by W. Royal Stokes
The Ed Polcer All Stars filled Seebühne Torre with the sounds of Eddie Condon's New York style jazz on Thursday evening. Again, as with the other combos this past week or so here, the delivery of these sounds was by no means in terms of imitation, for the seven musicians on stage were simply playing in the style established by the late guitarist and such of his cohorts as Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Cutty Cutshall, and the incurrably wise-cracking Condon himself. Polcer, of course, led the house band of the 1980s re-creation the of Eddie Condon's club in New York.
The drive and bite of Polcer's hot cornet and the woody dips and high register keening of the clarinet of Allan Vaché, a present-day master of that instrument who has worked with such departed greats as Hackett, drumming legend Gene Krupa, and the great Clark Terry, set the pattern for an opening set of vigour and high excitement. Bob Havens, who has served in the Bob Crosby Bobcats and with Benny Goodman, provided a trombone attack that was the perfect foil for the other two horns, with its flowing lyricism interspersed with baby-lion growls. With Lino Patruno's guitar laying down a rock-solid four-four pulse and getting off several lively solos, Luciano Milanese walking his big bass, and drummer Stefano Bagnoli, whether with sticks or brushes, providing the fuel for this engine of a band, things moved along in quite a swashbuckling fashion. Not least of all was the contribution of Nando de Lucca at the piano, for he not only supplied that organized scheme of harmony so essential to good musical structure, he proved to be a soloist in full command of his ideas.
"Back Home Again in Indiana" was taken at a fast clip with Polcer's cornet out front of an ensemble statement of the melody, which Havens reprised in a blustery solo. Vaché, reaching for the sky from the top of his horn's register did the same.
"It's pretty hot up here," observed Polcer, "so we're going to slow it down with 'Poor Butterfly'." Well, for all their slowing it down, the rendition was anything but cool. Polcer's Harmon-muted solo positively steamed. And understandably so, when one recalls the balladic fire of another of this cornetist's forebears, long-time Condon associate Wild Bill Davison.
"I Never Knew" had three teenagers in the center aisle in very individualistic terpsichorean appreciation of the trading of fours between Bagnoli's brushes and the soaring clarinet of Vaché. The three-way conversation between the horns on "The Sunny Side of the Street" deserves commendation, and the ruminative reading of the verse by de Lucca on his feature "Just Friends" was a gem.
Of course, no band as combustible as these All Stars was going to be let off stage for intermission without making it clear that it cannot be messed with, and the set-closing "Hindustan" met that challenge indisputably. It was, in a word, a triumph. First of all, there was Polcer getting inside his cornet for a solo of smears and shakes that set the pattern for a series of brilliant solos all around. Just when it seemed the collective ensemble action couldn't reach a higher pitch of excitement, Bagnoli came on with brushes, then sticks, for a cascade that drew screams from the packed hall. The ensuing and blistering ensemble ride-out, punctuated by the drummer's breaks, took one back to late-night 1940s Eddie Condon Club scenes, or perhaps to the results of the paint-peeling early morning recording scenes guitarist/producer Condon organized for his well-lubricated "Condon Gang."
At a Friday noon session at Piazzetta Ambrosoli, English-born drummer Trevor Richards lead his New Orleans Trio in a set that touched upon their namesake city's Creole and Uptown traditions, compositions of Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet, and the -- in critic the late Martin Williams' phrase -- "humor in the offhand" of Fats Waller, that is, the legendary stride pianist, leader, and singer's talent for subtle mockery of the lyrics of standard songs.
"Exactly Like You" had Richards backing pianist David Boedinghaus with the kind of varietal trap drumming that Baby Dodds employed in support of his brother the clarinetist Johnny. Richards' press rolls are flawlessly smooth and he makes full use of his battery of accessories, his sticks making contact routinely and delightfully with woodblocks, cow bells, and cymbals. As for Boedinghaus, his ears and hands have feelingly captured the nuances of Jelly Roll Morton's modified ragtime piano voice, not an easy quality to wrest from the keys.
