Opening night of Umbria Jazz Melbourne! The Forum was filled with jazz enthusiasts, musicians, journalists, diplomatic staff, and politicians. The evening kicked off with a gourmet meal for VIPs (my invite never arrived, oddly).

Before the performance, the foyer was buzzing, the festival staff looked stressed but optimistic. I went to my seat ready to hear some of the Italian musicians I had read so much about. Oh, but first, a speech from the Chair, the Politician, and the Artistic Director. Carlo Pagnotta (AD) welcomed the audience to the Melbourne Umbria Jazz Festival and beckoned Funk Off, an energetic brass and percussion street band from Italy who’ll be performing at various venues throughout the festival. From the back of the hall they began to play, parading towards the front row and landing at the feet of a grinning Pagnotta, who virtually conducted them from the stage. They did two ‘funky’, loud numbers and were a delightful start to the festival before they funked off and the AD introduced the next band.

Marco Zurzolo Quintet (Italy) featured a couple of very strong musicians. Their style of music could perhaps be described as hard bop fusion meets traditional Neopolitan. Zurzolo, on alto sax, played allegro on every number. Utterly charming, his intro to the musicians in his band was comical, speaking phoenetic English from a scrap of paper, a language seemingly as foreign to him as Lithuanian is to most Australians. I can’t tell you what their names were because the audience was laughing so much (so was the band). The two stars of that quintet, I felt, were the trombonist with a great tone, and drummer on the left. There was a second drumset with a percussionist stationed behind, but the sound problems in the cavernous Forum made it hard to hear what he was doing. During their last number, Pagnotta came on stage, red wine in hand straight to the mic, enthusing about the musicians. The band took a bow, Pagnotta instructed them to play again, the audience agreed, so they played again with glee. Pagnotta came back for the encore too with another guy on clarinet whose name I didn’t catch either. It was loud, chaotic fun and very Italiano.

After the break the Chairman was back to introduce the main act, two giants of jazz: James Morrison and Joe Chindamo. Albert Dadon acknowledged that it was the previous Artistic Director, Adrian Jackson, who thankfully had first got these two together. What can you say about this duo of exceptional musicians? Their performance is a bit like a Wimbledon Men’s Final between two close mates. Writing about how great the gig was, seems like stating the obvious but what the hell, it was bloody marvellous. The duo seem more comfortable with each other than last year’s performance (which incidentally was a draw). If they hadn’t played a single note, the gig would have still been highly entertaining, because they are so funny together. Morrison doing most of the talking and a relaxed Chindamo, enjoying himself immensely, dropping the occasional witty one liner. The duo clearly love playing together and the audience flipped out, many standing and applauding loudly bringing them back for a final exciting encore.

Umbria Jazz Melbourne runs until 15th May 2005. For more information go to: http://www.ujm05.org/ index.php

Hash Varsani is the owner of The Jazz Directory, a network of sites related to jazz, travel and everything else he loves. He also runs a selection of jazz related sites including Jazz Club Jury, a jazz club and festival review site. Check out his Google+ Profile, to see what else he's up to...probably setting up another website from one of his many passions.