The Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop celebrated its 40th anniversary

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The Fortezza Medicea occupies a commanding position just outside the ancient city of Siena, where it has kept a watchful eye on the city’s inhabitants since the mid-16th century. Built by occupying forces, it no longer poses a threat to this beautiful Tuscan city.

Today it’s a place for a morning run, a meeting with friends, a bike ride or a few minutes quiet reflection. It’s also the home of the Siena Jazz University and, for two weeks in July and August each year, the venue for the Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop.

The Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop celebrated its 40th anniversary—and the 47th workshop to date—in 2017 (in the early years the workshops occurred twice a year). The workshop attracted 117 students from five continents, all of whom were required to submit proof of their experience and talent, including recordings of their playing, before being offered a place. It’s a popular and well-respected summer school, with a competitive entry process and a high standard of musicianship from the students. Over 30 musicians teach each year, half in week one and half in week two. The list of teachers would do justice to a jazz festival or concert series, such is their quality: the 2017 faculty included Dave DouglasMarcus Gilmore, and Stefano Battaglia. I was lucky enough to be invited by the organisers to join the students for the first six days of the 2017 event.

The Summer Workshop’s central activity is learning—the students are taught by leading jazz musicians and get the chance to work with the teachers as well as with their fellow students. However, the workshop organisers make sure that it is also part of Siena’s cultural scene: the nightly concerts and jam sessions are open to locals and visitors and take place in some of the city’s most beautiful settings.

The evening concert program began on the Monday, in the beautiful setting of the Piazza Jacopo della Quercia, adjacent to Siena’s Duomo, the Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century. Francesca Gaza and Lilac For People opened the evening. Vocalist and composer Gaza is a former student of the Jazz University and was also attending the Summer Workshop. Her compositions were ambitious and expansive, filled with thoughtful and reflective passages brought to life by her voice and the instruments of her band members. The Siena Jazz University Orchestra, a 24-piece big band, took over for the second half, with saxophonist Claudio Fasoli as a special guest. The set, which included Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” and John Coltrane’s “Naima,” featured Fasoli’s warm, nuanced, playing on both tenor and soprano saxophones. The orchestra proved to be a powerful, swinging, unit, with tight, strong, ensemble playing plus some excellent solos.

For Tuesday’s concert we were once again in the shadow of the Duomo. The thunder and rain of the early afternoon was no more than a memory: the night was devoted to ensembles formed by some of the week’s faculty members. The opening trio—vocalist Theo Bleckmann, guitarist Ben Monderand pianist Battaglia— played a low-key but atmospheric set. Bleckmann’s ethereal, wordless vocal seemed a perfect fit for the setting as it floated into the night sky. The evening’s second set was a much livelier affair, from a band led by trumpeter Douglas and featuring the first of two appearances in successive days by drummer Gilmore. Douglas and saxophonist Will Vinsontook care of announcements. The set started with Douglas’ “Hawaiian Punch.” Vinson’s “Upside” followed. Wayne Shorter’s “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” was next. Douglas announced that this was a new arrangement, although he didn’t identify the arranger: it was an arrangement briefly and unexpectedly enhanced by an emergency vehicle, lights flashing and siren wailing as it sped through the piazza.

Siena University, established in 1240, provided the venue for Wednesday night’s concert, once again featuring two bands of faculty members. In the first set, Diana Torto‘s powerful and inventive vocalising was impressive. My most striking memory of the night, however, came towards the end of the second set, courtesy of trumpet player Avishai Cohen. I returned to the venue with another audience member after collecting a beer from a nearby bar and stood at the rear of the space for a few moments, some low-key conversations filtering through from the crowd. Almost imperceptibly the conversations ceased as Cohen’s trumpet cut through—a simple, slow, three-note riff but repeated with such power and authority that it brought the audience to silence.

The students got their own opportunity to shine on the next two nights, when two of Siena’s contrade—the 17 local communities that make up the city—played host to jam sessions. Each contrada invited us into their private, open air, social centres in different parts of the city and five or six student groups performed on each occasion. The groups—ranging in size from quartets to sextets at the sessions I watched—mixed classic bebop with American Songbook standards and contemporary pieces, some written by the students themselves. Although there were signs of nervousness in some of the playing—not unexpected, given that the audience included many of the teachers—there were just as many signs of impressive technique and inventive improvisation.

