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Sicilia Jazz Festival 2023 in Palermo

The third edition of the ten-day Sicilia Jazz Festival in Palermo, with headliners such as Marcus Miller and Gregory Porter, was a success. Francesco Ragni(*), who attended the first four days, reports.

Bob Mintzer and the Orchestra Jazz Sicilia at the Teatro di Verdura. Photo credit Francesco Ragni

In a Palermo crowded with tourists, with a city centre ever more stimulating and full of happening events, ten days spanning the end of June into early July have been positively shimmering with Afro-American music, thanks to the Sicilia Jazz Festival.

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Despite being a fairly new cultural event, only on its third edition, it has already established itself as a valid contribution to the international jazz scene, thanks in part to an excellent organising committee and a rather unique formula – international soloists playing with the indigenous big band, the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana (OJS), and thanks also to the financial and logical support of the Sicilian Region, which rightly perceives how major cultural events can be an important driver to increase tourism to the island.

Despite having rarely travelled beyond the confines of its home island, and having recorded a single album (albeit with Carla Bley), the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana has existed for decades, and can boast of a consistently long-term reputation for excellence. In the jazz world, after all, the merits of a musician isn’t measured in terms of the number of discs sold, or the number of awards received, as much as the esteem of fellow jazz musicians. Indeed, the words of Marcus Miller at the end of his concert had a certain effect: “I’ve heard a lot of great things about these guys over the years and finally I have had the chance to find out in person just how good they are.”

Marcus Miller at the Palazzo Steri. Photo credit Francesco Ragni

The highly appreciated American bassist kicked off the festival with a superb concert in the courtyard of Palazzo Steri. Nobody else on earth plays the electric bass with the same degree of energy and musicality. With his “slap” Miller was able to lead the entire orchestra, not just simply accompany it, as when he improvised a solo on the notes of “Amara Terra Mia”.

Diane Schuur, who was on stage the following evening at the Teatro di Verdura offered us a perhaps less emotionally involving performance, but nonetheless of considerable professionalism. Obliged to sing from a seated position, Schuur found a way to make her mark, showing how her voice has not declined in quality over the years, above all when she dedicated “Save Your Love For Me” to her late husband, which had a stirring effect on the audience.

The Festival continued with Bob Mintzer, who was able to carry the orchestra and the audience along a musical journey which was segued through various decades and genres. For this tenor saxophonist, former leader of the Yellowjackets, it was more of a return trip, as he had already played with the OJS some twenty-five years ago. “How did you find the band tonight?” asked emcee Nick the Nightfly. “Twenty-five years better than last time,” quipped Mintzer.

It’s impossible not to speak highly of the OJS; despite the rotation of players and bandleaders, made necessary by the demands of having to play a different repertoire on successive evenings, the band maintains a very precise sound, a very obvious degree of coordination between the players and a pleasing agility on display when required to adapt to different scores and varying soloists. The way the solos were rotated, giving each player a chance to shine at the right moment, was much appreciated, especially in the case of trumpeter Vito Giordano and saxophonist Orazio Maugeri.

And maximum respect to the engineers behind the scenes; both at Palazzo Steri and at the Palazzo di Verdura, the overall sound of the Big Band came across not only as crisp and tight, but also very warm, as if coming straight off a vintage pressing of a classic LP. It’s certainly very rare to witness this degree of clarity at an open air concert.

The 70s logo of the Brass Group. Photo credit Francesco Ragni

A visit to the Brass Group, the association which for many years has been organising jazz concerts in Palermo, stirred up plenty of warm and happy memories. Your reviewer grew up in this city and owed much of his musical education to the Brass Group, which over the years gave him the chance to hear some Jazz Greats live on stage, from Chet Baker to Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Art Blakey and Michael Petrucciani, not forgetting the likes of Astor Piazzolla with his Quintetto de Tango Nuevo (which was perhaps the most outstanding of all the jazz concerts I ever witnessed in Palermo).

That was in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when the Sicilian capital was mostly characterised by the gruesome daily score of Mafia atrocities, when the leading artists of the field of pop and rock rarely set foot anywhere further south than Rome. Jazz had none of those qualms, and even its greatest figures were happy to pay the dues down here, thanks largely to the Brass Group and to the tireless efforts of its director Ignazio Garsia, who managed to organise season after season of superb concerts.

I think of July 1986, when Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter came to play at the Stadio della Favorita, on what could be considered the first real edition of the Sicilia Jazz Festival.

Today, sited in the splendid premises of the Spasimo, the Brass Group hosts a school of music, along with a delightful outside space for concerts (a 16th century church, with no roof) and its latest innovation, a jazz club that would make Ronnie Scott’s envious. On the walls, there is a series of playbills recalling some of the great concerts that have taken place in Palermo over the last half century.

Lucas Santana rehearsing at Jazz Club dello Spasimo. Photo credit Francesco Ragni

At the club we bumped into Lucas Santana, the young Brazilian saxophonist currently based in the Netherlands, at a rehearsal with local musicians. His version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ was somewhat academic (after all, they were only practising) but when we asked him to play something of his own, he shifted up a gear or two. Lucas moved those present with a piece of his dedicated to the daughter of George Floyd, the Black American killed by the police in 2020, the event which triggered the Black Lives Matter movement.

Apart from the concerts themselves, the Festival offers the chance for networking and cultural exchanges: representatives and critics from other important European Jazz festivals such as Amersfoort in the Netherlands and Szczecin in Poland turn up to follow proceedings, and backstage many of the organisers, of whom a good deal are musicians themselves, have a chance to compare notes, share ideas and to hammer out agreements. The first of these we will shortly witness, when the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana appears at the aforementioned Dutch festival.

The Festival continued until 2 July with other headlining acts: Gregory Porter, The Manhattan Transfer and Dave Holland. The playbill is not immune to dipping a toe into other musical genres, featuring names like Al McKay (Earth, Wind & Fire), Anastacia and Manuel Agnelli, a strategy which is increasingly necessary in order to attract a broader demographic of punters, something that practically all the other international festivals have been doing for some time.

The Teatro di Verdura. Photo credit Francesco Ragni

On taking off from Punta Raisi, Palermo’s international airport, with a suitcase stuffed full of deliciously sweet Sicilian specialities and a head full of happy memories, I cannot help but reflect with pride and satisfaction how much better the city appears these days to visitors and tourists. For sure, some of the same old problems still persist, but Palermo really does have something quite unique: the ability to welcome all visitors with its hallmark combination of deep humanity, its breathtaking beauty, and that triumphant medley of sights, sounds and colours. In these first few days of high summer, like a soundtrack, playing to a jazz beat.

(*) Francesco Ragni was in Palermo as guest of the Sicilia Jazz Festival from 23 to 26 June 2023.

This article originally appeared in Italian at Translation by William Ward

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