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
If the much maligned technocrats of the Brexit-bashed EU wanted to have a coherent Union in Europe then this adventurously programmed festival would be music to their ears, jazz being the universal language rather than the common market. Although set in the charming Slovenian capital the event is under the joint artistic direction of Bogdan Benigar, for the home side, so to speak, and Pedro Costa, head of the Portuguese label Clean Feed. There is thus strong representation of many of the artists who have recorded for said imprint, which means a blend of the ‘Old World’ – France’s Eve Risser; Norway’s Gard Nilssen; Germany’s Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer; Slovenia’s Kaja Draksler (pictured below) and ‘the New’ – the powerhouse American drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake.
Arguably the highpoint of the four days of concerts at the highly impressive Cankarjev Dom Culture and Congress Centre is the transatlantic meeting of Drake, his fellow American, the multi-reed virtuoso Ned Rothenberg and pianist Draksler. Theirs is a trio of advanced interplay and imagination, with myriad rhythmic and sonic twists and turns from one of the players being picked up by the others, while the collective push forward, particularly when Drake and Draksler roll their basslines into a single flywheel, is quite outstanding. The latter’s range of timbres far exceeds generic ‘prepared piano’ expectations and the gravelly crunch of her middle-register chords electrifies the sound palette without the hiss and buzz of an amplifier or distortion pedal. The sense of explosion created by the players, their underlying momentum loosely African, grips the audience before they loosen into more reflective passages in which the vapour trail of Rothenberg’s shakuhachi flute drifts sensually around the room. It is a performance marked by an individuality that unites rather than unties.
Of no less potency is the piano duet of Draksler and Risser, which makes much capital of both chemistry and contrast between the two artists. Entwined rhythms; pinball exchanges of chords; eerie sounds by way of string manipulation: the performance is sweepingly orchestral and starkly intimate. Which could also be said of Pedro Lopes’ strikingly original display of turntablism, in which two decks are supplemented by an array of percussion, effects and samples to produce a sound collage that is simultaneously raw and refined, a pulsating mosaic that signals electronica rather than being shackled by its conventions. A last minute replacement for the group Velkro, Lopes is an engaging embodiment of the way the improvisatory spirit in jazz, particularly the drummers who inspired him (such as Drake), can be transposed to ‘the wrong instrument’.
Subversion on a much larger scale comes by way of the spellbinding union of France’s 18-piece Surnatural Orchestra and Cirque Inextremiste, a group of three circus performers who blend acrobatics and, most importantly humour, to dazzling effect. The players enter the stage rocking back and forth on gas canisters before mounting planks of wood that are then used to spin around like helicopter rotor blades before being hoisted, with the aid of audience members, to support a tight rope for the balletic grace of Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga. The hijinks spectacle is in a state of tantalising perpetual motion, the key theme being balance, as much visually as sonically. Funky, rocky, gypsyish and, at times, unsettling, the music is a nod to the mutual attraction of big tops and big bands, as exemplified by anybody from Hermeto Pascoal to Loose Tubes.
Talking of stage-filling ensembles, Paal Nilssen-Love’s 12-piece Large Unit is nothing if not volcanic in power, but amid all of the fiery outpourings of the brass there is an inconsistency in the compositions, with too many of the arrangements lacking the nuance to really make the most of the considerable resources. More enjoyable is the string of smaller groups of differing configurations. Two drummer-led quartets, sporting names with laudable values, are superb: Equality, helmed by America’s Nasheet Waits and Acoustic Unity, by Norway’s Gard NIlssen, have a wide span of references, from Andrew Hill to Ornette, and, crucially, draw coherent lines through the many vocabularies used by those icons, notably the blues, whose essentially human ‘cry’ is loud and clear amid the sophisticated speech of soloists such as alto saxophonist Darius Jones (from Waits’ group).
