Live reviews

Reviews and dispatches from the SienaJazz International Summer Workshop (3): Siena Jazz Masters at the Cortile del Rettorato

Avishai Cohen, Miguel Zenon, Gerald Clayton, Matt Penman, Henry Cole

(Cortile del Rettorato, Siena. 26 July 2022. Live review / third dispatch (of four) by Sebastian Scotney)

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L-R: Gerald Clayton, Avishai Cohen, Matt Penman, Miguel Zenon, Henry Cole. Phone snap

This concert was one of the flagship events of Siena Jazz fortnight, with the focus moving right into the heart of the city. The audience, a completely full house, was welcomed into a space replete with history, the atmospheric “cortile” (courtyard) of the University Rettorata (rectory).

As the newly appointed Head of Culture for the City of Siena, Pasquale Colella Albino, expressed it succinctly in his introductory remarks, we had gathered to hear a group of musicians “di altissima qualità”. And he’s absolutely right: the quality of the faculty which Siena Jazz attract here to teach the 100 or so students at the summer academy really is astonishing.

And there is more messaging in operation here: the placing of this concert in a historic university building is anything but accidental: there has been a University in Siena ever since 1240, so this summer seminar which brings students to Siena to work with world-renowned musicians is being placed squarely in that centuries-old tradition.

Incidentally, ‘tanto di cappello’ (hats off) to Miguel Zenón who spoke of his sincere appreciation for the welcome the musicians receive every year here in Siena…(at least in part) in Italian.

A sense of ‘pride-in-what-we-do’, of jazz showing its very best self reached deep into last night’s programme (set list below), a single set lasting more or less exactly one hour. There were constant resonances to golden eras and to luminaries of the music: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea…and yet it was vert cleverly and subtly thought through. This was anything but the obvious ‘best-of’ or ‘greatest-hits’ package.

This cleverly shaped and constructed set took us from the initial skittery energy of “Half-Nelson”, to the poise and control of “My Ideal” (with a superbly poetic introduction from Gerald Clayton – more on him lower down), to the lights-are-low soulfulness of “You Don’t Know What Love Is….” introduced by Zenón playing solo. After the quiet, the storm, and right back atcha with the devil-may-care sass of that ultimate bebop earworm, “Groovin’ High”. Then a moment of celebration with Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady”.

And what a band. Henry Cole is a master-drummer and a top-flight producer too, and he gave a masterclass in sound and texture and level. He was playing with quite incredible delicacy under Matt Penman’s bass solo in “Golden Lady”, to the point where Avishai Cohen and Miguel Zenón felt compelled to join in the fun, and offer the softest backings you have ever heard.

Avishai Cohen and Miguel Zenón are a superbly aligned pairing, their excursions together into the higher registers of their instruments a particular joy. Zenón’s solo on “Half-Nelson” was a demonstration of how a gradual intensity-build can work when it is thoughtfully and meticulously constructed. It was also fascinating to be treated for the second night in a row to the lively range of Matt Penman’s bass playing. I particularly enjoyed his first solo on “Half-Nelson” where he seemed determined to be running a democracy where all four strings are equally represented…even if the ‘E’ string does keep reminding us that it’s in charge.

My final thought about this concert is really quite a simple one: if the memo we are all supposed to have received at some point in our lives is that we should never lose our sense of wonder, then, if we just let our eyes and ears be drawn in to whatever pianist Gerald Clayton happens to be doing on-stage at any moment, we cannot possibly go wrong. His admiration for what his colleagues do was palpable, and, time and again, a facial expression which seemed to express delight and surprise in where his own playing was taking us was a joy to witness.

A highlight was the moment he started off into a brief solo (presumably constrained by the clock) in the encore, Chick Corea’s “Matrix”. Matt Penman and Henry Cole were laying down an insistently fast pulse. Clayton seemed to pause, smile. And one could see, feel his sense of delight as he freed himself completely from it, and started to roam rhythmically at will, just go wherever he wanted to, across the beat, around it, against it. And as the solo built, it became rather more obviously a hallowed and joyful memory of Chick Corea, for whom Clayton’s reverence since he was a teenager has been an important constant. This was pure joy, but the moment came too soon when Clayton knew the clock was against him, and felt obliged to signal to Avishai Cohen and Miguel Zenon that it was time for them to come back on and to round up this glorious concert.

Curtain call. Siena, July 2022. Phone snap


1 Half-Nelson

2 My Ideal

3 You Don’t Know What Love Is

4 Groovin’ High

5 Golden Lady (Stevie Wonder)

Encore: Matrix (Chick Corea)


Civic pride comes in many forms in Siena. For example there are several paintings and statues here of Romulus and Remus and a she-wolf. The fact that Siena appears to share exactly the same foundation myth with some other less-than-relevant city to the South beginning with an ‘R’ seems to be a matter of profound indifference to the Sienese, and to have been so for several centuries.

There is so much glorious architecture, some lovely buildings can go unnoticed. I stumbled across a gloriously-proportioned baroque church,  San Giorgio in the Via di Pantaneto. Francesco Martinelli also kindly pointed out to me a house which the famous Handel castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as Il Senesino) built here at the end of his life. Let Wikipedia take up the story: “He retired to the city of his birth, building a fine town-house there, filled with English furniture and effects – he enjoyed tea (he ran, or at least tried to run his whole household on English lines), and kept a servant, a pet monkey and a parrot. A somewhat eccentric and difficult personality, the latter years of his life were plagued by disputes with members of his family, particularly his nephew and heir, Giuseppe.”

More civic pride: I was buying fruit and the greengrocer, having expressed his pride in the produce, switched to talking about his pride in the fact of being from Siena, and how this fact made him “ricco di anima” (rich in his soul).

Looking up at Siena from the Orto dei Pecci. Phone snap

Siena wants, expects to be looked up to. I wanted to do that not just metaphorically but literally. So it was a joy to find an oasis of calm away from the tourist trail, in some gardens in a valley from which one could do exactly that: the Orto (kitchen garden) dei Pecci .

Categories: Live reviews

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