The Serchio valley extends north-east of the city of Lucca, in Tuscany, toward the Appennines and the city of Modena in the Northern region of Emily. Situated between two rich areas – the Lucca plain and Versilia with its fashionable beaches and the marble quarries area of Carrara – it’s rather poor and kind of a backwater itself, since the new business routes bypassed it. Its steep hillsides and coldish climate are not especially suited to agriculture, and the great riches of Tuscany – oil and wine – don’t grow there. For these reasons, it remained “undeveloped” and now this is proving to be an advantage: the ancient villages are almost intact, the hills’ profile is not disfigured, and its produces – sheep cheese, honey, vegetables – are mostly done in a traditional way. Recently discovered by a less rich and maybe more culture-oriented British crowd than the ones buying mansions in Chianti, the summer events in the area features a curious mixture of high-level cultural events and “popular” fairs where the dominant televisive civilization became dominant (beauty contests, and the like).
Right in the middle of the Valley, Barga surveys it proudly from the top of its hill: not too high but still distinguished enough, and strategically positioned as a connection between the mountains on the north and the town in the plain. The ancient walled town is fairly intact and the visitor is spared, while arriving from the valley, the sight of the amorphous distribution of semi-detached and supemarkets and car dealers in the lowest and newest part of town. Dominated by its cathedral, whose tower was reshaped at the top by some Fascist architect who took out the terracotta roof putting in its place a series of incongrous, disproportioned merlons. If you want to know more about the town, visit the amazing www.barganews.com website: there’s the latest gossip from the bar besides articles by Frank Viviano, a famous journalist and author now living in Barga, about the 1944 battle near Barga between the Germans and the all black Buffalo USA division.
The town boasts two of the most important music festivals in the whole province: Opera Barga, initiated by an English couple who moved to Barga in the 60’s, way before the current wave, and whose descendants carry on the idea of mixing small and ancient, mostly unknown operas and oratorios with contemporary works, and Barga Jazz, a festival devoted to the idea of writing and arranging for Big Band. Active since 1986, the festival is now operating on a wider range, promoting concerts in nearby towns like Borgo a Mozzano and Castelnuovo, as well as in historic location, like the Trassilico castle or the tiny village of Perpoli. The old town of Barga heard the first jazz of the season at the beginning of July, when during the annual town fest Barga Jazz held its competition for up and coming groups; the main event of the Jazz Festival took place from August 28 to 30, when Lee Konitz came over to be a guest with the Barga Big Band in a program of new arrangements of his compositions.
On August 24 the town was again all music:every year the Barga in Jazz features concerts in all the public areas of the walled town, with a distinctly Ivesian effect when walking from one square to another and listening to the crossfade of sounds. This year the day was carried by the witty and musical Tiger Dixie Band from Trento, a revivalist band with a twist – they performed their own arrangements of Bix, but the banjoist is apt to switch to electric guitar and bring the band closer to electric Davis. In the evening Konitz played for the first time in a sold out Differenti theatre – a perfectly shaped but tiny venue nested among the town houses. He was with his Italian quartet. Pietro Tonolo on tenor sax, Piero Leveratto on bass, and Alfred Kramer on drums. In great shape and excellent spirits, exchanging jokes with the audience, he played with his trademark, clean-cut sound a set of improvisations on familiar tunes, alternating trio, quartet and quintet as well as a breathtaking free improvised duo with Tonolo.
The three final days saw the performances of the compositions accepted for the context (13 out of about 40 presented) divided in 3 sections: A, with tunes written by Konitz or associated with his career; B, originals, and C, students’ essays from the arrangement course held by Giancarlo Gazzani in Siena Jazz summer workshops (www.sienajazz.it) – a welcome collaboration between two major jazz institutions of Tuscany, a region where towns are more likely to compete than cooperate.
The band was conducted by Bruno Tommaso: this amazing versatile bassist who can play equally at ease in straight ahead groups and free improvisation (and had a career in ancient music playing gamba after finishing his studies) is now one of the most sought-after directors for jazz orchestras, and in fact he in July led the European Youth Jazz Orchestra, an EU-sponsored unit organized by Danish musician and bandleader Erik Moseholm, through a month full of concerts all over Europe (http://www.swinging-europe.com). In the band, some new faces and some old friends: drummer Alessandro Fabbri, trumpet player Marco Bartalini and trombonist Nicolao Valiensi were in it since the first edition, and brought the weight of their collective experience; the saxophone section featured the talents of Rossano Emili, very popular baritone saxophonist, Nico Gori, alto and clarinet wizard, Vittorio Alinari, known for his study of arcane reeds like contrabass clarinet, Dimitri Grechi Espinosa on tenor, inspired improviser, music therapist and all out swinger when needed, and Alessandro Rizzardi, scion of the festival’s founder Giancarlo and well able to hold his own in such distinguished company. Among the brasses, Andrea Tofanelli for his high register work is the closest approximation to Maynard Ferguson that Italy produced, but he’s also a sensitive soloist who displayed his talents on fluegelhorn in a quartet intermission set over a lovely original. The rhythm section, completed by Stefano Onorati on piano, Mirko Ambrogini on bass and Andrea Gusella on vibes, was busy keeping the band together and didn’t have much solo space, while guitarist Roberto Cecchetto did very well playing Billy Bauer to Lee Konitz.
The winners of the July contest for young groups also performed in the final days of the festival: Cuban violinist Ruben Chaviano Fabian, now living in Florence, was impressive for energy and swing, while the Art Jazz Quartet’s set was plagued by a series of problems (one member of the groups was missing, the PA wasn’t set up properly) so it didn’t properly showcase their abilities. In the section C of the contest only one piece was accepted, a new arrangement of Dexter Gordon’s Fenja by Duccio Bertini; the jury deemed the piece worthy of the prize allotted to that section. In section D, original compositions, first prize to Labyrinth by Vladimir Nikolov from Skoplje, while Deep by the well known Italian drummer Roberto Gatto came out second. In the A section, after musch debate, Thingin’ arranged by Corrado Guarino and Kary’s Trance arranged by G. Tagliazucchi shared the first place while Konitz’s improvised Rebecca (originally a duet with Billy Bauer on the harmonies of My Old Flame) arranged by Pietro Paolo Mannelli, saxophonist from nearby Castelnuovo, and co-founder of Barga Jazz, was awarded the second prize.
All in all a well successful edition for this special festival in extraordinary context, well worth the visit.