by W. Royal Stokes
Nestled among miniature mountains and looking out upon a massive lake that continues south into Italy, the charming town of Ascona in southern Switzerland attracts many vacationers by reason of its gorgeous setting, water sports, first-class eateries, luxury hotels, and shops with the latest
fashions. However, for the past decade and a half the early-summer visitors have come in droves for a very special offering. This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of the major international festival devoted to New Orleans jazz and its derivative idioms and styles. Your reviewer was commissioned to cover the festival for The Mississippi Rag, the premier periodical of traditional jazz. It will also be posted daily (well, more or less) during the course of the ten-day bash on Jazz House, the website of the Jazz Journalists Association (www.jazzhouse.org), on Jazz Ascona (www.jazzascona.ch), and on this writer's www.wroyalstokes.com.
This year's event has nearly 50 bands spread over its run. Performances begin at restaurants and hotels in late morning and continue into the evening on stages along the lake front until 3 a.m., with 1-5 a.m. sessions hosted by a different leader each night. Well, that's okay. If all-night jams are your passion you can catch three or four hours of shuteye and still get downstairs before your hotel stops serving breakfast. Who needs sleep anyway when -- there is no other way to describe it -- the joint is jumpin' 18 hours a day!
Abbi Hübner's Low Down Wizards was one of two bands that had the unenviable task of kicking the festival off at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 30. I didn't catch the other band, but that's not a worry since all groups repeat during the course of the festival. The Wizards rose to the challenge, presenting a sparkling program of traditional standards for the al fresco diners at Hotel Tamaro. Appropriately recognizing this year's honoree, Louis Armstrong, from the outset, they hit the ground running with a spirited rendition of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans." One of this band's strong points is its tightness in ensemble, which often builds to incendiary excitement and causes emotional highs. Of course, solos can reach depths, too, but there is something especially moving about the collective expression, New Orleans style, of an eight-member group "swingin' you into bad health," as Count Basie was wont to observe. As to this band's soloists, all acquitted themselves with distinction. Again in celebration of Pops, "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter" had leader Hübner, who hails from Hamburg, vocalizing à la Armstrong, trademark mile-wide grimacing smile and all. The concluding "When My Dream Boat Comes Home" pulled out all the stops, riding out the concluding choruses with all hands on deck in a tumultuous abandon that confirmed anew my observations above vis-à-vis the thrills of collectivity.
All the while setting up across the street-- which of course had been closed to all but foot traffic -- on the Seebühne Piazza stage were Lino Patruno & the Red Pellini Gang. Lively is an understated adjective with which to describe this nine-piece unit modeled upon -- but far from slavishly imitating -- the 1920s Jean Goldkette Orchestra and featuring tunes that Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and others of that ancient era played for dancers as they barnstormed across the U.S.A. in death-trap busses. The opening selection, a Bixian "My Pretty Girl", featured cornetist Carlo Capobianchi producing the kinds of sounds that Eddie Condon, defining Bix's tone, compared favorably to "a girl saying yes." On Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle" pianist Georgio Cuscito leapt to his feet and added his C-melody saxophone to the already 5-strong front line of horns. Cornet, trombone (wielded by Michael Supnick, from Worcester, Massachusetts) , baritone and bass saxophones, and violin delivered period solos and excelled in ensemble passages, rendering baritonist Pellini's adaptations of the classic arrangements with aplomb and exuberant swing. Leader and banjoist Patruno,a native of Calabria in another South, did the seemingly impossible on his feature selection, the New Orleans warhorse "Tiger Rag" -- he made the strings of his instrument simulate the traditional feline roar.
Singer Elena Paoletti's leisurely, even drawled (though a native Italian, her mother is from Jackson, Mississippi), "Somebody Loves Me," a Gershwin standard, tore at the heartstrings, alternating between hope and despair, and her "Happy Feet," a Bing Crosby vehicle, cranked up the heat and had many of the audience standees responding in kind to the title with their -- to borrow from Fats Waller -- "pedal extremities", their fancies clearly tickled by her enormous vocal talent, delightfully irresistible flapper-like manner, and subtly suggestive body language. Put succinctly, this band demonstrates conclusively what riches can be unearthed from a bygone time and re-created for contemporary tastes.
