Visiting the Siena Jazz Workshops is not exactly like going to a jazz festival. In some ways it is better. It is mellower. You get a few hours sleep every night. Siena may be Italy’s most beautiful hill town. The pasta rocks, especially the pici. And you get to hear killing ensembles that exist for one night only, nowhere else on the planet.
The workshops began in 1978. The 2014 program was the 44th edition. There have been 44 editions in 36 years because there used to be both a winter and a summer program. The winter workshops eventually evolved into the Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Italy’s only degree-granting jazz college. The summer workshops have continued as a separate annual two-week curriculum. The Accademia’s main building, a brick structure the color of “burnt sienna,” is located within the walls of the town’s 16th century fortress, Fortezza Medicea.
In 2014, 108 students from five continents attended the summer workshops. In order to be admitted, they had to submit recorded examples of their playing. They also needed either a music diploma or documentation of four years of study and three years of jazz performance experience. Those who are accepted (about half of those who apply) are mostly advanced students, in many cases college graduates, often young working jazz musicians.
The workshop program is known for the strength of its faculty. In 2014, it included Ambrose Akinmusire, Anat Cohen, Avishai Cohen, Mark Turner, Lionel Loueke, Jeff Ballard, Walter Smith III, John Taylor, Nir Felder, David Virelles, David Binney, Matt Penman, Mark Guiliana, Theo Bleckmann and Reuben Rogers. Each teacher participates in one week of the two-week program. Some of the leading jazz musicians in Italy were also involved, like Stefano Battaglia, Enrico Rava, Claudio Fasoli, Franco D’Andrea and Roberto Gatto. Classrooms are fully equipped. A major resource at the Accademia is its Study Center, directed by Francesco Martinelli. It is one of the largest jazz archives in Europe, with 40,000 audio and video recordings (from Edison cylinders to DVDs), 5000 books and 10,000 magazines.
Students attend two instrument classes and two ensemble classes per day. Everything changes over for the second week. The international teachers leave, new ones come in, and new ensemble classes are formed. Each student plays in four different bands, all of which give recitals when their week is completed.
In the first week, the big musical events were the faculty concerts on July 25 and 26. They were held outdoors in Piazza del Duomo, next to Siena’s famous white-and-green-striped cathedral, built in 1215. On the first night, two bands performed that had never played together before and may never again. The first was Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Jeff Ballard, drums (or, in the local parlance, “batteria”). Beneath the bell tower of the Duomo, they played “Happy House” by Ornette Coleman. It started slowly, Cohen hanging pieces of it in the night air, Turner barely murmuring. Then Ballard, who had been shuffling with brushes, switched to sticks and “Happy House” lifted off. Turner’s solo skidded vertically, up (way up) and down. Cohen’s was short bursts, widely spaced. In this band without a bassist, Loueke often filled the role, an octave divider on his guitar enabling him to weave bass lines.
Cohen plays on Turner’s new quartet album Lathe of Heaven (ECM, 2014), and Ballard has subbed in that group. They were therefore the closest thing to an established band among the faculty ensembles. They rendered Turner’s “Sonnet for Stevie,” from the new album, not as an occasion for blowing but as an ensemble whole. Turner has described the piece as an exploration of two motifs important to his personal history, the blues and Stevie Wonder. His dark sound and spare, fervent lines were directed deeply inward. Cohen was more declamatory but found his own song within Turner’s set of memories.
In the second group, the front line was Ambrose Akinmusire and Anat Cohen. They came to Siena having just finished first in the 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll on trumpet and clarinet, respectively. The pianist was David Virelles, originally from Cuba, now one of the most talked-about new musicians in New York. The bassist and drummer were Matt Penman and Jeff Ballard.
Akinmusire is known for edginess, even explosiveness. Cohen is given to extravagant melodious outpourings. Akinmusire’s music is dark and Cohen’s is bright. Their collaboration was incandescent. Cohen, who is Avishai’s sister, has been blending her clarinet with a trumpet since she was a child in Israel. Akinmusire’s music with his own groups, especially on his new album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note, 2014, #2 album in the DownBeat Critics Poll), is all about ensemble concepts. It was fun to hear him in a loose, open, ad hoc environment where he was free to blow on a tune like Eddie Harris’ “Cryin’ Blues.” He sounded like a more relaxed, less revolutionary version of himself, but he still found fresh ways to burn. Cohen’s solo was a series of upward sweeps. Akinmusire played a long, episodic, mysterious solo cadenza and the crowd stirred when it became “Body and Soul.” Cohen took a graceful solo on tenor saxophone, understated but personal.
On July 26, the first group was Claudio Fasoli and his Samadhi Quartet (Michelangelo Decorato, piano; Andrea Lamacchia, bass; Marco Zanoli, drums). Fasoli has been an important figure in Italian jazz since the 1970s, when he was a member of Perigeo, a groundbreaking European fusion group. He no longer plays fusion. He plays tenor and soprano saxophones like John Coltrane filtered through Lee Konitz. Fasoli was originally an alto player and his first love was Konitz. When he switched to tenor, he entered the dominion of Coltrane. In Piazza del Duomo his tunes like “Brooklyn Bridge” suggested a Coltrane attitude because they were portentous announcements that proceeded to dramatic narratives. But his tone was lighter, more sensitive. The combination is distinctive.