Evan Christopher, a Southern Californian by origin and a player who has become well known at Ascona Jazz for his frequent, and much appreciated, sitting in with other bands, is without qualification one of the several present-day leading New Orleans-style clarinetists, as well as an exemplary interpreter of Swing Era dynamics. He got way down into the bottom range of his horn on pianist Don Ewell's 1940s tune "Southside Strut" for some blue inf lection that defined the Crescent City style of clarinet playing. In fact, one could say that he is solidly in the tradition of the many clarinetists whom the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Jr. tutored in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, a school of playing that included, for example, Barney Bigard and Albert Nicholas. His melodic line on the Ellington classic "The Mooche" had him whispering the eerie melody and then growling it Bechet-like. Richards' tom toms were hauntingly effective on this number and Boedinghaus found himself now in the pianistic guise of Duke. Once again, mention of the names of all of these departed members of the jazz pantheon is only by way of pointing to the immersion in the traditions that these, along with many other artists here at Ascona Jazz, have undergone. The Trio's individuality, collectively and to a man, stands out in whatever they put their limbs and wind to.
Christopher's light-hearted vocal on "My Blue Heaven" delighted and the phrasing of his solo on alto saxophone was clearly in the New Orleans tradition of staying with the melody. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" had him declaiming some parts of the lyrics and refashioning phrases à la the Wallerian wit alluded to above.
For "Tiger Rag", taken at a good clip, a medium-paced "You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans", and the vociferously demanded encore offering "Petit Fleur", a beautiful Bechet composition movingly interpreted, the trio held to its New Orleans profile, lending to these tunes an authenticity of execution and a depth of feeling that puts them in the front rank with the several small combos here at Ascona Jazz creatively dealing with such sources.
After an afternoon break to catch up at his laptop back in his room in Hotel Eden Roc, your reviewer, once again seated at a sidewalk table of Hotel Tamaro's ristorante, took in a set of Miss Lulu White's Red Hot Creole Jazzband. From the Netherlands, this octet favors the ensemble approach that the early-1920s King Oliver band brilliantly held forth with into the early hours of the morning at Chicago venues owned by mobsters. And one does have to say that they do it very well indeed, capturing the blues-filled sound of Oliver, his discipile Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and the others in tunes that the band, in 1923, recorded the definitive versions of, for example, "Royal Garden Blues" and "Working Man Blues".
With, a front line of two-cornets, appropriately, trombone, and two clarinetists who double on alto saxophone and a rhythm section of piano, banjo, and tuba, this modern-day Creole Jazz Band, using the old recordings as guides and inspiration, improvises in the idiom of the '20s. The original melodic lines are present, the breaks and stop-time choruses intact, and the solos analogous to but breaking out of the confines of the structures that Joe Oliver and Louis built.
With one of the altoists grasping a mini-second of empty space to peel out of the ensemble for the first solo of "Working Man Blues" and the trombone holdin g up the bottom for him, one closed one's eye's and heard afresh the essence of that musical identity that Oliver and his musicians created for a different time and a different social context represented by Prohibition Era Chicago.
Nor did the band draw the line with Oliver and his stylistic conventions, for in "Original Jelly Roll Blues" they made use of a musical element dear to Morton's heart, the multiple series of breaks that makes a round of the instrumentation. One could also cite Miss Lulu's homage to another dictum of this great composer, really the first arranger in jazz, namely, that jazz have "plenty rhythm."
"High Society" contained a splendid feature on the tune's traditional clarinet solo, which was conceived by Alphonse Picou from the piccolo original. "Smokehouse Blues", led off by the two cornets in overlapping chime-like attack, demonstrated the bands ability to make a slow number swing. Showing his respect for this world-class and thoroughly authentic sounding Dutch band of antique persuasions, New Orleans-based clarinetist Evan Christopher sat in on and contributed handsomely to several selections, including an Armand Piron tune, "Sudbustin' Blues", and "Flat Foot", recorded by the New Orleans Bootblacks.
Miss Lula White's Red Hot Creole Jazz Band consists of cornetists Mart Mous, the leader, and Tom Goosen, trombonist Bart Goosen, reed players Wil van Baarle and Matthias Seuffert, pianist Mart Jacobs, banjo and dobro player Wouter Nouwens, and tuba player Marcel van de Winkel.
Rushing over to the Torre stage a half hour or so before curtain time in order to be assured a good seat for Oscar Klein and Friends, this writer grabbed a double dip of ice cream in a cup along the way. This particular session of the veteran Austrian trumpet player, who turned seventy in January, was billed as "Happy Birthday Oscar", and it was indeed a celebratory occasion, with fellow band leader Reimer van Essen doing the introductory honors, citing Klein for the help he has given to so many younger musicians over the course of his half-century-long artistic career.