Trumpeter Leroy Jones is the most recent in a now century-old line of first-horn artists to emerge from his native New Orleans. One can hear in his varietal sonic palette much of the musical history of the Crescent City. But Jones's untrammeled creative impulse inspires him to reshape that history in some very imaginatively original ways. One hears in his instrumental voice not only echoes of Armstrong but, for example, licks from Jones's long-standing hometown r & b tradition that call to mind that "Spanish tinge" that Jelly Roll Morton cited as so essential to jazz, stratospheric flights à la Roy Eldridge, allusions to bebop worthy of a Dizzy Gillespie, and a good many other familiar and not so familiar elements in a stylistic ethos that defies categorization. Jones and his companion at horn, the young New Orleans rising star in traditional and other circles there trombonist Craig Klein, have an uncanny way of reaching into each other's musical minds. They provided ample evidence of this ESP on a stage tucked into a narrow side street and backed up against Chiesa S. S. Pietro e Paolo, an Ascona monumental treasure dating from the Middle Ages. For example, Jones's and Klein's unison delivery on one blues, with each muting his horn's bell with cupped hand, resulted in a moaned lamentation that stood the hair on end by virtue not only of its emotional resonance but by its sheer virtuosity. Speaking of the latter characteristic, pianist Dirk Raufeisen Jazzfinger tore into solos with an attack that perfectly blended Art Tatum-like technical command with his own individuality of expression. Bassist Gotz Ommert's pizzicato attack on one extended solo had his fingers bringing it off with a bowed effect.
Dan Barrett's Blue Swing, down the street at Seebühne Torre, a cavernous tent, made splendid use of the great skills, wide-ranging musical experience, and tremendous talents of its members. It's really a dream band when you start tallying up the contributions these nine artists of stature made to selection after selection. Barrett's shaping of his band, along with his much recognized fluency on trombone, go far toward explaining the unit's excellence, but there's no denying that that excellence resides in its parts as well as in its whole. As an aggregation, the band is authoritative; as an association of individualists it has few peers in its chosen style. Which is not surprising with such as trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, reed players Brian Ogilvie and Butch Smith, bassist Joel Forbes, and the redoubtable Ray Sherman at the piano. Banjoist Fast Eddie Erikson and drummer Jeff Hamilton teamed up for a show-stopping duo on "Maple Leaf Rag." With all aboard, the cats wailed like a band twice its size in full fury on "St. Louis Blues." Band singer Rebecca Kilgore has taken on the mantle of any number of departed greats although she would, in modesty, be the first to reject comparison to her forebears. Still, she is a major interpreter of Swing Era song, among the several best in today's scene. Her "Brazil" was the very definition of sizzling -- though teasingly restrained -- South of the Border eroticism. She instilled "A Kiss to Build Dreams On" with a heartfelt tender loving care that few singers of today can handle without becoming maudlin. And, with the four horns punctuating her phrasing with short bursts, she blew up a gale on "Christopher Columbus."
Saturday night began with your reviewer stepping aside to let the Netherlands Happy Feet Brass Band continue on its way as it made its way down the thoroughfare in step to its self-generated street beat and robust horns, an uplifting encounter. Nearby, the Watergate Seven Plus One, from France, was entertaining sidewalk café imbibers and early-evening diners with generous helpings of traditional fare from its four horn front line -- two trumpets make a difference, don't they? -- and solid rhythm section.
Meeting Place, a canopied temporary night club adjacent to the moonlit lake, was specializing this evening in small groups and solo acts. Slick Salzer's Swing Academy, from Germany, had Olaf Polziehn at the piano digging into the blues, Duke Ellington, and "Bye Bye Blackbird" with conviction and chops aplenty. Bassist Davide Petrocca was ably anchoring the combo and in solo displaying fingering dexterity that many a guitarist would envy. Leader Salzer coaxed his companions along with a style of time keeping too little seen -- or heard -- today, that is, with an unobtrusive presence, clean and crisp strokes, and anticipated excitement at every turn -- which did indeed erupt, quite explosively, when he inserted a solo into the proceedings.
At the same venue, Silvan Zingg, native to this Ticino canton, entertained the standing-room-only enclosure with a mixture of classic boogie woogie and showmanship. Clearly taking as much delight as his audience in his antics, Zingg abruptly broke off momentarily shortly into one selection to swig from a bottle of soda, later swung around on his stool to pose with broad smile for a photographer shooting him from behind, and thoughout the set mugged shamelessly to his instant fans whenever he was especially pleased with a particular musical effect. However, born entertainer that he is in the mode of the early piano "professors" who played boogie woogie and stride in South Side Chicago apartments converted to after-hours beer and whiskey parlors and at Harlem rent parties, Zingg has a serious side. And that serious side got very serious indeed on "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie," introduced by remarks pointing to the tune's 1928 origins, and on Meade Lux Lewis's classic "Honky Tonk Train Blues," for which he advised his audience to "close your eyes and imagine an old steam engine." Neither these nor other boogie standards he offered were presented as acts of imitative memorization of the original, for Silvan Zingg has so completely mastered this blues idiom that he can improvise within its confines with ease. He's a hard act to follow, so I split that scene and sauntered on down the road a piece to my hotel to stay up half the rest of the night writing up the two evenings. Now, some of these nights I'm going to fall around to the all-night session. With leaders like Leroy Jones, Keith Nichols, Red Pellini, and Lars Edegran at the helm, they promise to be blasts!
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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