That clean, clear, communicative tenor saxophone sound is one of Fasoli’s strengths. Another is his diverse portfolio of compositions. After “Brooklyn Bridge” he played “Pauly,” a singable melody, and then “Chancery Lane,” from his new record, London Tube (Abeat, 2014). It is a rapt ballad that cast a spell. The first three tunes were totally different yet all sounded like Fasoli. Another cool piece was “Carroll Gardens.” It was a short vignette with hidden major seventh chords and a superimposed fifth from Decorato. It was an enigma that lingered in Piazza del Duomo even after the quartet had moved on.
The high point of the first week in Siena was the next band. It may never play together again but should tour the world, or at least make a record. Avishai Cohen has rather quietly become one of the most creative trumpet players in jazz. He is a rare balance of technical precision and conceptual daring. Stefano Battaglia functions in his own piano language. It encompasses Italian romanticism, classical severity, keyboard mastery and vast imaginative energy. In this band Matt Penman was such a powerful presence that he reminded you of John Patitucci in Wayne Shorter’s quartet. Penman set the volatile atmosphere in which the others operated. The drummer was Roberto Gatto, long regarded as one of the best in Europe, the most straight-ahead player in the band (straight-ahead is a relative term), and therefore serving as the voice of reason.
It rained on the afternoon of July 26, which meant that no rehearsal and no sound check had been possible for this quartet. But when they began to play they instantly created a sound world around themselves. It was a dark continuum of turbulence from Penman and Gatto, into which Cohen and Battaglia injected light.
They played Battaglia’s “Canzone di Laura Betti,” from his album Re: Pasolini (ECM, 2007). Cohen’s solo was a long unbroken jagged line. Battaglia’s solo, like every one he took on this night, was a new act in the moment. It was a wild right-hand flight secured by fierce left-hand blocks at irregular intervals. The band’s range of intensity was wide. Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand” was fragile. Dewey Redman’s “Mushi Mushi” was a screamer. But with this ensemble, ballads might spike, in break-out bursts from Cohen, and burners might become lyricism from Battaglia, in textured designs made from free-floating fragments.
Auditing classes was interesting for the insights into a given artist’s mindset. For example, in his afternoon ensemble class, Akinmusire was asked about the lines he plays. He responded, “I don’t think in lines. There is something very flat about this idea of ‘lines.’ I like peaks and valleys. I like melodies. Intervals make melodies. I can only play one note at a time, but sometimes I start a line and then start another one.” His answer suggested a logic underlying the most original trumpet style to come into jazz in a generation. What is so striking about an Akinmusire improvisation is precisely that it feels so nonlinear, so constituted of vivid dots that his audience must connect through creative listening.
His class contained two Italians, an Israeli, a Dane, a German and a Hungarian. He had them play “There Will Never Be Another You.” Afterward, he told them, “The good thing is that everybody sounds great. The bad thing is that everybody sounds great.” The students looked at one another. Akinmusire went on: “What is the other side of the equation from playing all the right notes? Why are we playing this music? And I forbid anyone to say, ‘It’s a way of expressing myself.’ That’s not a good reason. You, and I, are not important enough reasons to spend the amount of time you have to spend to play this music. When Wayne Shorter was asked ‘Why do you play?’ he said, ‘I try to play the change I want to see in the world.'”
Of course, some of the classes focused on technical matters. A trumpet class co-led by Avishai Cohen and Akinmusire broke down “Solar” a phrase at a time, playing chord roots, singing the chords, studying voice leading. But more often teachers, like Akinmusire in his ensemble class, tried to get at “the other side of the equation.” Stefano Battaglia certainly did, asking his students to play strange songs that were new to them, like his own “Canon,” and to “hear beyond the notes.”
So did Anat Cohen. She brought the energy of her playing to her teaching, and she also pushed students out of their comfort zones. She had her class run through “All the Things You Are” but told them, “Once you know the song you have to play music. Don’t play what you always play. Be stupid. We’re being crazy now!” She urged them to feel the rhythm: “When you feel the rhythm of a song in your body you own it forever.” When they played it the second time she shouted to the drummer, “Yeah! Play colors! Don’t play time. You’re not our metronome. You’re free!”
Mark Turner was a thoughtful, deliberative teacher who chose his words carefully, and he was also preoccupied with rhythm. He taught his ensemble “Inner Urge” by ear, and talked about “spongy swing”: “You can be ahead or behind the beat, but you have to find the center. If the time is there, the other stuff on top can be just OK. But if the time isn’t there, nothing works.”
At the end of the first week, the jam sessions started. They were each held in a different “contrada,” or neighborhood. The skill and commitment of these young players, many of whom had come to Siena from far away, gave you faith for the future of jazz. America’s art form now belongs to the world.