Stretching Out and Tuning In at the Siena Jazz Workshop, Where Collaboration Is Key

Aug 14, 2018

A handful of piano students were sweating in a classroom on the first morning of a two-week summer intensive in the Tuscan countryside. These were three women and four men, mostly in their early 20s, from Australia, Korea, Canada, Greece, Israel, and Belgium. Hotshots back home, they ranged from gung-ho eager to white-knuckle anxious about demonstrating their talents here at Siena Jazz Workshop, where everyone could play.

Pianist Matt Mitchell shuffled in and sat down at a Yamaha grand. “In the past couple years I taught here, I’d start by having everyone play,” he said. “But I think there’s not enough listening anymore, by anyone, basically. How many of you have heard of Andrew Hill?”

None of them had. Mitchell began with “Pumpkin,” from Hill’s 1963 album Black Fire. By the time he cued up “New Monastery” from Point of Departure, it was clear that the guided listening session was a window into Mitchell’s own aesthetic. As they listened, he repeatedly drew attention to the form lurking in apparent freedom — the logic in a rush of ideas. He could have been talking about his own music.

“People think of Eric Dolphy as being outside,” Mitchell said. “But listen to how underneath those unusual shapes, he’s just playing changes.”

Mitchell’s students did play for critique later in the week, and had as much music-making opportunity as they could handle. Each day, Siena Jazz Workshop students attend two instrument improv classes and two combo classes; they perform in public jam sessions on several evenings. Jazz lectures by the Italian scholar Francesco Martinelli, and by visiting writers, round out the program; I gave a talk myself this year on interdisciplinary jazz performance.

In this 48th edition (the workshop was biannual for a few years before settling in as a summer program), Siena Jazz hosted 106 students, about two-thirds of them Italian and the rest international. Siena Jazz Workshop Director Franco Caroni remembered its founding principles through a translator.

“In 1970, when we began the workshop, jazz was conceived in Europe as something that happened spontaneously,” he said. “So it was going a little bit against the grain at the time. We found musicians themselves were interested in the widest possible range of styles, so we represented that from the beginning. And unlike some programs where they were focusing more on a classical idea of technique, we chose to get the students playing together, to offer jazz education through the collaborative process.”

Now, when other jazz education programs have caught up to Siena jazz’s applied ensemble method, one of its enduring advantages is an almost unbelievably picturesque setting. If you asked a 10-year-old to draw a medieval town, she’d probably come up with something like hilly Siena, with its stacked brick churches, plazas, and 16th-century fortress, all in the source shade for the burnt sienna crayon.

Students say the workshop’s strongest attraction, though, is the chance to hone their skills through close contact with faculty. Faculty includes Italian heavyweights like Claudio Fasoli along with celebrated international musicians, who teach for a week and perform together in uncommon groupings.

Faculty performing at Siena Jazz Workshop: pianist Stefano Battaglia, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, bassist Matt Penman, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.
Credit Caterina Di Perri

In 2018’s first workshop week, a dream combo of Mitchell, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, vocalist Diana Torto, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Henry Cole played in the Piazza Provenzano with the exalting backdrop of the 16th-century Santa Maria church. The next evening, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Penman, and pianist Stefano Battaglia performed sublime chamber jazz in a resonant courtyard.

For me, these Siena faculty concerts will likely stand as some of the year’s best, because of the rarity of the ensembles, and their integration of maverick vocalists. Torto’s vocal runs, for example, were every bit as musical as Zenón’s sax lines, and she could pick up and finesse any polyrhythm that Cole laid down. The workshop added vocalists only in 2014, but the track has grown quickly under the leadership of unicorn-unique musicians like Torto and Bleckmann.

Faculty concert at Siena Jazz Workshop: pianist Matt Mitchell, vocalist Diana Torto, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Henry Cole.
Credit Francesco Martinelli

Bleckmann’s vocal improv workshop revealed the deep technique behind his trademark clarity and adventure. After some advanced chromatic ear training, he led an exercise in Sprechgesang (“speak-singing”). “Don’t sing pretty for this!” he directed nine young female students, attempting to counter some deep conditioning and take them beyond pleasant tones to a broader range of expression. 

“At my conservatory it was only traditional jazz singing,” a vocal student from Russia told me later. “This is all so challenging, because it’s new. But I love it.”

Since all Siena students participate in combos, every combo now includes a vocalist — a radical change for some instrumentalists. One afternoon, Zenón’s combo worked on student vocalist Heidi Li’s episodic, mixed-meter composition, “A Matter Of Heart.” Zenón picked up his alto and sketched a few lines in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s painterly work with Joni Mitchell.

After a first run-through, the rhythm section asked Zenón about the tune’s D section. He turned emphatically to the vocalist-composer herself. “What do you think?” he asked. “Should the D section be more intense?”

It’s no small thing to counter jazz’s grudging tolerance for vocalists, which often involves gender politics. Still, the workshop is training the next generation of international jazz stars to respect vocalists as true members of the band, and training vocalists to merit that respect. No student singer merely skates over a band’s icy surface in Siena.

Along with its ubiquitous vocalists, a more elusive element distinguishes the Siena program. “The structure of combo classes, of collaboration, makes being available and flexible so important here,” Caroni said. “So human warmth and openness are determining factors when we choose faculty, as much as artistic reputation.”

Siena Jazz Workshop students performing in the Piazza Provenzano.
Credit Caterina Di Perri

While Zenón’s combo class was setting up one morning, a Brazilian saxophonist spoke with him about his career plans. “But there are so many fears, too,” the student admitted.

“I went through all that,” replied Zenón, a MacArthur “genius” fellow.

The student turned to me. “We’re talking about life stuff,” he said, proud to have earned his teacher’s confidence.

For all the intensity of the workshop’s two weeks, its underlying philosophy is slow jazz, with reverence for the humanity and craftsmanship behind the music. It seems right that a jazz program in Siena — where slow food and artisanal-everything have always been in style — would favor artistic process over product. Especially the group artistic process.

In Matt Mitchell’s combo class, students worked on his composition “Yip Strophes.” The piece involves 13 pairs of melodic phrases that players choose at will, for a collective construction of the music in real time: “Modular vamp material allowing for discretionary detours which become the destinations,” as Mitchell explains it. (Below, hear an excerpt of the piece recorded in 2014.)

“Yip Strophes” was an entirely new approach to improvisation for most of the students. After some halting progress, by day four the music began gathering steam, as students grew comfortable with the practice of improvising the structure of a tune itself. “It’s starting to feel more like a relaxing session of Bikram yoga, and less like boot camp,” a Canadian trombonist said.

“You’re making more daring choices than before,” Mitchell encouraged.

Pianist Matt Mitchell, foreground, performing at the Siena Jazz Workshop
Credit Caterina Di Perri

Two nights of student showcases with faculty mentors closed the workshop’s first week. Mitchell’s combo performed “Yip Strophes” in front of a 13th-century fountain in a Siena community garden. Locals weren’t all fans of the experiment. “This is not a song!” a Sienese man scoffed, waving his hands in exasperation.

And it wasn’t. It was vamping acoustic jazz metal, a freight train of collective discovery. Mitchell pounded block chords into the keyboard’s far reaches, framing and intensifying his student’s phrases.

The music’s curious logic and propulsion drew a large, fascinated workshop crowd, and the combo left the stage exhilarated. “I didn’t expect us to go there,” one player told me. Mitchell grinned conspiratorially at his students, and then pivoted back to the stage for his next combo.