by W. Royal Stokes
With 25,000 fans passing through the ticket gate over the course of the first two days of New Orleans Jazz Ascona, this year's festival dedicated to the memory and the music of Louis Armstrong on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and yesterday morning's church service attended by an overflow crowd of those eager to worship to the joyous voices of the High Spirits Gospel Group of Chicago, this gathering of aficionados coming from near and afar to check out fifty or so bands and combos that are here to pay tribute to and re-create the roots of jazz is off and running.
The throngs at the five main stages, with simultaneous and overlapping action, and at the dozen or so crowded ristoranti, some in hotels and others along the lake-front, put the lie to any predictions of the demise of traditional jazz. Take it from your reporter on the scene, it has been alive and kicking for the first three of this festival's 10-day run. At a late afternoon press conference today, festival founder, producer, and artistic director Karl Heinz Ern was beaming with enthusiasm and satisfaction over the burgeoning crowds and the high quality of the music, and he has good reason to do so, for this year's event, by all reports, has surpassed expectations. As to this observers response to the experience so far, in a word, it doesn't get any better than this.
Sunday evening your reviewer was invited by two fellow journalists from Torino, Italy, to join them for a drink and the 6 p.m. set of Karl F.'s Jazzconnection at a sidewalk table of Hotel Tamaro. Sipping my ice tea, I was transported to the Swing Era, when combos like Karl Friedrich Erbprinz von Hohenzollern's quintet, from Germany, played the smoke-filled basement clubs along New York's 52nd Street. With the leader on alto and tenor saxophones, the group offered a program that included such classic tunes of the period as "Moten's Swing," "Crazy Rhythm," and "All of Me" with an authenticity that both bespoke homage to the tradition and displayed the fivesome's own high-spirited individuality in its interpretation of that tradition.
Vibraphonist Norbert Rettenmaier, a "monster' of virtuosity on his axe (at one juncture throwing his leg over his instrument to mute it momentarily!), and Karl F. wove their individual slants on a tune's melody in and out of each other's lines with uncanny anticipation of the other's harmonic progressions. Karl F.'s attack ranged from his rollercoaster take on ""Honeysuckle Rose," on which he did one of several nicely handled and confidently swinging vocals, to a Ben Websterish-breathy "Misty." Rettenmaier, picking up his own tenor, traded dreamy choruses with the leader on this much favored Errol Garner composition. A set-closing "Route 66," a mini-Jazz at the Philharmonic jam, had the tabled audience ready to dance in the aisles to the heated tenor/vibes exchanges and then to a cutting contest between blustery tenors. Pianist Martin Giebel, who consistently provided his skills and sensitivity in support of the two-man front line and excelled in several solo statements, dug into the blues beneath the steamy riffs of the two horns on this final number. Bassist Alex Obert and drummer Peter Schmidt proved to be mainstays throughout the action-packed set by this impressively cohesive unit.
A few steps away, Italian singer Laura Fedele converted the canvass-covered Meeting Point into a New Orleans dive with her Tribute to Blues, singing in an alternately sultry or belting voice of men bringing her coffee in bed or being hauled off to jail in a paddy wagon from an uproarious "Saturday Night Fish Fry." Standing at mike for some songs and for others seated at piano and cutting some mean blues, her guise as a worldly, sometimes sensuously pouty, woman of multiple relationships and diverse experience was lent robust accompaniment on the up-tempo numbers by the bar-walking tenor saxophone of Marcello Noia, the avalanche-like force of Alberto Marsico's electric keyboard, and Gio Rossi's propulsive drumming. On ballads like "My Secret Love" Fedele's timbre became almost creamy, albeit with a catch in the throat, and her mood turned to plaintive regret. Fedele and her companions were indeed paying welcome tribute to a corner of Crescent City musical history made vital by such originals as Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, and they did so with an obvious affection for and deep understanding of their sources.
Big Al Carson, from New Orleans and long a favorite of Ascona audiences, held forth with his Blues Masters on the stage of Seebühne Chiesa, up that narrow vicolo next to the historic church S. S. Pietro e Paolo. A crowd pleaser -- and a lovable one -- from the word go, Big Al paused between blues-shouted assurances such as "I Love You Baby" for homespun repartee with his adoring fans and appeals to them to "come up close." He prefaced Muddy Waters' "I Got My Mojo Working" with an invitation to sing along and, as the song progressed, urged the crowd to "sing louder!" He even invited a ten-year-old boy on stage to prance in Grand Marshall manner with parasol. Singing of "Going to Kansas City" and in tune after tune, Big Al proved to possess a feeling for his materials as capacious as his girth, and he is indeed a mountain of a man as well as a giant of the blues.
