By Martin Bonica

Downtown Leesburg has become a focal point for jazz music. A prolific member of the scene’s burgeoning community is Lisa Fiorilli, saxophonist, teacher, and leader of the Lisa Fiorilli Jazz Trio, which has lately expanded to become a quartet. 

For the past 10 years she has taught through the Catoctin School of Music, and over that time her band has become a local mainstay. For the past seven years, her band has consisted of herself, Patrick Fritz on guitar, and Fernando Bolanos on bass guitar. The three met teaching at the Catoctin School of Music, and recently began playing with Sawyer Gaydon on drums. The band has a wide repertoire spanning from jazz standards to unexpected pop deep cuts—a version of Sting’s “Englishman in New York” was a standout at one of their recent performances at Crooked Run Brewing in Leesburg. 

Fiorilli came to Northern Virginia after completing a degree in music performance at Bowling Green State University and then leaving Ohio for Virginia for “a change of scenery and warmer weather,” she said. She first picked up the saxophone after being steered toward it by a teacher in the fourth grade.

“I like that when I play music, everything’s involved; the brain’s involved, the body’s involved. It’s very physical,” Fiorilli said of her main instrument. “It feels really good to play, just physically vocalizing through the instrument is really enjoyable. … People talk about mindfulness now, and even meditation, and playing an instrument is a way to achieve mindfulness and flow.”

She describes jazz as a liberating medium. 

“Playing jazz, the element of improvisation, permits mistakes. When I’m performing classical music or music composed by somebody else, there’s a lot of pressure to play perfectly, so I find it’s much more enjoyable to have the freedom to improvise, to navigate a path through the form, and if mistakes are made, to figure out how to forge ahead and not stop and crash the train,” she said.

Fiorilli cites a major personal loss as a motivation to start performing jazz, when, in 2011, her best friend passed away.

“He was so brave and so genuine, and such a great musician; I try to channel him now,” she said. “When he died, I thought two things: ‘This is shocking, and I need to keep playing music.’ I play in part to honor him but also because music, jazz in particular, is what makes me most excited about life,” she said.

In the early 2000s, Fiorilli completed a master’s degree in English at George Mason University, and began teaching for Loudoun County Public Schools in 2005. “There’s no opportunity to be stage-shy” when teaching, she said. “I definitely gained a lot of confidence being in front of other people, just through teaching, so that experience makes me more comfortable to perform in public.”

She explains how jazz performance and writing can complement each other. “I think there are a lot of parallels between music and writing, and a lot of parallels between writing—whether creatively or academically—and improvisation. Pursuing both is a good balance for me.”

Jazz bands, including Fiorilli’s, have been enjoying more opportunities to perform in downtown Leesburg. 

“What’s cool about Leesburg is that the population is varied, because it is densely populated, more so now than in the last 10 years,” she said. “The community is really supportive of live music and art. The restaurants and bars, in particular the managers of the restaurants, are a major part of facilitating live music.” 

Lisa Fiorilli’s jazz quartet, clockwise from top left: Fiorilli, Patrick Fritz, Sawyer Gaydon and Fernando Bolanos.

She ticks through the list of venues her band has played, naming the Wine Kitchen (where they played their first Leesburg gig), Casa Nostra, Trungo’s, and both of Crooked Run’s locations— the cozy Leesburg space and the more massive Sterling location. 

“We have a lot of musicians who live in the area and are really advocating for more live music,” she said, citing the efforts of the Loudoun Jazz Society, which hosts monthly jam sessions at Trungo’s, as well as the weekly jazz nights at Lightfoot Restaurant. “I think the First Friday scene is awesome for musicians; there will be twenty to twenty-five different venues who host live music.” Over the course of the past few years, she said, the pace of her band’s shows has picked up from once every few months to almost weekly.

Everyone in the band is a music teacher, as well as a performer. “Teaching music gives me an opportunity to hone my craft as I help young students develop theirs. Learning an instrument, and learning how to make music, is a lifelong pursuit, and watching them progress by tackling increasingly difficult techniques inspires me to do the same,” Fiorilli said. She points to the area’s education opportunities as another positive for the local music scene, citing the number of schools in Loudoun County with VMEA Blue Ribbon and VBODA Honor Band awards.

Fiorilli has a positive outlook on the area’s rapid expansion over the past decade. “The growth means that there are more people who come see us play, which means venues are more willing to book live music, and in turn, we can attract people to come out to the venues. The community is very supportive of live music; plus, they realize the value of art and culture and music, so that’s definitely a boon.”

“Music has saved my life more than once. That might sound trite, but it is literally true that it has saved my life more than one time. When I’m playing, I’m truly in a state of flow, and life is rich, so for me it’s about more than just expressing myself. It’s also about building a community and bringing something to other people that can bring joy to their lives as well. I never thought that when I was younger – I thought ‘hey, I’m going to play this instrument really fast and really proficiently’ – but that’s not music. Music is about sharing energy that makes you feel good but also makes others feel good. Music is life.”

Lisa Fiorilli teaches at the Catoctin School of Music, and continues to perform with her band regularly. Show dates are updated regularly at facebook.com/musiclisafio/. Her band’s upcoming dates include a quartet show at Crooked Run Leesburg on March 13, and at Crooked Run Sterling on March 14.