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Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop

Bruce Lindsay By

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Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop
Siena, Italy
July 24 -August 5, 2017

The Fortezza Medicea occupies a commanding position just outside the ancient city of Siena, where it has kept a watchful eye on the city's inhabitants since the mid-16th century. Built by occupying forces, it no longer poses a threat to this beautiful Tuscan city. Today it's a place for a morning run, a meeting with friends, a bike ride or a few minutes quiet reflection. It's also the home of the Siena Jazz University and, for two weeks in July and August each year, the venue for the Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop.

The Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop celebrated its 40th anniversary—and the 47th workshop to date—in 2017 (in the early years the workshops occurred twice a year). The workshop attracted 117 students from five continents, all of whom were required to submit proof of their experience and talent, including recordings of their playing, before being offered a place. It's a popular and well-respected summer school, with a competitive entry process and a high standard of musicianship from the students. Over 30 musicians teach each year, half in week one and half in week two. The list of teachers would do justice to a jazz festival or concert series, such is their quality: the 2017 faculty included Dave Douglas, Marcus Gilmore, and Stefano Battaglia. I was lucky enough to be invited by the organisers to join the students for the first six days of the 2017 event.

The Summer Workshop's central activity is learning—the students are taught by leading jazz musicians and get the chance to work with the teachers as well as with their fellow students. However, the workshop organisers make sure that it is also part of Siena's cultural scene: the nightly concerts and jam sessions are open to locals and visitors and take place in some of the city's most beautiful settings.

The evening concert program began on the Monday, in the beautiful setting of the Piazza Jacopo della Quercia, adjacent to Siena's Duomo, the Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century. Francesca Gaza and Lilac For People opened the evening. Vocalist and composer Gaza is a former student of the Jazz University and was also attending the Summer Workshop. Her compositions were ambitious and expansive, filled with thoughtful and reflective passages brought to life by her voice and the instruments of her band members. The Siena Jazz University Orchestra, a 24-piece big band, took over for the second half, with saxophonist Claudio Fasoli as a special guest. The set, which included Wayne Shorter's "Witch Hunt" and John Coltrane's "Naima," featured Fasoli's warm, nuanced, playing on both tenor and soprano saxophones. The orchestra proved to be a powerful, swinging, unit, with tight, strong, ensemble playing plus some excellent solos.

For Tuesday's concert we were once again in the shadow of the Duomo. The thunder and rain of the early afternoon was no more than a memory: the night was devoted to ensembles formed by some of the week's faculty members. The opening trio—vocalist Theo Bleckmann, guitarist Ben Monder and pianist Battaglia— played a low-key but atmospheric set. Bleckmann's ethereal, wordless vocal seemed a perfect fit for the setting as it floated into the night sky. The evening's second set was a much livelier affair, from a band led by trumpeter Douglas and featuring the first of two appearances in successive days by drummer Gilmore. Douglas and saxophonist Will Vinson took care of announcements. The set started with Douglas' "Hawaiian Punch." Vinson's "Upside" followed. Wayne Shorter's "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" was next. Douglas announced that this was a new arrangement, although he didn't identify the arranger: it was an arrangement briefly and unexpectedly enhanced by an emergency vehicle, lights flashing and siren wailing as it sped through the piazza.

Siena University, established in 1240, provided the venue for Wednesday night's concert, once again featuring two bands of faculty members. In the first set, Diana Torto's powerful and inventive vocalising was impressive. My most striking memory of the night, however, came towards the end of the second set, courtesy of trumpet player Avishai Cohen. I returned to the venue with another audience member after collecting a beer from a nearby bar and stood at the rear of the space for a few moments, some low-key conversations filtering through from the crowd. Almost imperceptibly the conversations ceased as Cohen's trumpet cut through—a simple, slow, three-note riff but repeated with such power and authority that it brought the audience to silence.

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