a column by Bill Shoemaker
Giancarlo Schiaffini Aldo Venga©2007
Giancarlo Schiaffini remembers the bad old days during the 1960s and ‘70s; not only was there no support for jazz from governmental and educational institutions in Italy, but musicians waged an ongoing battle just to find a place to play. Worst of all, the trombonist-composer reflected after a day of teaching ensembles and arrangement at Siena Jazz’s summer seminars in July, musicians were convinced that things would never change. “If you told me then that this would be happening for 30 years now,” Schiaffini said, gesturing towards the massive Fortezza Medicea, which houses Siena Jazz’s two-dozen classrooms and their renowned archives, “I would have said you were crazy.”
Undoubtedly, there were those who thought Siena Jazz founder Franco Caroni was crazy when he began recruiting musicians to mount the first seminars in 1978. Since he didn’t have public funding or private backing, it was essential that he secured the equivalent of a first investor, a musician whose bona fides would make it easier for musicians to say yes to a start-up. So, his first call was to Claudio Fasoli. Had the saxophonist declined, Caroni speculated mid-way through this year’s seminars, Siena Jazz may have remained a dream, not the singular conduit it has become. But, Fasoli signed on, and the rest is Italian jazz history.
At a time when globalization, stylistic hybridization and post-modernism’s dismissal of dialectical progress has all but atomized the traditional jazz family tree model – with the roots of blues, spirituals and work songs supporting the trunk, limbs and branches – the Italian jazz grapevine model has matured. Though it honors graying trailblazers like trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Franco D’Andrea (who performed as a duo mid-way in the Siena Jazz festival that coincides with the seminars), the grapevine model is horizontal, spidering outward in various directions, with shoots entwining about each other. This model has engendered a refreshingly dogma-free pluralism in Italian jazz, which is at the root of the growing international recognition of its vitality.
To an amazing degree, this pluralism has been nurtured by Siena Jazz, even though the curriculum heavies up on fundamentals. Caroni, for one, is a firm believer that you have to learn to “walk” before you can run. Accordingly, it is largely classic repertoire that spills out of the Fortezza during classes; not esoterica. Iconic figures like Armstrong and Ellington are emphasized in the history classes taught by Francesco Martinelli (a PoD columnist), though not to the exclusion of contemporary mavericks like ICP Orchestra. It’s a taxing pace for the mostly twenty-something students, with classes begin mid-morning and ending at 7pm or later each evening; and though attendance at the daily festival offerings from 10 to midnight is not mandatory, a solid block of the 200 students turned out.
The bulk of the first week’s gigs were held at the Fortezza’s Enoteca, an indoor/outdoor venue that used the towering fortress walls to maintain a cleanly reinforced sound. For the most part, the faculty-led ensembles implemented the Amercentricity of the curriculum, but only trumpeter Gianpaolo Casati’s exuberant celebration of the Ducal trumpet lineage could be called a repertory program, albeit one without a trace of pedantry. For the most part, musicians tended to use American sources judiciously, the results being similar to the way an apt quote from Twain or Maughn can punch up a point in an essay. Two satisfying examples of this approach to usage were tenor saxophonist Mario Raja’s Dexterous lines and guitarist Pietro Condorelli’s vintage Martino-like intensity. Bassist Furio Di Castri’s trio with saxophonist Emanuele Cisi and drummer Fabrizio Sferra roamed the expanses charted by Sonny Rollins’ trios, with Cisi melding aspects of Newk and Trane with the ease of a Steve Grossman.
In relying more on folk-tinged melodies, odd meters, and slightly unusual instrumentation, two ensembles exemplified the distinctive varieties the grapevine model yields. Achille Succi, who can wield a fiery alto saxophone, but on this occasion only played bass clarinet, led a strong quartet with Beppe Caruso, who put the tuba squarely in the front line as well as his trombone, bassist-cellist Salvatore Maiore, and Roberto Dani, an impressively resourceful drummer. Succi’s compositions are rife with ear-tugging melodies and a rhythmic undertow that draws the listener deeper into the materials. Playing hollow-body electric and acoustic guitars, and occasionally employing picking techniques surprisingly akin to those of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, Roberto Nannetti had the same general aims as Succi, but achieved a clearly contrasting palette with the fluid clarinet of Mirco Mariottini, Franco Fabrini’s electric bass, and Francesco Petreni’s drums.
