nearby, in the courtyard at the base of the 16th-century Torre del Moro, revered elderly jazz pianist, Renato Sellani, enthuses guests enjoying aperitifs and antipastos. Surrounded by the bronze sculptural masterpieces of Emilio Greco, blues enthusiasts enjoy concerts in the 13th-century papal palace, now a museum of sculpture (lower floors) and medieval treasures of Orvieto (upper floor).
In over twelve years of immersion in Umbria Jazz Winter, we’ve stayed in all kinds of lodgings: hotels, B&B’s and a convent in the medieval center of Orvieto, as well as modern hotels in the newer area of Orvieto below the tufo rock plateau. We once stayed in an agriturismo (farmhouse B&B) in the countryside about 15 miles from Orvieto: we booked late that year. Orvieto lodgings sell out a year in advance of Umbria Jazz.
This year we stayed with Signora Liliana for a couple days in her house just in front of San Domenico, the stately Dominican church of the fourteenth century (as is common in the Middle Ages, the mendicant orders’ preaching churches formed the urban fabric of the town). Signora Liliana is a widow and opens her home and heart to us: this year she called us in early December to wish us a “Buon Natale” – and then asked if we’d be with her for Umbria Jazz! Over coffee and her Christams panettone, Signora Liliana told us stories of her childhood of “la miseria” (abysmal poverty)- and how she was sent off at the age of ten to live with an aunt and apprentice as a seamstress after her mother died.
She hugged us as Pino and I left for home in Assisi for New Year’s Eve with our family. We headed back to Orvieto on the first for the gran finale days of Umbria Jazz Winter with Roman friends.
The highlight for me? Reveling in the evident passione of the Italians for jazz, most certainly. Alfredo Rodriguez, brilliant young Cuban jazz pianist, enthused the crowds at Palazzo del Popolo and the Gospel group performing there earlier that day had the Italians dancing with them in the aisles to “O Happy Days”. Superb Italian jazz drummer, Roberto Gatto, packed “the house”, ie, the lower floor of the Palazzo del Popolo as guests enjoyed an Orvieto wine during his concert. A standing ovation wound up the concert of Chicago blues singer and composer, Dee Alexander, performing in the midst of the polished bronze sculptures in the Museo Emilio Greco. I never knew what a tuba could do to music til I heard Oren Marshall perform in the Brass Bang quartet, a group formed by famed Sardinian jazz trumpeter, Paolo Fresu. Chick Corea on one piano and Italian genius, Stefano Bollani, on another, teamed for a piano duel to a sellout crowd in the splendid nineteenth-century frescoed Teatro Mancinelli. As the festival director introducing them had pointed out, “Human alchemy unites two artistic geniuses.”
We heard alot of geniuses in our four days at Umbria Jazz Winter.
For more on Umbria Jazz, click here
To read about Umbria Jazz in Perugia in July, click here
For more on Italian passione, click here.
Read about that hot jazz passion in Perugia
Read about a talented young Sicilian jazz musician
Read more on that Italian jazz enthusiasm
Click here to read about Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto
Enjoy Funk Off on YouTube
Read another note on Sonny Rolllins at Umbria Jazz