The story of the Siena Jazz Summer Workshop is a fascinating and upbeat tale of how an informal but enthusiastic group can achieve great and long-lasting things. Without prog-rock, the school would never have existed. Claudio Fasoli, the saxophonist, composer and teacher who has been involved from the beginning, told me the story of the first Siena workshop. At the time, Fasoli was a member of jazz-fusion band Perigeo, a popular Italian group which released numerous albums in the 1970s. At one gig Perigeo was supported by a young prog-rock band, called Livello 7. The prog-rockers asked the jazz musicians for advice about improvising over chords as they sought to expand their musical abilities. Fasoli and his bandmates agreed to help and a meeting was arranged. As Fasoli remembers, this meeting took place a few months after the gig, in a house on top of a Tuscan hill, surrounded by chickens and a few pigs. The event was a success and three or four days of teaching ending with a night-time concert.

Franco Caroni was the bassist with Livello 7 and like his bandmates he enthusiastically took advantage of the tuition offered by Perigeo’s members. Caroni enjoyed the teaching and other musicians asked him if they, too, could benefit. More workshops were arranged and in 1977 the SIena Jazz Association was established. Workshops expanded, other courses were organised and the association grew quickly, soon developing a reputation for the finest jazz education in Italy. Caroni stopped playing and took on the administration and organisation of the workshops. “It was not my plan,” he told me, “The other musicians kept on playing, I took on the organisation, applying for funds. Someone had to take things in hand.” Caroni’s management of the workshops led, in 2011, to the creation of the Siena Jazz University which now awards its own diplomas, plans for a Masters program and runs courses for local musicians of all ages as well as the Peter Pan Orchestra for children. Forty years after that first summer workshop on improvisation, Caroni is the President of the Sienna Jazz Association and the head of the Jazz University, while Fasoli carries on as one of the Summer Workshop’s most popular faculty members.

Workshop proceedings started on the Monday morning, with registrations and administration followed by the opening lecture of the fortnight. This year, the students had the pleasure (if that’s the right term) of hearing from my good self on the subject of “Five Ways To Impress A Jazz Journalist.” The students’ questions and comments at the time and during the week suggested that at least some of them found my insights and opinions to be of use. Students also undertook an audition to ensure that they would be placed in class groups of similar abilities.

From day 2 onwards the students got down to the serious business of rehearsal and practice as the auditions drew to a close. At lunchtime journalist Ted Panken gave a talk about jazz in the digital age, drawing questions on subjects such as how to deal with being interviewed and how to cope with the vast amount of music that’s now accessible on the internet. Writer and jazz historian Francesco Martinelli gave his first lecture that evening, talking about the history of the Summer Workshop.

By mid-afternoon on the second day I had spoken with students from Italy, France, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Switzerland, Canada, Lithuania, (by the end of the week I added Israel, Australia and the UK to that list and was also aware of students from other nations who I didn’t have the chance to meet). They ranged from young players who were just about to leave high school, to students who had already studied widely (such as pianist Livio Lombardo, who has studied in Japan and China and introduced himself to me as a “musical martial artist”), to experienced performers such as Turkish vocalist Cagil Kaya who already have one or two album releases to their name. Without exception they were enthusiastic about jazz and about the workshop.

Wednesday morning saw the students beginning their studies in earnest. Each day’s program now involved sessions with various teachers, a total of 5 hours intensive study. In addition, in week one students also received daily lectures on the history of jazz from Martinelli.

Throughout the first week many of the students and teachers were kind enough to allow me to observe their teaching sessions. These included a “combo class” run by percussionist Ettore Fioravanti, whose group of six students included a singer, pianist, tenor saxophonist, flautist, guitarist and bassist. For most of the session the group worked on developing an arrangement of “Freddie Freeloader.” Combos rehearse together with the teacher as an integral part of the group, ready to play in public concerts at the end of each week. Bassist Drew Gress‘ combo—of piano, flute, vocals, trumpet and drums—shared its time equally between three tunes including Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” and Gress’ “Here, At The Bottom Of The Sky.” Marcus Gilmore’s combo, by contrast, rehearsed a song written by the combo’s vocalist. Improvisation sessions focussed on skills of solo and group improvisations. In Diana Torto’s session for six vocalists the group improvised individual and group vocal lines on Kenny Wheeler’s “Kind Folk,” with Torto guiding the vocalists, offering advice and giving tips for practice.

Saturday morning, 6:20 am, and I boarded the bus from Siena to Florence airport. Sadly, I had to leave before I got the chance to hear the combos perform but there were plenty of great memories to take away and plenty of reasons to return. The students had another week of study and playing to look forward to, with new faculty members ready and willing to pass on their knowledge and experience.

My thanks go to Francesco Martinelli, for inviting me to the workshop and for translating during my interview with Franco Caroni: also to Franco Caroni and Claudio Fasoli for information about the background to Siena Jazz, to Luca Nardi for his help in arranging my visit and to the team at Siena Jazz for their help and advice during my stay.

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