by W. Royal Stokes
Strolling up Via Borgo later that evening to the sidewalk café at Piazzetta Ambrosoli, your reviewer came upon the High Sierra Jazz Band from Three Rivers, California, kicking off a medium-tempo "Snake Rag" that impressed with its poignancy and well-positioned breaks. The three-horn front line of Bryan Shaw, cornet, leader Pieter Meijers on reeds, and trombonist Howard Miyata nicely complemented the vocal by sousaphone player Earl McKee on "Angry" and Meijers' curved soprano saxophone soloed in delightfully leisurely fashion on"Lazy Bones." Faithfully re-creating the King Oliver-derived ensemble and the springy rhythm of Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, the HSJB's musical character took this listener back to his teen years in the late 1940s, when an older brother, home on leave from San Francisco-area navy duty, placed into the welcoming hands of his younger sibling a stack of Watters and Kid Ory 78 RPMs.
Ascona Jazz attendees may have thought the birthday tributes were over with concerts devoted to Louis Armstrong and Oscar Klein, but if so they hadn't put it together that George Lewis was born three days after the traditional birth date of the great trumpeter and singer. On hand to lead the late-evening celebration of the 100th anniversary of the late New Orleans clarinetist's birth was Sammy Rimington, a former student of Lewis and the reigning interpreter of his emotive instrumental voice and straightforward melodic approach.
Long-time Rimington associate Teddy Fullick was on trumpet, often capturing the plaintive sound of Bunk Johnson and the street-parade power of Percy Humphrey, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Baker was tonight playing trombone and recalling the bare-bones attack of Jim Robinson. Splendidly supporting and supplementing the horns' voyage into the past were pianist Phil Parnell, Lars Edegran on banjo, bassist Alyn Shipton, and Norman Emberson at the drums.
"Jerusalem Blues" beautifully showcased in solo the leader's woody tone, a signature sound of Lewis, and Baker's trombone provided a sweetly gruff foundation. Fullick's eloquent lead on the memory-evoking "When You Wore A Tulip" segued into an exchange that had the three horns finishing each other's phrases.
Rimington was featured on "Hymn for George", "Burgundy Street Blues", "Lead Me Saviour", and a medley of blues and spirituals dedicated to Jimmie Noone, on all of which he captured, but did not mimic, the essence of Lewis's direct appeal to the emotions. The spotlight was turned on others in the band as well. Edegran's single-string soloing on "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" was stunning and Parnell turned in some definitive statements of early New Orleans piano. Several vocals enlivened the proceedings, including the leader's on "Move the Body Over" and the trumpeter's on "Four or Five Times".
Shipton's rock-solid bass and Emberson's authoritative trap drumming remained in the background, and quite appropriately so in terms of the musical picture being painted, but without their buoyant contribution little else would have succeeded. Of several elements that were especially telling in establishing this band's singular ability to play in the style of their models, one might note their built-in rests in the ensembles, a subtle recognition of the long hours and arduous performance schedules turn-of-the-century bands had to cope with, the uncluttered melodic lines of the soloists and lead ensemble players, and the increasing, often tear-invoking, excitement of the collective attack, as on "Weary Blues", which was nothing less than a conflagration as it roared to its climactic final choruses. Not simply out of affection for the genre but equally because your reporter considered their presentation the finest of the festival, he remained for both sets, which time constraints and finite energy precluded in the case of all other bands and combos.
Saturday morning had this festival attender catching drummer Norman Emberson's Hot Five for an 11 A.M. set at Ristorante Otello. Upon taking a seat I noted that trumpeter Teddy Fullick, pianist Phil Parnell, and bassist Alyn Shipton were other familiar faces from last night's George Lewis tribute. New Orleans native and now Paris resident Tommy Sancton, who studied and played with George Lewis and other legends and was a co-founder and former member of Boston's New Black Eagle Jazz Band, was on clarinet.
As steeped in the early New Orleans style as the gathering of the night before, the Hot Five led off with Emberson effectively vocalizing on "Baby Won't you Please Come Home", with Sancton's fluid clarinet embroidering the drummer's words with low-register commentary. For "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" Fullick's horn donned a beret for a hauntingly muffled effect. His longing-and-regret-tinged vocal on the Ruth Etting vehicle "Out in the Cold Again" was answered in kind by Sancton's clarinet and moved along nicely by the pianist's sparse comping, Shipton's walking bass, and soft drums occasionally varied by a rim shot or mini press roll.
Leader Emberson's basic pulse was interspersed throughout the set with a varietal repertoire of tight press rolls, tom-tom hits, rim and wood block punctuation, and cymbal splashes that brought to mind such masters of New Orleans trap drumming as Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, and Cie Frazier. "Clarinet Marmalade" -- perhaps a wry allusion to the brunch-time gig -- was a horse race that pulled out all the stops and featured a no-holds-barred solo by the drummer, and when it came to a stop on the proverbial dime no doubt remained that here was a combo that delivered the punch of a band twice its size.