Stefano Battaglia Aldo Venga©2007
It was particularly illuminating to hear Mariottini, Maiore and Dani in other settings after first hearing their performance of music from Stefano Battaglia’s Re: Pasolini project. The pianist’s sextet was presented in the most unlikely of venues; in front of Siena’s city hall on the Piazza il Campo. It is a huge square that serves as the site of the Palio, the centuries-old horse race; as the next running was scheduled just after the conclusion of the two-week festival, rambunctious Sienese were in the streets at midnight, bearing their the standards awarded for previously Palio wins, their cheers clanging against their pugilistic drumming. It seemed improbable that the subtle shadings and almost whispered passages could cut through all of the air, let alone the crowd, many of whom were dining or just passing through. Yet, enough of Mariottini’s rich tone, Maiore’s plump, well-placed notes, and Dani’s scurries and spatters registered as it mingled with Battaglia’s piano, Michael Gassman’s trumpet, and Aya Shimura’s cello, causing a ripple of quiet through the chatting tourists.
Battaglia is a multi-faceted composer and pianist; the 2-CD ECM recording of Re: Pasolini features two contrasting ensembles, the other being comprised mainly of French string players. Still, this half of the Pasolini project speaks to the ongoing evolution of Italian jazz as pointedly as any single work. In terms of materials, Battaglia’s languidly lyrical themes tip their hat in Rava’s direction, particularly when Gassmann lets a long tone drift rather than decay. However, Battaglia has gone a step beyond Rava, who found his voice triangulating Chet Baker and Italian music. Battaglia was already specializing in Bach and music from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book when he attended the summer seminars at Siena Jazz while still a teenager; it was a gift from his parents for nailing his exams. Though he has performed works by such 20th Century composers as Hindemith and Ligeti, Battaglia’s sensibility is clearly rooted in a much older body of work; the solemnity and pristine beauty of late Renaissance and early Baroque music permeate Battaglia’s lexicon.
A mere four years after attending the seminars as a student, Battaglia became part of the teaching staff; recordings with Rava, with whom he studied at Siena Jazz, and luminaries like Tony Oxley were just around the corner. Gifted students like Dani were not far behind. By the mid-‘90s, Siena Jazz had appointed Battaglia to direct its Permanent Laboratories for Musical Research, an advanced studies program; Shimura is currently studying there. Battaglia tapped many of the participants for his large ensemble, Theatrum, including Gassmann and Mariottini. However, this should not be seen in the limited context of an artist in ascent. It is the nexus of an artist, an institution and a tradition all coming of age, the yield of the grapevine.
Which begs the question: How does a seemingly conservative curriculum engender such off-center creativity? In separate conversations, Battaglia and Schiaffini, who has taught at Siena Jazz since ’82, had surprisingly similar answers, given the striking differences in their respective projects at the festival. Inspired by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Schiaffini’s PhantaBrass filled the stunning Piazza Jacopo della Quercia, which is outlined on two sides by the partially built exterior walls of an uncompleted extension of the Duomo, the great domed cathedral that sits on the city’s highest hill. The large contingent of the Italian Instabile Orchestra’s brass players are particularly well-suited to hit the precise conceptual pitches of Schiaffini’s original compositions, which extend Bowie’s embrace of both entertainment and irony in the jazz tradition by including passages that draw upon centuries of European materials, and his bold, wide-angle arrangements of standards (for which he has a perfectly complete singer in Silvia Schiavoni).
Both Schiaffini and Battaglia point to the need to let students learn. “If you tell them everything,” Schiaffini suggested, “then there is nothing for them to discover.” Battaglia believes that “you have to leave space for them to fill in,” whether the student is performing or composing. In this regard, Battaglia draws upon his tenure with Rava, who then played “My Funny Valentine” in every performance. “It was a struggle to do something different each night,” Battaglia explained, “and that’s what you want your students to do.” “This is jazz we’re trying to teach,” said Schiaffini with a faint incredulity. “You can’t give them all of the answers. If they all have the same answers, they will be clones,” Schiaffini added, tapping the table with his fist, as if he was cutting cookies.
“This is why Siena Jazz is important,” Battaglia concluded; “We give them the space to become artists.” The proof is in the grapevine.