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Reviews and dispatches from the Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop (4 and last): Going behind the scenes… 

Sebastian writes:

For this fourth and last daily piece on my visit to the Siena Jazz Summer Academy, I attempted to be a fly-on-the-wall, to get slightly closer in to the heart of the matter, to extend the concept of “jazz tourism” from just writing about the public realm of concerts to find out a bit more about what really goes on in the Fortezza Medicea where a faculty of “maestri di jazz” impart their knowledge and experience to around 85 young jazz students/early stage professional musicians.

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Lorenzo Simoni (alto sax), Antonello Marafioti (piano) and Arabella Rustico (bass) at the evening jam session. Phone snap.

I had heard about Miguel Zenón’s strong connection to the Siena Jazz summer course before coming here, so an obvious step was to find out more. The nine-time Grammy-nominated saxophonist is an experienced educator, having taught advanced students at New England Conservatory for many years. These days, he told me, he also works with some mega-brains who also happen to play music to a high level at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He confirmed that he had indeed been coming to Siena almost every year for more than a decade. And he remembers his first visit: “I was in love right away with the city, with the workshop, the crew…”

Zenón emphasized that the people running the course know and love the scene. He said: “They are jazz fans first, and you feel it. They are connected and know what’s happening in music.” These days the course is clearly one of the things each year which he hopes, wants, and expects to make space for in his diary.

The idea of “musici di respiro internazionale” (musicians of international renown) giving a huge effort into the classroom setting appears to be a strong part of the culture of the Siena workshop. As one of the Italian faculty members reflected to me, the amount of energy and drive the faculty in general and the Americans in particular put into their classes is all the more impressive because performers at this level – one thinks for example of musicians like Zenón, or indeed Gerald Clayton or Matt Penman as he said to me, “don’t have to be here.”

I was keen to find out from Zenón how his approach to engaging with the music industry has evolved. Not least because this is an area which so often is so very far from the comfort zone of most younger musicians, and also because he stands out as an exemplar of someone who has clearly made a success of it, while keeping control of his own musical directions. He explained that ever since he started to become more independent as a recording artist, as a producer, he took the approach of trying to find out which connections and actions would translate into work, increasing the likelihood that recordings or tours might function better. He talked with admirable clarity and pragmatism. He reflected: “It’s not that an award is going to make you better or worse, but for some people it makes a difference.” Clearly, what the young musicians stand to gain here is the benefit of that down-to-earth authenticity and the chance to receive it first-hand.

I then sought permission to attend one of the instrumental classes, and stumbled into Furio Di Castri’s bass class. I have to admit, my unplanned jazz tourism came a bit unstuck here. It turned out that every single student in the class was a native Italian speaker, so barely a word of English was being spoken, and I was picking up less than 5% of what was being talked about. I think it was something about swing..and …er…Paul Chambers…er…”pushing the beat”.

However, whereas words weren’t conveying much, the experience of just a few minutes in this class left a big impression. I had heard Furio Di Castri in concert on Monday, but the sheer power and presence of that sound in a small teaching room really was something else. Di Castri has that solidity, that unbelievable security of tuning, that deep experience of having played with everybody, in a golden era when jazz greats were seeking out tours with local rhythm sections. What. A. Sound. It has the kind of reassurance that any “geometra” (surveyor, I’m just showing off irrelevant vocab knowledge here sorry) would recommend that you should build a house on. Later, at the jam session, I heard Arabella Rustico, a fine young bassist from the class, and I would like to believe that she was carrying a memory of that sound onto the stage with her.

Then down the corridor and into the Kevin Hays ensemble class. Four Italians one Brit, one Swede. This was a session with a good structure and shape to it, although I can now only see that with the benefit of hindsight. At the end of the session, these young musicians, all of whom are clearly familiar with the public performance context, were playing over the standard “Out Of Nowhere” while going up and down in thirds. One could see them actively enjoying the business of playing. But earlier in the session Hays had taken them out of their comfort zones by setting the class the challenge to sing or play what they could hear, to “attune themselves to listening”, to “listen more deeply,” to see if there was a difference in the students’ capacity to reproduce via singing and via playing, and to reflect on that.

Kevin Hays’ reflections on musicianship were fascinating. At one point he talked of his admiration for the great harmonica player Grégoire Maret, whose combination of ear and harmonic knowledge are apparently at a near-superhuman level. There was also a passing reference to the Barry Harris method of adding passing notes into eight-note scales…at which point this particular jazz tourist knew he had ventured way beyond the limitations of his ears…

A relief, then, to be out and about in the fortress later and to see the very first stages of the jam session. One starts to pick up the buzz among the students, to hear about the players who are already making a mark among their peers. The first name which cropped up was that of multiple prize-winning alto sax player and extremely fluent improviser, Barga-born, Livorno-trained Lorenzo Simoni, whose name has already appeared in LJN here.

One good friend said to me before I left for Siena, “You will enjoy the food.” And I can’t deny it: he was absolutely right. But the experience of seeing and hearing – and of learning and writing about – this uniquely international and cross-generational jazz gathering has been just as delicious as Siena’s very best pici cacio e pepe or panzanella.

Sebastian has been the guest of Siena Jazz

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