Recently I received an invitation to attend the winter edition of the Sicilia Jazz Festival, in Palermo. Presented by the Brass Group, The Sicilia Jazz Festival has quickly become one of the more prestigious festivals on the European summer circuit and this year, for the first time the Brass Group have presented a winter edition.
While the Summer edition of the Festival presents multiple concerts spread across a number of venues each evening, the Winter edition is a somewhat scaled down event presenting one concert per evening. This event also offered the organization a perfect opportunity to announce the dates and headline artists for the coming summer edition, more on this later in the article.
I spent the first evening in Palermo at Blue Brass Jazz Club in the ‘Ridotto dello Spasimo” where the Alessandro Visco quintet, comprised of students from the Conservatorium “Arturo Toscanini” in Ribera, presented a set of Cole Porter classics before opening the stage for a jam session. One of the main pillars of the winter edition of the festival is education and this could be seen by the close collaboration with the Municipality, the University of Palermo and the all the Sicilian Music Conservatories. The festival provided more than enough performance opportunities for the students, if fact one of the highlight performances of the trip was indeed a conservatorium production.
The following afternoon I attended a press conference with the management of the Brass Group, the driving force behind the festival. There’s quite an amazing history surrounding the Brass Group and throughout it’s almost 50 years of existence have produced concerts with many of the leading figures in the history of jazz, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Frank Sinatra, Ron Carter and list goes on. Next year the Brass Group will celebrate it’s 50th anniversary, so watch this space for a full feature article. During the press conference, management announced some of the line up for the coming summer edition to be held between the 23rd of June and the 7th of July, 2023. Featured artists for the 2023 summer edition will include stars such as Gregory Porter, Marcus Miller and The Manhattan Transfer all with new productions in collaboration with the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana including a number of international premieres to be performed at the Teatro Verdura. In addition to these concerts, a number of world-renowned artists and young musicians from conservatories will present over 30 concerts in iconic venues in the historic center of Palermo. During the festival, The Sicilian Jazz Orchestra will present a total of 13 orchestral productions. This indeed is no mean feat.
That evening, the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana performed a concert at the Golden Theater in Palermo with guest vocalist Malika Ayane. Malika Ayane has built an strong career as a proponent of Italian pop with such hits as the 2015 trippel platinum “Senza fare sul serio” and the number 1 hit “Domani 21-04-09” recorded to raise money to rebuild schools in Abruzzo, the region where the disastrous earthquake centered in L’Aquila struck on the 6th of April 2009. Pop artists appearing at jazz festivals is nothing new and often presents opportunities to fuse both genres to create something new. Unfortunately that was not the case at the Golden Theater, this was a pure pop concert accompanied by a big band that had little opportunity to stretch their wings. However, with that said, the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana displayed great flexibility and the ability to adapt to any musical situation. I enjoyed the contribution of Carla Restivo who delivered a strong, albeit short, soprano sax solo and the bands two tenor players had some space to solo on a number of the outro’s. Now please don’t get me wrong, i actually love Italian pop and viewing this concert through these glasses it was excellent, It just wasn’t jazz. Ayane’s performance was strong and her ability to work the crowd was obvious by the overwhelming reception from the sold out audience.
The following night was something completely different. This evening we were treated to the premiere performance of “La Suite die Templi” performed by the “Orchestra Sinfonica e jazz” from the Conservatorium “Arturo Toscanini” in Ribera at the Real Teatro Santa Cecilia. The piece is described as “A musical journey into the glorious history of the “Costa del Mito” to discover priceless heritage such as the magnificent Temples of the Sicilian Archaeological Parks, transposed into Music by the teachers and students of the Conservatory”.
Before we get to the performance, I just want to diverge and speak about an excursion organized for us by the Sicilian Regional Department of Tourism together with the DMO Valle dei Templi to the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Heritage area, near the city of Agrigento. Agrigento is on the southern coast of the island and just outside the city walls lies the valley of the Temples, some of the best preserved examples of Greek Temples dating back to approximately in 500BC. These archeological treasures are truly amazing and having the opportunity to see these monuments in situ certainly added an extra dimension to the performance.