Klein displayed no little stamina and blowing power for the duration of a long set that commenced with Lil Hardin Armstrong's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and concluded with a house-rocking "Caravan". If his years of performing show anything, it is in his deep feeling for the jazz tradition, his originality of conception, and his sheer joy of playing. Klein's Friends on stage were clarinetist Charly Höllering, trombonist Alex Zahler, pianist Roger Robert, bassist Lindi "Bass" Huppertsberg, and drummer Charlie Antolini.
"Basin Street Blues" featured a gravelly vocal by trombonist Zahler, who then doubled the tempo for a potent solo on his horn. With all but the bassist and drummer departing the stage, Robert got down on some up-beat boogie woogie that displayed a strong left hand and a left that turned the blues every which way but loose. The audience wouldn't let him quit so he encored with a slower boogie piece that had the hall clapping on the off beat.
Clarinetist Höllering has absorbed his influences and come off of them with a singularly individualistic voice that was put on display in his gorgeously fluid interpretation of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You". If one may return to the concept of influences, albeit absorbed and refashioned, these ears hear the mark of Artie Shaw in Höllering, persuasively so because of his total command of the horn's range, which was characteristic of Shaw's playing (but only into the 1950s, after which he went on to other pursuits, such as writing).
As a female instrumentalist Lindi "Bass" Huppertsberg is nearly unique here at Ascona Jazz. The only others your reviewer saw were singer/pianist Laura Fedele and a woman playing tuba with the Watergate Seven Plus One. But let's not harp on the minimal representation, excepting singers, of women in traditional jazz circles, as unfortunate as it may be, for it just may be that the score upon score of women horn, string, and percussion players that the jazz idiom now abounds with came up prefering later styles such as bebop and free jazz. We hasten to clarify that Huppertsberg, along with those others who do as just described, is not a "woman" jazz musician, she's a jazz musician who just happens to be a woman. And she's a mighty fine one, too. Her steady hands guided the band unerringly through many a passage and her several solo statements put both her great skills and her remarkable inventiveness to work.
Talk about versatility -- of both band and its leader -- "Route 66" turned into an exposition of post-WW 2 Muddy Waters-style blues with Zahler and Klein on harmonicas. The customary introductory drum solo of the Juan Tizol/Ellington classic "Caravan" was followed by some collective blowing of pyrotechnic urgency, no little supplemented by the leader's vibrato via plumber's helper. But the most was yet to come, as the audience soon learned to their utter delght and astonishment.
Drummer Charlie Antolini is a member of that limited number of jazz drummers who is as much showman as super skilled and artistically creative musician. He is, quite simply, a spectaculor perfomer when unleashed from the band for a display of the incredible repertoire of percussive effects he has at his command. Of pre-bebop-style drummers active today, only Louie Bellson and Duffy Jackson come to mind as his equals. Of course, looking to the past, Gene Krupa has to be credited as the innovator of this appraoch to the drum solo, and it was Buddy Rich who assumed his disciple's mantle and wore it until his own death a decade ago.
All of Antolini's fellow band members withdrew, some taking seats at the rear of the stage -- and well they did since standing in place for fifteen minutes can be tiring! Sustaining both a bass drum roll and shimmering sprays on the hi-hat with his pedals, Antolini had more action going with his other two limbs than two or three times as many hands could produce. Tap dancing his sticks all around the array of cymbals, often with over-hand reaches, combining pebbly chatter from the snare with stop-and-start klook-mops on the bass drum, pounding the tune's theme on the tom toms, interrupting this to furiously karate chop a hand-held cymbal, firing off from the snare's rims a series of rifle shots that gradually increased to automatic-weapon frequency, suddenly playing his sticks upon each other above his head in bone-rattle fashion and then popping his cheek with finger, finally seemingly combining all of the forementioned in a minutes-long finale that built to the roar of an out-of-control steam engine flying breakneck down a mountainside. It was a perfectly thrilling musical and theatrical experience. Introduced by Klein at the outset as one of Europe's greatest drummers, Antolini had this astounded witness to his high-on-the-Richter-scale earth-quaking cataclysm convinced that he is one of the WORLD'S greatest drummers -- and, judging by the nearly hysterical acclamation that greeted his concluding barrage of explosive strokes, there couldn't have been many in Seebühne Torre who believed otherwise.
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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