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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Gianluigi Trovesi
Dave Holland

Every summer, shortly before the city of Siena prepares to host the mega-event known as the Palio (essentially a horse race with a superabundance of local custom and pageantry attached to it), it stages a two-week jazz festival. This is focused around intensive musical studies for some 200 highly motivated young musicians and includes nightly al fresco concerts in Siena as well as some outlying towns. It would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable setting than this proud Tuscan city, which has been the subject of innumerable travel books. The jazz school itself is situated in the Fortezza Medicea, a massive 15th-century fortress built during the era of Medici domination (still a sore point, it seems). The students study theory, ensemble playing, instrumental technique and, if they like, jazz history. They also have access to an impressive library of recordings and books.

The teachers at Siena include many of the biggest names in Italian Jazz, and it’s worth noting for the sake of Americans who harbor protectionist feelings about the music that the gap between American and European interpreters has closed significantly in recent times. And certainly musicians like Claudio Fasoli, Gianluigi Trovesi and Stefano Battaglia all have something uniquely European to offer. Most of the performers at the festival are drawn from this faculty, though instructors thus engaged are free to choose sideman from wherever they like. Sometimes this will include well-known American musicians tying a string of guest appearances in with a European tour. The whole setup works well; for the musicians the opportunity to combine a stable two-week teaching gig with some performing must be attractive, and the chance for the students to see their instructors practice what they preach can be valuable as well. But one becomes aware of something more than this in the course of spending a few days at the Festival, which is that Siena Jazz provides a focus for a community of Italian musicians that includes students, teachers and performers, and it’s not uncommon for young musicians who come to study to return as performers. And it must be said that this is a genuinely warm and friendly community, going out of its way to make visitors feel welcome-and absolutely spoiling visiting journalists!

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