Swing Cats, from the Netherlands, appeals as both a sonic and visual experience, for in addition to creating a Swing Era effect that often shakes you by the shoulders, they are always in eye catching, but never exaggerated, movement. On "I Got Rhythm" multi-reed player Frank Roberscheuten, on clarinet, and vibraphonist Joep Peeters, one of two special guests with the combo, executed a madcap exchange of fours that, had their audience not already been standing in the Seebühne Piazza, would have easily brought them to their feet. At the climax of the number drummer Onno de Bryn roared into the action with a veritable maelstrom of a solo.
The well-traveled Hoagy Carmichael standard "Stardust" was created anew with sensitivity by tenor saxophone, vibes, and Dirk van der Linden's fluent pianistics. Singer Shaunett Hildabrand, from Oklahoma and the band's other special guest, instilled a subtly swung "When You're Smiling" with a feeling that transformed a cliché into universal truth, applied her strong voice and convincing irony to "I Cried for You," and brought the house down with her gorgeously old-worldly "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," the last-named rendition stilling the crowd with its evocative overtones of passion. Another vocal effort, Peeters' take on the Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart utterly, and delightfully, nonsensical "Flat Foot Floogie," was a tour de force of pedal-to-the-floor and tongue-twisting scat, charmingly insane jive talk, and snap-crackle-and-pop sound effects. Bassist Karel Algoed was the indispensable anchor man for the set's myriad approaches to 1930s and early '40s sensibilities.
For these ears little matches the organized chaos of early Crescent City jazz, and in ensemble passages the Lars Edegran New Orleans All Stars really know how to cut it, achieving nearly unbearable intensity as the three horns, all blowing at once and in seemingly heedless concern with what lies ahead, are all but driven off the cliff by the relentlessly pressing rhythm section. Che bellissima musica!
I could hear that sounds answering to the above description were being offered in Seebühne Piazza to a swelling crowd as I approached the stage there. Referring to the program, I saw that the front line of the All Stars consisted of Dwayne Burns, trumpet, Tom Fisher, reeds, and Fred Lonzo, trombone, the rhythm team of pianist Edegran, bassist Mark Brooks, and drummer Ernest Elly. Leader Edegran has a feel for audience needs and at the perfect moment he called for Juanita Brooks to render "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" Her gospel lift, accompanied by some authentically churchy piano and supplemented by Lonzo's big-toned horn, had the assembled flock in the palm of the singer's hand. Brooks' blues roots were nicely in evidence on "Mama's Gone Goodbye." Her rousing "Take All of Me" had Fisher's tenor saxophone hovering around the melody with vehement swing and Burn's trumpet emitting mewling growls in sotto-voce wry commentary on her offer. For me, still another New Orleans school of music remained to be honored and, ducking up that vicolo again, I came upon it in the persons of Louisiana Radio, from Utrecht, a quartet devoted to the Cajun culture of their namesake state. Spicing their Zydeco offerings with generous splashes of New Orleans r & b, the foursome had some of their ecstatic fans dancing wildly at the foot of the Seebühne Chiesa stage. The infectious excitement of their performance, together with the musical qualities inherent in the Cajun French in which they deliver their vocals, made for a non-stop party effect. Not least of this genre's appeals is its ability to communicate very, very directly with people. One could see this during the performance, of course, but it was also evident at the side of the stage when the combo, having withdrawn after two vociferously demanded encores, made itself available for the autographing of CDs and made instant friends of a dozen or so fans. Some of the tunes played were "Soif," "Hip-y-tayo," and "Alons à Lafayette." All four musicians sing, often all together, but the lead vocalist was Hans De Vries, who also plays guitar, blues harp, and a metal rubboard worn as a vest and played with two can openers. Onno Kuipers performed on a standard-size accordion, frequently exchanging it for an older form of the instrument, a much smaller "squeeze box." Rob Verheem was on bass and Arthur Bont at the drums.
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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