Mark Guiliana, Matt Brewer and John Escreet unlock jazz’s secrets in Siena

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Such is the quite breathtaking beauty of one of Italy’s most picturesque and charismatic cities, a place of winding narrow streets, sloping piazzas and architecture with history etched into every brick and door handle, it is easy to forget that this is also the location for an intensive and inspiring jazz course. Yet the two elements harmonised perfectly in the series of concerts that took place around town in which musicians giving master classes by day stepped up on stage at night. All of the performances were free, which meant passers-by and serious music fans were able to see national and international stars such as Giovanni Falzone, David Binney, Maurizio Giammarco, Mark Guiliana (pictured top), Fulvio Sigurta, Walter Smith III, Matt Penman and Stefano Battaglia. These were just a few of the players who appeared in mixed Italian-American groups of an impressively high standard, indirectly underling the input of Italian-Americans to the history of jazz. In this setting it is impossible not to note that names such as Tristano, Lovano, Corea and, bringing things bang up to date, Patitucci, trip off the local tongue as easily as the hard syllables of bruscetta.  

Fondazione Siena Jazz has provided high level tuition for young improvisers since 1977 and the palpable buzz among the students as they beat a path to both the teaching sessions and concerts makes the point that the institution has succeeded in creating an environment that is conducive to hard work. The fact that Siena is small enough to walk around, and that each of the venues where the performances take place, from the Piazza Provenzano to the Cortile Del Rettorato Universita to the Contrada Del Drago, has immense charm obviously facilitates this. Packed as their schedule is, with sessions running from 9.30 in the morning until sometimes 6.30 in the evening for a fortnight, the students look remarkably relaxed, steadied by the absence of the unseating logistical challenges that attend big city life, namely tubes and buses and too many people on tubes and buses. Walking to school is a good thing, especially with the sun on your back.

In any case the opening session of the concert programme gave an encouraging indication of what the current charges might achieve as the Siena Jazz University Orchestra, comprising students from the previous year, performed a set of originals and standards in front of the dramatically lit cathedral at the Provenzano. A reading of Charles Mingus’ ‘Fables Of Faubus’ is one of the highlights but arranger-conductor Roberto Spadoni unfurls some wily scores, with colours finely nuanced by the unusual and effective inclusion of two singers, whose wordless vocal vividly enhances the glow of the brass. Alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Achille Succi proves a very able soloist.

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From the following day for a fortnight the finer points of playing instruments are broached by tutors during intensive hour long sessions at the school, located in an old fortezza, and whether it is the use of a ‘dropped jaw’ technique on the alto saxophone or the importance of a steady hand on the strings of the double bass all the stumbling blocks that dot the long and winding road to virtuosity are willingly negotiated.

In fact, Matt Penman (pictured below), the New Zealand practitioner of that last instrument, who is part of the collective James Farm as well as a leader in his own right, gives an engrossing lesson in which he comps on piano or plays rhythm on the double bass while a student takes a solo, allowing the elder to home in on the younger’s technique up close and personal. The observations are sometimes simple but insightful.

Before any discussion on note choices, the physical engagement with the instrument comes under scrutiny. “Marco, you’re losing a lot of energy with the right hand,” Penman tells his charge. “The less you move the better, you’ll be more accurate time-wise and get a better sound. All of the action is there in your fingers, but your wrist doesn’t have to move that much. A lot of the energy is lost because you’re coming at the strings from a great height. Get the sound and project. Our challenge is projection. The trick isn’t to play fast, it’s to play clear; the thing with bass is that is has to be heard.” Capito.  

With those last words a kind of invisible light bulb comes on in the room. As the lesson unfolds there are other admonitions on improving ‘internal time’ and the need to play with a metronome because the little unerring tick-tock is the truth, as well as, perhaps, torture for those endeavouring to mount the slippery slope of the perfect beat.

penman-sienaAs the intricacies of timekeeping start to take their toll on the students, Penman does something that several other tutors, notably fellow bassist Matt Brewer, also do: he asks the students to stop playing and start clicking their fingers so that they can clearly establish exactly what the character and feel of the rhythm is.

“It’s easier to hear the actual sound of handclaps rather than count,” says Brewer as the class does just that. He has more than fulfilled the potential he showed as a sideman with Greg Osby back in 2005, recently releasing an excellent album, Mythology, under his own name.    

“There are all these hand-clapping and rhythm exercises that you can do almost anywhere, at any time in public, on a train, at an airport, and they’re all gonna help you with your time, so that when it comes to that passage of 9 or 7 or whatever it is, you’re not thinking about what it is you have to do to create that meter… you’re just doing it.”

Seeing six young people [Most are between 18 and 25] put down horns, guitars and drumsticks, and slap one palm on the other so that they all stand on the same rhythmic ground is a symbol of jazz education at its most democratic and perhaps meaningful. For all the references to sus chords and complex harmony that may mean little to those without a grasp of music theory, the moments where people are asked to put their hands together in specific metric sequences make the point that the musician’s own body, its perception of the pulse of a song, is of the utmost importance, and that no matter what kind of instrument the incumbent has, there comes a time when the player has to become, or at least think like a drummer. This issue came up a lot in the week.    

Perhaps most rewardingly for the students, the teachers are on stage every other night giving a demonstration of what they were talking about in the classroom. Penman and pianist John Escreet, a last minute replacement for John Taylor, following the latter’s untimely demise, are outstanding in a group in which trumpeter Fulvio Sigurta displays a lyricism very much in the vein of Kenny Wheeler, who, like Taylor, has exerted great influence on many contemporary Italian jazz musicians.  

As far as the students were concerned these gigs, as well as the jam sessions for which they could sign up, are as important as the tuition. “It’s really total immersion,” says Jerome Arendse, a pianist from Switzerland, while his compatriot, drummer Artur Holliger comments: “There are many ways to learn jazz but I think that the best way is to make you want to learn, which is what’s going on here. The interaction is really good, and there are a lot of nationalities too.”

While these are all plus points, there were a few minor gripes from some of the teachers with regard not so much to the ability as the knowledge base of the students. Generally speaking they were well up on the noted masters of each instrument but there were gaps with regard to the lesser-known but nonetheless important players. In real terms that meant that John Escreet raised an eyebrow when his mention of the name Andrew Hill brought a nonplussed look from his class while Mark Guiliana had the same reaction when he spoke of Jim Black. Hence the question of how much of the entirety of jazz history has been grasped by young musicians, not to mention an understanding as to why Hill played the way he did, thus remains very current.

Which is why the extremely well stocked library at the school is invaluable, as are the jazz history lessons given by Francesco Martinelli, one of the foremost scholars on the music’s evolution in Europe. To hear him explain the use of Italian opera in the music of Sidney Bechet and Armstrong or pinpoint the cunning appropriation of classical music by pioneering Brazilian musicians who drew on jazz as well as African rhythms was illuminating to say the least.    

The net result of this range of classes, from the lectures to the concerts, instrument tuition and ensemble sessions, was the creation of an environment that was highly stimulating for teacher and student. Exactly how many of them will go on to become major names in jazz in years to come remains to be seen, but in each class there were students, or rather personalities, that suggested they could develop into notable artists. The fortnight they spend in Siena might well be something they look back on in years to come and recognize as a key stage in the endless pursuit of excellence and payment of proper dues.  

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos Caterina Di Perri