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Barga Jazz Festival and Competition 2022 (Italy)

Barga Jazz Festival and Competition
(Barga, Italy, 26 & 27 August 2022. Festival and competition round-up by Francesco Martinelli*)

John Surman in Barga. Photo credit: Francesco Martinelli

The stunning city of Barga, in the Serchio Valley to the north of Lucca, has for many years now held a special jazz festival based on a big band arrangement competition. In 1986, a group of visionaries, including the founder, late jazz alto saxophonist Giancarlo “Jack” Rizzardi, and the Italian jazz luminary bassist and arranger Bruno Tommaso, promoted the first edition of the festival. Now, the torch has been passed to Rizzardi’s son and daughter – tenor saxophonist Alessandro, artistic director and band member, and Francesca, behind the scenes organiser, hospitality coordinator and budget-holder – and to Mario Raja as conductor.

After a few years of activity the festival acquired a “theme”: competing arrangements had to be related to a specific subject or musician. This in turn focused on living musicians and composers who could be invited in person to the festival to play as guest soloist in their own pieces revisited by emerging arrangers: a musically stimulating situation. So Kenny Wheeler, Steve Swallow, Dave Douglas and Maurizio Giammarco among others have been guests at the festival.

John Surman and Mario Raja. Photo credit: Francesco Martinelli

This year the featured musician was British saxophonist and composer John Surman (he was in fact invited a couple of years ago but the pandemic and back trouble delayed his appearance). After a week of concerts, seminars and events that included the always popular street band parade and open air music held on a Sunday afternoon, the final two days of the festival were focused on original compositions (Friday 26 August) and arrangements of Surman pieces (Saturday 27 August) with a repeat performance in another stunning Tuscan location, the fortress of Serravalle near Pistoia, on Sunday 28 August.

Despite flight delays and a long trip from Oslo where he resides, Surman seemed in excellent form: slim, energetic and apparently enjoying his time in Barga, musically and otherwise. Back trouble has led him to abandon the weighty baritone sax, but his bass clarinet and soprano saxophone are more than sufficient to cover a vast range of tonal and timbral expression.

After the first evening dedicated to original compositions, with Marco Battigelli emerging as a winner with “A Counting Out Song”, the main event of the competition came with the performance of Surman’s pieces by the big band. The work of the arrangers was facilitated by the festival making a set of scores available, which had been selected in discussion with Surman himself, although this list was neither exclusive nor binding.

Leonardo Pruneti. Photo credit: Francesco Martinelli

The competition was won by Leonardo Pruneti, a Tuscan musician (and former winner of the original composition category), with his version of “Pitanga Pitomba” (from Surman’s ECM album Invisible Thread with Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres), but all the entries from Italy, Canada and Germany made interesting musical points. The orchestra shone in the two final arrangements by Surman himself of two of his own pieces, the ballad “Tomorrow’s Yesterday” and “Scare ‘em Up”, based on an English folk song meant to scare birds off the seeded fields. Surman was visibly happy with the performances, clapping at the solos and defining the orchestra as “one of the best big bands I’ve played with” – quite a compliment, considering the career Surman has had.

The concerts were held in the garden of Moorings Hotel, one of the many splendid villas that adorn the newer part of the city. It’s called Moorings because the first owner, a certain Signor Castelvecchi from Barga, established a restaurant at the moorings in the Scottish city of Largs on the Clyde – still active – after working for many years selling ice-cream and then as a restaurateur. He was extremely successful and when he retired returned to his ancestral home where he built this splendid mansion. Taking place just before the Jazz Festival was one of the main social events in the Barga calendar: the Fish and Chips festival. Many immigrants from this area moved to the UK and USA at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they claim to have invented the British national dish. Just after, in September, will be the turn of the Scottish week, with bagpipe players and whisky tastings.

(*) Francesco Martinelli was a member of the competition jury

LINK: Bargjazz website

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