Report: Sicilia Jazz Festival 2022

The island's second jazz festival included Snarky Puppy, Christian McBride, Sarah Jane Morris, New York Jazz Voices and Paolo Fresu

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Darmon Meader of New York Voices at Sicilia Jazz Festival 2022. Photo by Arturo di Vita

Among the many good reasons to visit Sicily, a pleasingly unexpected one is a young jazz festival held in the capital of this autonomous southern region of Italy. After a successful first edition initiated in the midst of the pandemic, this year’s sophomore edition got even bigger with a total of 12 consecutive days from June 24 to July 5.

The Sicilia Jazz Festival is strongly rooted in a longstanding tradition dating back to the 70s, when the Brass Group Big Band was founded by Ignazio Garsia in 1973. One year earlier Francis Ford Coppola had made the film of The Godfather, from Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. At that time and until recently, Maestro Garsia recalls, the Sicilian cultural scene had to endure many years of Mafia despotism under the bloody reign of Toto Riina. If this year marks the second anniversary of the Sicilia Jazz Festival, it is also the 30th of the shocking murder of anti-Mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino. Tourists visiting Palermo who end up buying a Padrino shirt should bear in mind the cruelty of the infamous Cosa Nostra, an organisation that has finally been brought to its knees to become a paper tiger.

The Sicilia Jazz Festival is quite unique of its kind. Imagine a big band hosting a different guest almost every night and you get the picture. The Orchestra Jazz Siciliana (OJS) is the offspring of the Brass Group Foundation in charge of the artistic coordination of the festival with piano player Ignazio Garsia still at its head. In addition to the main gig hosted every night in the beautiful historic setting of the Teatro di Verdura, an open-air theatre located in the outskirts of the vibrant Sicilian capital, the city centre was not forgotten with concerts spread from 6 until 11 pm in three different places.

Among the numerous churches spread through a maze of faded streets and alleys, the Chiesa dello Spasimo, from 1509, is a disused church that has long served the interest of jazz with many American jazz legends passing by when it was the home of the Blue Brass Jazz Club. The two other venues are also historic sites, namely the Palazzo Chiaramonte (dating right back to the 14th century) and the Real Teatro Santa Cecilia, the latter being the only indoor place of a festival placed under the auspices of a scorching sun.

One of the best gigs (or perhaps simply the best one) hosted by the Teatro Santa Cecilia, the longstanding headquarters of the Brass Group, took place on the second day of the festival thanks to the presence of Médéric Collignon. The French cornettist and vocalist had been invited by his Sicilian friend, Gianni Gebbia, for a Sidney Bechet tribute, though one mainly based on Gebbia’s original compositions. The audience was thrilled to discover the many facets of Médéric who, apart from his cornet, can blow into almost anything, even a rubber hose, not to mention the many different sounds he produces with his own body.

Among the various styles of the numerous Sicilian bands present on the city stages throughout the festival, Carlo Butera’s gypsy jazz trio did much more than just relying on Django Reinhardt’s themes and played instead plenty of well-crafted originals. While Charles Mingus himself played in Spasimo in 1976, his Centennial was celebrated in the Teatro Santa Cecilia. With Mingus pictures being projected in the background, the Conservatorio di Musica A.Toscanini di Ribera, one of the many Sicilian conservatories featured throughout the entire duration of the festival, opted for the quintet format. Mingus’s well-known pieces were illustrated during long interludes when a storyteller would read (in Italian) the stories once told by the great American composer.

As with many other US jazz luminaries, Mingus once played alongside the Brass Group, one of the few organisations in Italy that deals with the production of jazz music, and many years later the idea of a Sicilian Big Band hosting a well-known artist has been pretty much kept alive for what is now a Hall of Fame tradition.

From day one to day 12, the main stage located at the Teatro de Verdura would feature such diverse musicians such as Christian McBride and Snarky Puppy, who were, along with Dianne Reeves, the only performances not involving the OJS. While the first main act featured the renowned Paolo Fresu, both the trumpet player and the orchestra failed to deliver the poetry and lyricism expected from the adaption of old Italian standards.

Luckily, on Day 2 Sarah Jane Morris, the Elizabethan diva (she looks so much like the 16th century monarch), enchanted the audience with her astonishing vocal range. As Lady Chatterley in her own time had fallen in love with Sicily, so Lady Morris expressed her love for Italy on a few occasions that night, notably when she told us in her own words that she once played at the Vatican in front of Pope Benedict. Having started her stunning performance with a beautiful arrangement of Cole Porter’s 1954 tune All Of Me, she pursued her very diverse repertoire, notably the standard Fly Me To The Moon. Sung on many occasions by Frank Sinatra, the tune sent chills through the many jazztronauts among us.

Talking of Sinatra, Dutch vocalist Trijntje Oosterhuis together with renowned Jazz Orchestra Concertgebouw (JOC) were invited to perform two days in a row at Palazzo Chiramonte. As a mob of seagulls invited themselves above the stage, JOC conductor Rob Horsting handed over his place to Maestro Domenico Riina for a tribute to the sun that featured Vito Giordano on trumpet. The famous O Sole Mio reminded us (as if we could forget) of the scorching heat of Palermo at above 35°C. As members of World Jazz Network, both orchestras strive to increase artist mobility and exchange talent, hence the JOC being invited for the Jazz Sicilia Festival and the OJS doing the same at the Amersfoort Jazz Festival in August (11-14).

Thanks to the genius of a handful of Italian composers, notably Ennio Morricone, quite a lot of Italian film scores are imprinted forever in the collective memory. It therefore came as no surprise that Francesco Nicolosi, pianist and artistic director of the Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania, selected many great Italian film scores, illustrated in the background, with a medley of scenes from the relevant movies. While the arrangements lacked a jazz touch, how wonderful it was to be immersed in such legendary music scores as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (where the pianist you hear on the original soundtrack is actually Enrico Pieranunzi), Il Postino or Giuseppe Tornatore’s most heartbreaking film, Cinema Paradiso, set in a small Sicilian town by the name of Giancaldo.

Leaving behind the so-called jazz village with the beautiful aerial jazz photographic installation by Arturo di Vita, I headed to what would be my own last gig of the festival for this year. That evening, veteran vocal quartet the New York Voices and the OJS explored a vast array of musical styles, including Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing and a classic by Queen that no-one would have expected to hear. They vocalised around Ellington’s I Love You Madly, which could have aptly been renamed I Love You Medley when pianist Ricardo Randisi included a couple of notes from Brubeck’s Take Five.

After five days of enchantment in Palermo, enjoying a well-organised festival, it’s time to go home, with many other summer festivals waiting.