Review: Siena Jazz Workshops 2014

Mark Gilbert visits Siena and sees jazz in the making at the city's annual jazz workshops with leading American and Italian teachers

As our coverage shows, we have an embarrassment of festivals in July and August, so plenty to see. But it’s not so often we get a chance to see musicians developing their craft. A welcome invitation to do so came this year from the 44th jazz workshop in Siena (24 July-7 August 2014), some 44 miles from Florence.

There were evening concerts by leading players and their students, but the meat of the matter was the daytime tuition for some 108 students, mostly from Italy but also from the UK, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere. The 30-strong faculty was half Italian, half from overseas, chiefly the USA. In the week I was present, 24-29 July, the teachers included Ambrose Akinmusire and Avishai Cohen (t), Mark Turner, Anat Cohen and Claudio Fasoli (reeds), Lionel Loueke (elg), Stefano Battaglia and David Virelles (p), Matt Penman (b), Jeff Ballard and Roberto Gatto (d) and Diana Torto (v).

All students received a combination of combo and improvisation classes. I sat in on a Lionel Loueke class which spent an hour running down a couple of Loueke’s riffbased compositions, well grasped by his class of players ranging from 18 years upwards. The 18-year-old was Nicola Caminiti (pictured right) from Sicily, a big fan of Kenny Garrett, who showed great maturity in superimposing interesting harmonic colours over one of Loeuke’s modal grooves. The singer Francesca Palamidessi showed a similar fluency and musical ambition, her scat lines skilfully stepping out and back again over a single chord.

This session, like all the combo classes, led to student and tutor concerts later in the week. The same players, and others, performed in jam sessions nightly in the gardens of the 17 contrade, or old districts of the city of Siena – a good way to involve the whole community in the summer’s jazz endeavours. The contrade were set up in the Middle Ages to supply soldiers to defend Siena’s independence against nearby Florence. That fight is long over, but the competitive spirit is still alive, now channelled into the Palio, in which the contrade compete twice each summer in horse races around the capacious Piazza del Campo.

If by day Siena Jazz let us into some of the trade secrets of the music, by night the tutors performed in several concerts at historic venues around the city. Several of these took place in the open air in front of the beautifully preserved Romanesque-Gothic Duomo di Siena (cathedral of Siena). The opening night featured the Siena University Big Band in a set of expertly executed mostly standard material.

The second night offered unusual ad hoc quartet combinations from among the tutors, pitching melodic reedswoman Anat Cohen in with the relatively abstract trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured left), and then the cerebral, Warne Marsh inclined Mark Turner with Anat’s brother, the trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Lionel Loueke, using the octave-divider built into his guitar, provided the bass lines for the Cohen-Turner group. Standards supplied common ground and the chance to see these fine players at work in ways you don’t often hear on record.

The third night brought sets in the university courtyard from Claudio Fasoli’s quartet, the rubato modal and modified Latin settings often recalling Coltrane and Wayne Shorter at their coolest, and a high energy session from Avishai Cohen (t), Stefano Battaglia (p), Matt Penman (b) and Roberto Gatto (d) (pictured below). Even when the tempo was down, the mood reflective, the group brimmed with intensity. Battaglia’s work in an often dense and combative setting was outstanding, no doubt due to the clarity, distinctiveness and virtuosic delivery of his ideas, often including some welcome rhythmic flippancy.

It had rained heavily that day and the weather was damp for the time of year but never persistently so and it soon passed, its deposits quickly evaporating to leave a typical Tuscan balminess. It’s hard to imagine a more attractive setting for a jazz summer school, the mostly pedestrianised and ancient city full of historic charm. It wasn’t chosen for its location though. Rather, the Siena Jazz Foundation, the year-round jazz college that stages the summer school, grew from the enthusiasm of local aficionados.

Now situated in the medieval fort of Fortezza Medicea, it was formed in 1977 by jazz fans and musicians including the man who became and remains its director, Franco Caroni. Geographically remote as Siena is, Caroni says the courses started by the foundation became a focal point for jazz education in Italy, partly because they were unique and partly because Siena is located between the two main jazz poles of the country, Rome and Milan. He reckons that 80 per cent of the jazz teachers in the 700 Italian colleges now offering jazz classes came through Siena.

The foundation continues to advance, two years ago attaining bachelor degree status and from 2015 offering a master’s degree. Standing apart from the state-run university of Siena, it is the first private institution in Italy qualified to award music degrees of any kind. True to its founding motive – enthusiasm for jazz – its mission is to diffuse jazz culture in general, combining production (concerts and recording), education and research. To the latter end, the foundation houses an extensive library. Directed by Francesco Martinelli, it is the only one of its kind in Italy, and repository for a large collection of this magazine, among others.

I had reluctantly to move on after the first week, but it was clear that with teachers in the second week of the course including David Binney and Walter Smith III (s), Mark Guiliana (d), Nir Felder (g), Reuben Rogers (b) and our own John Taylor (p) Siena Jazz’s high standards are in safe hands. The cost of the course this year was €800 but the “auditor” fee was only €300. Jazz enthusiasts of any age could find it the perfect way to combine both learning and a visit to one of Italy’s most attractive cities. Interested candidates should visit

1) Nicola Caminiti by Francesco Martinelli
2) Ambrose Akinmusire and Anat Cohen by Caterina Di Perri
3) Stefano Battaglia, Avishai Cohen, Matt Penman & Roberto Gatto by Francesco Martinelli
4) A Siena 2014 jazz class by Caterina Di Perri


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