Swiss Big Easy comes alive at Ascona Fest

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Revisiting old haunts can be a let-down. Not so for us this time, for the 32nd Jazz Ascona festival, subtitled ‘The New Orleans Experience’ and running over 11 days, came up trumps yet again for location, atmosphere, weather and, yes, the range of music on offer. If some of the great names of the past were missing, well, that’s life, and the broadening of styles into soul and jazzy pop left me slightly underwhelmed at times, but the crowds were good, and more to the point, the festival ended up in the black. No small achievement these days.

Returning after a nine-year absence, we could only again marvel at Ascona’s sumptuous lake-front location, fringed by mountains, restaurants in back, pleasure boats docking and setting out across Lago Maggiore, outdoor sound stages set up for daily action. Publicity and promotion were similarly stunning, posters and placards evident as far away as Bellinzona and Locarno, pulling the people in, some 45,000 of them, all reinforced by strong branding everywhere.  Add free programmes widely distributed, daily radio streaming, and music of both supreme quality and down-home folksiness and you have quite a festival.

Our first sighting may have been small in scale but the duo of soprano-saxophonist Aurora Nealand and pianist Tom McDermott, both based in New Orleans, played brightly, McDermott unfurling a bluesy strut that felt good, while Ms Nealand dug in strongly, also singing in a quietly wistful way on a Tom Waits song. Hard to imagine a greater contrast than that offered by powerhouse organist Barbara Dennerlein in the Jazz Club Casino, a barn-like structure, with drummer Pius Baschnagel in tow. This was my first-ever sighting of this superb German musician, seated like a flight-deck commander at her console, twisting and turning, the basslines moving all the time, the sheer drive and swing of her opening blues like a glimpse of mainstream heaven.   

A day later, it was ‘2 Pianos and 6 Pianists’ at nearby Teatro del Gatto, this launched by award-winning gospel star Davell Crawford, a man whose splashy piano and personal style manages to synthesise Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, and who then persuaded a medley of other blues and boogie pianists to come and go, two-up or solo, the greatest moments of clarity again coming from McDermott, the greatest joy from drummer Herlin Riley, at his creative and responsive best, supported by an outstanding newcomer also from New Orleans, bassist Barry Stephenson. Just time after this to catch the imposing SMUM big band as a one-off in their stirring tribute to Jay McShann, their encore, surprisingly perhaps, Buddy Rich’s ‘Big Swing Face’. Brilliant.

Ascona has a settled roster of bands who take turn and turnabout, notably the Tremé Brass Band from the Crescent City who paraded daily, with Trixie, their alluring dancer clearing the way, and benefited enormously from the presence of pocket-trumpeter Shamarr Allen. This young virtuoso popped up here, there and everywhere during our sojourn. A man with boppish tendencies, for sure, he commanded the stratosphere in a Lillian Boutté tribute to Louis Armstrong, while digging the Tremé beat and appearing alongside trombonist-vocalist Glen David Andrews, a one-time NO naughty boy, who fronted a fervent (if over-amplified) gospel concert in the town’s ancient church. Allen, who told me he played country rock and hip hop too, was one of three star New Orleans trumpeters who had license to roam, playing by day in the town’s restaurants and then doubling up for the night-time sets. Leon Brown, known as Kid Chocolate, was less frenetic than Allen, more measured and delightfully fluent, while John Michael Bradford, presently studying at Berklee, had a go at just about everything, whether playing funk with Andrews, evoking Louis for Lillian Boutté or grand-standing with the big band.

Looking for the British contingent took no time at all, Boutte’s fine guitarist, Denny Ilett Jr representing 50 per cent of the British contingent, the other half belonging to the veteran Sammy Rimington who appeared with the rather tame Palm Court All-Stars, drummer Jason Marsalis their standout-player, logical and tidy but always determined on swing. 

Another Boutté, Teedy this time, vocalised lustily with look-at-me pianist Paul Longstreth’s quartet, their sets suffused with a Bourbon Street flavour, while the even younger Tanya Boutté helped to pace Lillian’s concerts, this great lady now evidently quite frail but honoured as the Queen of Ascona for her long-time role as NO’s musical ambassador. Her Jazz Friends played their hearts out for her, none more so that drummer Shannon Powell, exhorting and constantly inventive, with clarinettist Thomas Étienne as their cordial ringmaster.

Among the continentals, I especially liked Patrick Bianco’s Cannonsoul quintet, deserved winners of the 2016 Swiss Jazz Award, their tight, hard-bop sets crisp and invigorating, never more so than when they played Duke Pearson’s immortal ‘Jeannine’. Flying altoist Bianco could be someone whom Alan Barnes might like to know, here backed by a superb drummer Bernd Reiter and a fine veteran trumpeter, Peter Tuscher. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers also excelled, trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Kevin Louis fronting a six-piece, sans drums or piano, guitarist Molly Reeves vocalising in likeably period style. Good band, though, playing tunes like ‘Pagin’ The Devil’ and ‘Swing That Music’ with a kind of intimate grace. And there you have it, one man’s views based on six days from 11. The 33rd Jazz Ascona is set to run from 22 June to 1 July, 2017. 

– Peter Vacher