The suite was the result of a research and production project in collaboration with University of Agrigento and the Conservatorium “Arturo Toscanini” in Ribera and funded by funded by the Department of Education and Professional Formation Training of the Sicilian Region. The production brought together all departments of the conservatorium, Jazz, Classical and pop. The piece was conducted by Alberto Maniaci who did an amazing job of bringing such diverse musical themes together to create a consistent whole. The suite consisted of 7 movements, with each movement composed by a different composer, some students other’s faculty of the conservatorium. One my think that this could lead to lack of consistency however this was not the case and the different nature of each movement actually added to the build up of the piece.
The piece was introduced by a performance for Gong and Electronic Music created by Sergio Cali and filmed on location in the valley of the temples. The cinematic quality of this video piece was spectacular. Following this the orchestra took the stage for the prologue, The “Temple of Hera” composed by Salvatore Sciarratta. This movement was very cinematic in nature, at times bombastic and indisperced with more intermate passeges characterized by the use of pizzicato strings and tuned percussion. The following movement “Hercules”, composed by Alberto Maniaci featured fast moving ostinatos before the entry of the rhythm section providing a strong groove and plenty of room for improvisation in the percussion, electric guitar and the introduction of Giacomo Tantillo on trumpet, who was undoubtedly the star of the show. The following movement “Juno, written by Simone Piraino, presented a substantial change of pace featuring keyboards and strings in an almost pop Ballard style, this specifically from an harmonic perspective.
The following movement was composed by trumpeter Giacomo Tantillo. This piece could easily be described as a concerto for trumpet and orchestra. At times the piece had the sensibilities of a Gill Evans arrangement while at other times a seventies prog rock feel, yet no matter what the groove was it was intense and Tantillo excelled as soloist. Further solo contributions came from Trombonist Salvertore Caterina that eventually morfed into a collective improvisation between trumpet and trombone. Personally I found this movement to be one of the two highlight movements of suite.
“Castor Kai Pollux, by Rita Ninfa Collura brought a some what more latin feel to preceding’s with strong solos by Marco Caterina on tenor saxophone and Felice Amodio on guitar. This movement was less symphonic in nature and had more of the characteristics of a big band arrangement. “Zeu Zeu” composed by Sergio Calie, featured a thunderous percussive based introduction with a simplistic melodic interlude before culminating in a percussion based climax.
The suites final movement, Concordia, composed by Ernesto Marciante, was a personal highlight for me. Featuring a spectacular vocal arrangement performed by composer Ernesto Marciante, Maria Concetta Maggio and Valeria Milazzo. The three voices blended perfectly and with the interjection of the muted trumpet of Giacomo Tantillo adding an extra dimension, this piece could do nothing but leave the listener mesmerized. As you can read here I was highly impressed, not only with the piece as whole, but with the quality of the performances. However, as with all reviews, there were a few negative points that should be mentioned. From a visual perspective the static backdrop during the performance was a somewhat disappointment after the specular intro of the Gong introduction video. I felt this to be a missed opportunity to add an extra visual dimension. My second point was that I felt that the consistent listing of the performers between the movements tended to break the continuity of the piece. That said, these are just small items and all in all this was a highly impressive performance.
Our final evening was back at the Blue Brass jazz club, where the teachers at the conservatorium performed a set of standards and a selection of material from bassist Steve Swallow. The band included bassist Fulvius Buccafusco, guitarist Luca Nostro and pianist Angelo Di Leonforte. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the drummer, please forgive me, I was on my second Gin and Tonic when the band was introduced. While is was a one off show, you can see that these musicians have played together before, this music was tight, the solo’s top notch and the arrangements quite interesting. This was a great way to close off an amazing week.
Before I finish this article, I want to mention a few “must do’s” for those booking their trips to the summer edition of the festival. Firstly, if you are looking for truly authentic Sicilian food I can recommend Restaurant “Buatta”, Great service and fantastic food. I loved the seafood at “Aja Mola”, some of the best seafood I’ve had in years. Don’t miss the cocktail bar “Farmacia Alcolica”, I’m not going too give this one away but don’t miss it. It will be one of the most surprising visits on your trip. Also you can have a good drink and dig for vinyl at the same time in “Punk Funk”. well worth a visit. And to top things off, you must vist Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples on the Costa del Mito, It’s truly amazing.
And before I sign off, a very special shout out to our city guide, Virginia Turco. I learned a lot about the history of Palermo in a very short period. So if you’re looking for a tour guide, go no further.
All in all it was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to return for the summer edition.
More information on the Brass Group and Orchestra Jazz Siciliana can be found on their website here.
Details on the Sicilia Jazz Festival can be found here on their website.
Last modified: February 10, 2023