Noon had me seated at a sidewalk table of lake-front Hotel Tamaro for the second set of the Milano Hot Jazz Orchestra, an octet with tight arrangements of 1920s musical fare. "If I Could Be With You" had two of its brass men, trombonist Davide Cornaggia and cornetist Claudio Perelli, doubling on saxophone and joining reed player Alberto Schinelli for the sound of a Jazz Age hot dance band.
On Ain't She Sweet" Guido Castelli's hand-held cymbal on the off-beat and the number's clarinet trio were reminiscent of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, and the soprano saxophone/clarinet duel on Sidney Bechet's "I'm Through, Goodbye" had the two musicians blending their individual takes on that master's unique instrumental voice.
Frequently, horns leapt out from the pack, as cornetist Paolo Gaiotti did à la Bix Beiderbecke from a Jean Goldkette or Paul Whiteman ensemble. Gaiotti also took a turn at washboard on a murderously paced "Limehouse Blues", which featured Antonio Michaelides in a piano solo that dovetailed phrases one after another to a tension-releasing climax.
Pausing midcourse on my way to the outdoor stage Lago to watch two cut-up mimes direct heavenward a furled-newspaper mock telescope and then perch one atop the other's shoulders to further extend it, inch-by-excruciating-inch, further until it was a wobbly twenty feet long, I was well prepared for the antics of the Netherlands' The Handsome Harry Company, the festival's lone representative of the Retro Swing movement. Visually entertaining they were, but musically the sextet falls somewhat short -- to be be kind -- in terms of jazz. But why be stuffy? For the several thousand standees who nightly gathered to be amused by THHC's cavorting about the stage, their act was clearly a highlight of their day.
Drawing on the music of such jive, jump, and r & b artists of lore as boogie woogie pianist and singer Harry the Hipster Gibson and Louis Jordan's Tympany Five, THHC staged a show replete with leaps, pratfalls, and slow-motion dance movements of its lead vocalist Peer de Graaf, who never, literally never, stood still. His wall-to-wall slapstick routines and a cast of voices from basso profundo to shrill falsetto were a large part of the performance. Departing the bandstand in the middle of one selection, de Graaf danced out onto a pier, a small contingent of fans following in the wake of this pipeless pied piper, and then returned to shimmy erotically across stage front.
The evening found me again at that sidewalk café at Piazzetta Ambrosoli, this time to catch, as my final performance of the festival, Europe's oldest still-intact traditional jazz band, the Frankfurt-based Barrelhouse Jazzband, coming up on its fiftieth anniversary in three years. Reed player Reimer von Essen has lead the band since the early-1960s.
Sources such as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Wilbur de Paris, Fats Waller, and Mezz Mezzrow were drawn upon for a set that was as varied as it was exciting. A Latin beat underlay "Margarita" and on "Ozark Mountain", from the book of the Missourians, the derby-muted trumpet of Horst Schwartz burst forth in descant over the riffs of the other horns. Red Allen's "Patrol Wagon Blues" had a country preacher-voiced vocal by drummer Hans Georg Klauer, and Andy Razaf's "On Revival Day" paraded a shivering trumpet over clarinet and alto saxophone and a marvelous drum solo fashioned out of a press-roll so tight it would hold water. The halting movement of Morton's "Mamanita", recorded by him (in 1924) only as a piano solo and ingeniously crafted by the BHJB as a full-band number, was splendidly captured by both trumpet lead and in the ensemble passages. "The Barrelhouse Showboat" took clarinet-playing von Essen for a stroll through the delighted audience at their tables. Little wonder that this band commands such respect throughout the continent -- and even abroad, for three decades ago they were granted New Orleans citizenship! And with that send-off your reporter returned to his hotel to pack up for the morrow's train journey to Rome, where he would rest up for three days before moving on to Perugia for another ten-day festival, Umbria Jazz.
Exhausting though the Louis Armstrong Ascona Jazz week and a half was for this reviewer, he came away from the rich experience with the conviction that he had seen in performance some the world's finest re-creators of traditional jazz and Swing Era sounds. Fans of these historic styles would do well to consider for a future vacation this annual event put together by producer and artistic director Karl Heinz Ern, who thinks of his creation as a village-wide party rather than as a festival. And no one, of the several tens of thousands thronging the walkways and streets of Ascona those ten days and nights, would likely disagree with him.
W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.
C o m m e n t s
ON REVIVAL DAY 1 of 2 L.Kohn@web.de December 05, 08
Hi, On Revival Day (Andy Razaf) Transcribed from vocals by Andy Razaf with Luis Russell and His Orchestra, recorded May 29, 1930, From Luis Russell and His Orchestra, 1930-1934, Chronological Classics, vol. 606.
Just hear them sisters groanin', And hear them brothers moanin', Repentin' and atonin', On revival day!
They're talkin' to the spirit, Just like they see and hear it, They're sinful and they fear it, On revival day!
When that congregation starts to sing, Nothin' in this world don't mean a thing!
Oh, glory hallelujah! Makes you feel so peculiar, The devil cannot rule ya, On revival day!
Glory, glory, It's so purifyin'! Glory, glory, Wash my sins away.
Lordy, Lordy, He's just like a lion, Lordy, Lordy, I'm reformed today!