by W. Royal Stokes
That this long-time Free State native -- Washington, D.C., claims me as native -- would eventually meet up with the Maryland Jazz Band of Cologne was a foregone conclusion, and to my delight it happened on this evening at Piazzetta Ambrosoli's canopied cabaret in the square of a busy back street, providing me a very lively set and a half of tunes of New Orleans vintage. With a verbal homage to the long-lived late Humphries brothers Percy and Willie of the world-traveling Preservation Hall Jazz Band, leader and trombonist Gerhard "Doggy" Hund introduced "I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me." His remarks were most appropriate since the brothers were not only contemporaries of the festival's honoree, Willie even did several Chicago gigs with Louis Armstrong's mentor King Joe Oliver in the 1920s. Trumpeter Joris de Cock led off the number with a vocal that adopted horn-like phrasing. Reinhardt Küpper's press rolls on snare laid down a springy carpet that nudged the band along and his several solos were action-packed displays of Vesuvian force. Cock's crisp attack and the wonderfully fluid tone of Klaus-Dieter George's clarinet lifted the number to a cathartic fury over 'bone man "Doggy" Hund's gruff glissandi that recalled Crescent City legend Big Jim Robinson. Hund's deliciously buttery statement of the theme on "Let the World Go By" was supported in fine fashion by the counter-melodic support of the two other horns beneath his line.
A brief conversation during the break with leader Hund established my geographical credentials to this, my state namesake, band and, to my great pleasure, the second set kicked off with the sublime melody over a vigorous march beat of "Maryland My Maryland," familiar to the band's many fellow Germans in the audience as the Christmas tune "O Tannenbaum." I couldn't at its conclusion tear myself away for my next duty (this is, after all, a working gig for your reviewer!), however, because these "Marylanders" immediately launched another of my favorites, "Tin Roof Blues," with its dragging beat and gradually building intensity. Pianist Georg "Schroeder" Derks presented a definitive, and deeply moving, lesson on the blues on it and banjoist Hans-Martin "Buli" Schöning's single-string solo got to the core of the tune. Bassist Markus "Benny" Dombrowe provided an exemplary foundation throughout the proceedings.
First formed a quarter century ago, Soprano Summit soon became one of the several most admired combos of jazz and has remained so both for fans of traditional jazz and for critics. The uncanny musical meeting of minds of its co-leaders soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Bob Wilber and clarinetist Kenny Davern long ago called attention to Summit as one of the most exciting groups to appear on the scene for years. Wilber now holds down the soprano chair while Davern some years ago decided to concentrate on clarinet. In the process Davern has become, for the ears of many, the reigning traditional and Swing Era style expressionist on his instrument. Wilber, of course, has long been considered a phenomenal player on both the curved and straight versions of the soprano and on the clarinet. Here for only three days, they stay through Friday evening.
Now under the nomenclature Summit Reunion, the fivesome roared into the opening set of their initial evening at Ascona Jazz with a windy-roofed "Lady Be Good," the two horns weaving in and out of each other's lines with their respective improvisations on the Gershwin classic. It was clear from the beginning that the leaders, befittingly, had in tow a world-class rhythm section, for guitarist Roberto Colombo, bassist Aldo Zunino, and drummer Stefano Bagnoli were truly a dream team of timekeepers, as well as each a soloist of distinction in his own right.
For the combo's opening Ascona performance at a crowded Seebühne Torre, Wilber chose the curved soprano for this and several successive selections and while some novices in the enthusiastic audience likely wondered at the outset what in the world he could do with the tiny instrument, they were quickly shed of their doubts when the horn came on with the big and slightly brassy sound that Wilber, a student in his young years of the great Sidney Bechet, coaxes from it. His stamina as he created a seemingly unending series of melodic twists and turns on this standard was quite astonishing. Why Davern is held in such high regard immediately became apparent as he took full charge in his solo, swooping from top to bottom of his instrument's range, loop-the-looping with shrill cries, emitting phlegmy growls, and punctuating it all with a master sense of rhythm. Another aspect of Davern's artistic genius is his knack for creating solos within solos, separate but related melodies, often quite fragmentary, erupting out of the blue -- or out of the blues. Zunino's bass solo was softly urged along by the subtle, and compelling, tick-tick-tick on hi-hat cymbal of one of Bagnoli's sticks, and th en by the sotto voce unison riffing of the horns.
"I Can't Believe that You're in Love With Me" had a splendid exchange between Davern and Zunino, the others dropping out, and on "My Blue Heaven" the two clarinets were arrestingly contrasted, Wilber's reaching upstairs for some emotionally resonant high register and Davern down in the bottom of his horn for a more somber take on the familiar melody. A highlight of the set was Colombo's feature, with the horns withdrawing, Django Reinhardt's "Tears", on which one heard echoes of the legendary Belgian-born gypsy guitarist. On the set-closing "Hindustan", Wilber's empyrean extended solo on straight soprano brought the house down. As if that were not proof enough of the powerhouse dynamics of Summit, Bagnoli left the starting gate with a sizzling solo that never let up and was for some its duration joined by the two horns punching out, in unison, short bursts of the melody. That and an exchange of traded fours all around several times lent to the number an intensity and a passion of expression seldom heard.
Paris Washboard does indeed have such a device as the mainstay of its rhythm machine and it lends to the combo's musical character something of what similarly supported units of the 1920s conceived as their life force, an almost reckless abandon that nevertheless resulted in a sort of organized chaos of great appeal. Well, Paris Washboard, with somewhat more sophisticated instrumentation, replacing the kazoo, jug, and harmonica with clarinet and trombone, achieves much the same effect. For the performance in question at Piazzetta Ambrosoli the foursome had as special guest the remarkably astute alto saxophonist Daniel Huck.
"California Here I Come" was loosely structured as a delightfully madcap scramble of solos by trombonist Daniel Barda, clarinetist Alain Marquet, and Huck, a high-speed tongue-twisting scat vocal by the latter, and some ensemble action that, while crazily tumultuous, actually was splendidly organized, with its now unison or collective blowing, now overlapping lines. At times it was very difficult to separate the parts, a circumstance that defines the art of ensemble jazz. Throughout, there was the insistent snare-like rattle of Gérard Bagot's washboard and the addition thereto of effects elicited from such accessories as cymbals, wood blocks, and cow bell. On the medium-tempo "Sugar" pianist Olivier Lancelot composed a veritable essay on stride piano, and Barda's plunger-muted statement over clarinet and alto was a treat of hoarse blue tones. "Weary Blues" was proof of the combo's skill's and inventiveness at killing velocity, as Bagot, putting to work all the tools of his arsenal, drove the number to a shattering climax.
In summary, beauty arising out of seeming chaos is the strength and the charm of this wonderful combo. They have captured the spirit of 1920s novelty and jug bands and refashioned it in their own terms on their chosen instruments.
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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