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My Summer in Italy

Italy is a country of diverse regions. You would think this is because of its length, and you would be right, but you only need to traverse its width for three different venues (two in the same province) to find variety not only in regional landscapes, food, wine and even in Italian jazz.

Summer is a great time to hear jazz in Italy and enjoy all the musical diversity. It began for me this past July on the 10th in Montalcino, a small, hilly town in the heart of Tuscan wine country where the Brunello is king. Giampiero Rubei, proprietor of Alexanderplatz, Rome’s leading jazz club, and producer of many summer jazz festivals (including the ongoing, three-month spanner at Villa Celimontana, near the Colosseum) is the man behind “Jazz & Wine” in Montalcino. The sponsor is Castello Banfi and they provided a tour of its extensive vineyards, which featured wine tasting (the Brunello-Poggio Alle Mura ’97-did the Banfi crest proud but its Summus-a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon-was also a winner) and a lunch at one of Banfi’s on-site restaurants that rendered me incapable (almost) of eating dinner. A jewel of a hotel, the Vecchia Oliviera, is operated by a young owner who, at three consecutive breakfasts, played tapes of Miles & Gil, Louis and Diz. Very helpful for the digestion along with the cappuccino.

The evening concerts, held in a yard within the walls of a huge, old castle had its own revelation. There was the 80-year-old Nicola Arigliano backed by a swinging trio consisting of pianist Antonello Vannucchi, bassist Elio Tatti and drummer Giampaolo Ascolese. I’ve been listening to jazz in Italy from the summer of 1983 to the present, and the only one I’d encountered before was Ascolese. The most amazing thing was that I had not only never heard, nor heard of, Arigliano, particularly when I later found out that he is considered one of the best and most popular jazz singers in Italy.

Arigliano sings his share of Italian songs (even when you don’t get all the words you hear the romance and feel the emotion) but he also handles standards such as the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me” with insouciant swing. He doesn’t sound like Sinatra but has his own brand of relaxed attitude as jaunty as the brown straw hat that sits atop his head. He is liberal in passing out solos to all his sidemen on many numbers, announcing them by name and exhorting each to “Go, man!,” never letting the momentum flag.

From the pici (a typically-Tuscan fat spaghetti) al ragu at the Locanda Di Piazza Padella, the pasta shifted to spaghetti a la chitarra (so-called because of its resemblance to guitar strings), a specialty of Abruzzo, the region in which the beach city/seaport of Pescara sits on the edge of the Adriatic. The excellent kitchen at the Carlton Hotel serves the chitarra with a lemon sauce or (the way I prefer it) with shrimp and a piquant red sauce. As you might imagine, there is a lot of great seafood in Pescara. The word for fish in Italian is pesce (pesh-ay). But Italian for peach is pesca (hard c) and that’s where Pescara gets it name. It gets its jazz at its long-running July festival (this was the 31st edition) mostly from the United States.

The hero of this four-night fest was Charles Lloyd and his quartet: Geri Allen, piano; Bob Hurst, bass; and Eric Harland, drums. It was the last set of final evening and Lloyd set a mood with an unaccompanied, pastoral solo on a brown wood clarinet. Hurst furthered the mellow atmosphere with a bowed solo, also unaccompanied, and kept his bow moving as Lloyd returned, this time on tenor saxophone as Allen chorded behind him.

This first piece was a table-setter for more intense spirituality as Charles launched into a “Go Down Moses,” in which he breathed upper-register wisps à la Trane, launched double-up runs and rocked back and forth passionately. He mixed ballads and blues into a most soulful mix, wading into one spiraling blues where he continually dipped back into the main motif of the head a la Sonny, weaving it into the fabric of his improvisation. At this point the annual fireworks on the nearby beach began exploding as they did last year at the end of George Russell’s set. (The city fathers should apologize to producer Lucio Fumo and to the musicians.) Undaunted, Lloyd delivered as an encore a plaintive ballad in the face of the fireworks. Then it was the audience’s turn to explode with sustained applause.

Then it was back to Tuscany, this time to Siena, home of Siena Jazz, a school where the best of Italian jazz musicians have been teaching young students with a hands-on approach from 1977. (Names such as Rava, Fresu, Fasoli and D’Andrea are still notable on an impressive faculty roster.) I hadn’t been there for about eight years and the operation has grown considerably. Its catalog has this description: “39 musical laboratories, limited to 230 students, a sound archive and a library at the service of the students and instructors, innovative programs and material, didactic interconnection between the traditional and contemporary jazz culture, putting together creativity and professionalism unique in the field.”

Franco Caroni, one of the original founders, is still at the helm; writer Francesco Martinelli is the curator of the Arrigo Pollilo Study Center Archive and teaches jazz history. The school is housed in the formidable Fortezza Medicea and the seminars run from July 24 to August 7. In the evenings there are concerts by the professors. From the 29th on student jam sessions made up the second half the programs.

Of the several professorial double bills that I heard the one that stood out began with pianist Riccardo Zegna’s trio in a well-paced mixture of standards (“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and “All too Soon”) and jazz standards (“In Walked Bud” and “Airegin”). The second half was given over to saxophonist (tenor and soprano) Pietro Tonolo’s quartet with the fluid trombonist (and peckhornist) Roberto Rossi in a brilliant set of Lennie Tristano’s music: “Lennie’s Pennies,” “April,” “Atonement” and “317 E. 32nd St.,” with “Turkish Mambo” danced in at several points.

In Siena there were too many good restaurants to name all but Il Biondo and its melt-in-the-mouth gnochetti was a standout.

Napoleon said an army travels on its stomach. Well, so do jazz critics. I wonder if they had invented tiramisu by Nappy’s time?

Originally Published