by W. Royal Stokes
One is not truly into the scene here until one follows the Ambrosia Brass Band of Milan, Italy, as it winds down one narrow vicolo after another, a hundred or so fans dancing in its wake to the throb of the bass drum, the springy press rolls of the snare, and the now joyous, now somber melodies of "Down By the Riverside," "Just a Little While to Stay Here," and "St. Louis Blues" executed by the band's four brass, lone clarinet, and banjo.
Out front was Earl Conway, a Grand Marshall of New Orleans, in beret, white swallow-tail coat, black trousers and patent leather shoes, and a multi-colored and sequined over-the-shoulder sash with designs thereupon of musical notations. A world-class "eccentric dancer," Conway's repertoire of bows, dips, swaying of the posterior, and fancy footwork that would trip upa lesser man was something to behold. He was half the show, but your reviewer hastens to affirm that the other half was that no-holds-barred octet, the street beat and ensemble combustion of which kept one's feet in happy abandon.
Old Stoariegler Tschüssband, an Austrian septet on the Seebühne Piazza stage, provided a set that combined the 1920s Chicago Style of the Austin High gang and European genres, for the latter offering a nod to Beethoven and a polka enlivened by sirens, whistles, and an astringent Kletzmer-style clarinet. Leader Hannes Bauer, a raconteur of talent and a trumpet player of crisp execution and considerable drive, introduced each selection with apparently risible commentary, to judge by the appreciative audience response, but my German is weak, unfortunately, so the jokes escaped me. "That's a Plenty," with its abrupt stop-and-start breaks, splendidly captured the nervous energy of the Eddie Condon school of jazz, "Basin Street" had the vocal cadence, slurs, and pauses of Jack Teagarden down pat, and Martin Nestle's hailstorm solo, replete with cowbells and woodblock punctuation on "Back Home in Indiana" delightfully recalled the explosive drumming of George Whetling.
There is a world of difference between a good and satisfying musical performance and one that is unmistakably in the realm of higher art -- and we all know whom to name as providing a sublime experience of the latter description. At Meeting Point, for your reviewer's sensibilities, Le petit Jazzband de Mr. Morel established itself as joining the pantheon of artists who re-create early jazz. Drawing their inspiration from combos and small bands of the 1920s and early '30s such as those of Clarence Williams, Tiny Parham, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings -- but not copying so much as a lick from or using more than outline, "head" arrangements -- Le petit Jazzband has fashioned itself as an interpreter of and improviser in the style of that classic era of jazz.
To an individual, the musicianship of the band's seven members is extraordinary, and their feeling for the idiom of that time equips them to leap back seven decades or so and convincingly assume the musical ethos of those whose music they favor. Utilizing a four-horn front line lead by cornetist and band founder Jean Pierre Morel, Le petit Jazzband passed solos around, sustained multi-horn riffs beneath those soloing, and executed intricate patterns that came of as -- and I am sure were -- spontaneous ideas.
The band's book contains such tunes as Williams' "Red River Blues," Ellington's "Stevedore Stomp," and Thomas Dorsey's "Tight Like That." In addition to its leader, the members of Le petit Jazzband de Mr. Morel are reed players Alain Marquet, Daniel Huck, and Michel Bescont, sousaphone player Gérard Gervois, pianist Bernard Thévin, and banjoist Francois Fournet. The Californian/Australian brass and reed player Tom Baker sat in on the set on trombone, showing himself to be fully fluent in Le petit Jazzband's musical dialect.
With a storm threatening -- and later occurring -- Seebühne Torre had begun filling up an hour before curtain time for Portrait of Duke Ellington, and the high expectations indicated by the fully packed house were clearly met and then some by the international octet of festival all stars that emerged from the wings at 11 p.m.
"Take the 'A' Train," with its familiar melody, nicely set the mood for the exemplary program of small-band Ellington that followed. "Squatty Roo" had phenomenon Tom Baker getting into the nooks and crannies of his plumber's-helper-muted trumpet for rips, squeezes, and smears worthy of a Cootie Williams. The overall movement of the number simulated a steam-powered train, a signature element of the Ellington organization, and Frank Roberscheuten's tumultuous statement on tenor saxophonist was delivered over a stalking riff pattern of the other horns.
Pianist Christian Hopkins was left alone on stage for an ingenious remodeling of the early Ellington band version of "The Mooche," maintaining an insistently hypnotic, yet remarkably unobtrusive, modified stride bass as a vamp for his creative variations on the tune's haunting melody. It was altogether a mesmerizing tour de force. Dan Barrett's feeling for things Ducal was abundantly displayed as he ranged across the diverse roles of that so important instrument in the Ellington scheme of things, equally at home, for example, with the silken balladry è la Lawrence Brown and the human-voice-like muted expression of Tricky Sam Nanton.
The set-closing shoot-out on "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" featured the unique, and often unbelievable, scatting skills of alto saxophonist Joep Peeters, whose sudden leaps into falsetto and head-over-heels velocity of delivery were carried off over the unison "doo-wat-doo-wat-doo-wat" vocal foudation of his fellow band members, who before the number's end mischievously departed the stage, all the while continuing their refrain, leaving the unblinking Peeters to fend for himself a capello, which he carried off without loosing a beat and with commendable panache.
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.
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