Sicilia Jazz winter edition spotlights Italian jazz

Italian-Moroccan singer Malika Ayane brought the glitz as Palermo's third jazz festival focused on local artists and powerhouse big bands

Pop-soul singer Malika Ayane, possessor of 'Lady Gaga-like jazz chops' performs at Sicilia winter jazz, January 2023. Photo by Arturo DiVita

Palermo’s spectacular architecture, a quirky blend of Arabic, Norman, Byzantine and Baroque, makes a dramatic setting for Sicilia Jazz. Launched a year and a half ago, the festival offered a scaled-down third edition in late January ahead of the main event in June.

Venues such as the Teatro di Verdura and the ruined 16th-century Chiesa dello Spasimo formed the most vivid sensory memories from the festival’s first edition, in the sweltering late summer of 2021. Now, in damp, chilly weather, the open-air theatres were replaced by indoor settings that showcased big sounds, headlined by local heroes the Sicilian Jazz Orchestra (SJO).

The stunning Greek temples of southern Sicily’s Agrigento and Selinunte inspired the week’s most impressive show, the Suite Dei Templi by the Orchestra Jazz e Sinfonia from the Arturo Toscanini Conservatory in Ribera, a hotbed of jazz near the archaeological sites.

While most of the 40-odd musicians are students, this certainly didn’t sound like a student ensemble but rather a crisp, agile orchestra with a contemporary edge. Its young conductor, Alberto Maniaci, was animated and cheerful, exchanging hugs and air kisses with the soloists, while coaxing a fiery sound from his players.

The seven parts of the suite, named after various temples, were by different composers but maintained a consistent quality and overall style. Along the way it delved into Steve Reich-like minimalist repetition from the sax section on Simone Piraino’s Juno and Giacomo Tantillo’s explosive trumpeting on his Vulcano.

Throughout there was a cinematic feel, suggesting John Barry’s suave tension and Henry Mancini’s playful exotica with percussion by Sergio Calí, along with hints of contemporary bands like Cinematic Orchestra and Slowly Rolling Camera.

The finale, Concordia, featured three vocalists including Ernesto Marciante, who delivered a memorable set with his own band in 2021 and composed this section. This lilting paean to the goddess of harmony and agreement drew on smooth 1970s soul like Rotary Connection’s Black Gold Of The Sun, awash in rolling waves of strings and horns.

Even after a couple of pop-soul encores, the audience didn’t want to let this big, loud pleasure machine go. The Real Teatro Santa Cecilia was a perfect venue, with small candlelit tables in front of sloping rows of seats and excellent acoustics – but hopefully they’ll be back for the summer edition under the Sicilian sky.

Without the narration the suite would total around 45 minutes, which would make a suitable album length to reach a broader audience (there is a 2021 concert video available). It’s tough for such a huge ensemble to tour, so, like architecture and authentic fresh local delicacies, you really have to experience it onsite.

There was more Italian melodrama at another large-ensemble show, this time with the Sicilian Jazz Orchestra at the Teatro Golden, a 1950s cinema with all its 1,000+ seats filled.

Italian-Moroccan pop-soul singer Malika Ayane showed off Lady Gaga-like jazz chops, striking a contrast with the formally attired SJO in her stiletto heels, tattoos and cornrows. A powerhouse band like this needs a mighty singer to counterbalance it, and Ayane proved to be one.

Italians seem to have high vocal standards for pop singers, perhaps due to their opera heritage – and indeed Ayane sang at La Scala early in her career, but thankfully has shed operatic mannerisms. Instead she has a powerful bluesy voice

Italians seem to have high vocal standards for pop singers, perhaps due to their opera heritage – and indeed Ayane sang at La Scala early in her career, but thankfully has shed operatic mannerisms. Instead she has a powerful bluesy voice that can be slightly husky before effortlessly rising to the inevitable crescendos, supported by three backup singers.

The orchestra included a punchy standard rock band and a 13-strong horn section including volcanic trumpeter Tantillo and soprano saxophonist Carla Restivo, who led her own band at last year’s festival.

Ayane showed her stylistic range, from the campy cabaret of True Love to a rollicking My Baby Just Cares For Me, and on to a reinvention of her Sanremo Festival hit Adesso E Qui (Nostalgico Presente) over Restivo’s sax and Guiseppe Preiti’s synthesizer.

The best moment came on La Prima Cosa Bella, when she surprised conductor Domenico Riina, gesturing that she wanted to toss out the sheet music and begin an extended scat duet with saxophonist Gaspare Palazzolo – a moment of free improv rare in a big band setting.

Who knows? Maybe moments like this opened the door to jazz for some of her pure-pop fans in the sold-out house, who enthusiastically clapped and sang along to her hits.

Back in Palermo’s old town, other shows were relegated to the modest Blue Brass jazz club in the 1600s Spasimo complex, with the open-roofed Chiesa itself closed for the winter.

Young vocalist Alessandro Visco, also from the Toscanini Conservatory, led a Cole Porter evening with nods to Sicilian-rooted Sinatra and honorary Italian Chet Baker. Though Visco’s singing and scatting were pleasant, he has yet to develop a distinctive style and was nearly overshadowed by slightly edgier tenorman Alessandro Scibetta. 

Visco did score chuckles with some new lyrics: “Some get a kick from Coltrane – I’m sure that if I heard even one riff that would bore me terrifically…”

Guitarist Roberto Sclafani and drummer Giuseppe Oliveri stayed onstage to host a jam session with young students that naturally got rough around the edges, but Oliveri did a masterful job of keeping it all together, including on a sweet Sclafani-led version of Chick Corea’s Spain.

On my final night, the Toscanini jazz department professors’ ensemble offered a satisfying set under the low-key leadership of double bassist Fulvio Buccafusco, playing pieces by Steve Swallow. Guitarist Luca Nostro, backed with subtle strength by drummer Oliveri, also led the group in an exquisite version of Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise to send us off into the ancient night.

Later in the week the SJO hosted former Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, and in late June and early July will back guests such as Marcus Miller, Gregory Porter, Manhattan Transfer and the Earth, Wind & Fire Experience – the latter should be fun with that mighty SJO brass section blasting out like the horns of Jericho.

Sicilia Jazz winter edition, 13-28 January 2023, Palermo, Italy