Another enjoyable session comes from Swedish alto saxophonist Anna Högberg’s sextet Attack. Its three-reed frontline is as lyrical as it is incendiary, reminding us that the likes of Mingus and Kirk were invaluable for the way they transitioned from ‘folk form’ to ‘freeform’ with tireless dynamism. By contrast the static nature of Hiromi’s gig, with too little variety in her power trio, maddeningly short-circuited by a mix that buries bassist Anthony Jackson, is a major disappointment. A local hero, the agile Slovenian guitarist Samo Salomon, is a fitting antidote, eliciting a rainbow of sounds from fine players (Italian bass clarinettist Achille Succi, German drummer Christian Lillinger and English saxophonist Julian Argüelles among others). As for Salomon, he is something of a unique proposition these days: a bandleader who doesn’t really solo, but sets great store by the wiry beauty of his chords, the poetry of his themes and the sensitivity of his scores. He is a captain who is a total team player. Maybe both Brussels and Westminster should lend an ear.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Domen Pal
Generations of musicians and music lovers from across the globe filled the hall at the Barbican to witness this concert, convened in honour of one of the 20th century’s most talented and influential musicians. This is guitarist and producer Ernest Ranglin, one of the early proponents of ska and reggae and a formidable jazzer, who, among many other achievements, held an astounding nine-month residency at Ronnie Scott’s in the 1970s.
At 84, Ranglin is still playing strong and full of boundless energy, as he shared the stage with afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, Senegalese multi-instrumentalist Cheikh Lô, bassist Ira Coleman, British saxophonist Soweto Kinch and latin jazz pianist Alex Wilson. In seeming defiance of the xenophobia which has swept the country in recent weeks, the hall was alive with high spirits and a feeling of togetherness, emanating from the stage and the audience. The music itself reflected this joyfulness, the programme comprising colourful ska and reggae standards, Ranglin originals plus Cheikh Lô’s beautiful songs, infused with memorable solo contributions.
Ranglin showed the audience that his chops are still very much intact, as he stretched out on some of his most well-known tunes such as ‘Surfin’’ and ‘Below The Bassline’. His solos were full of surprise turns and bold harmonic substitutions, built from catchy, lyrical phrases that contrast with blinding technical runs.
During the gig – reported to be Ranglin’s last – it was particularly touching to see the sense of camaraderie between these master musicians. Ranglin glowed with enthusiasm as he danced around the stage and wandered up to his fellow players to share private musical moments with them. It felt as if the audience were witnessing a casual jam between reunited friends, which is not far from the truth: Each performer has a personal connection with Ranglin, whether it be through previous collaborative projects or artistic influence. If this indeed was Ranglin’s last performance – and let’s pray it wasn’t – then it made for a fitting celebration of his remarkable career, one spanning seven decades. It’s hard to imagine what music would be like without his artistry
– Marlowe Heywood-Thornes
– Photos by Roger Thomas
“Thinking what I will use/to get the cool tone”, sang the great singer-songwriter Stephen Stills during ‘Piece of Me’, a cut from his 2005 release Man Alive!. The words came to mind during Hannes Riepler’s recent show at The Vortex, prompted by the way the electric jazz guitarist discovered and mined the cool tones throughout this well-attended performance. Word must have spread about this long-time London resident of Austrian extraction, a mainstay of the local jazz scene, a constant feature leading late night jams.
For this one-off show, Riepler was accompanied by an extremely strong line-up; Josh Arcoleo on sax, Paul Clarvis on drums, and Calum Gourlay on bass. Together the quartet meshed beautifully with Riepler’s artistic aims. There were some lovely moments when Gourlay was playing the lead lines on the upper registers of his bass, accompanied by Riepler comping sweetly with harmonics. Clarvis’s stick work was appropriately subtle, engaged, and swinging, as Arcoleo supplied an important lead voice during many passages, combining tunefulness with a sparkling tone.
During sets comprising originals and some much-loved pieces by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Joe Henderson Riepler demonstrated his particular facility with a gentle, swinging, bluesy ballad. This is a strangely elusive skill to master, as the great US guitarist John Scofield acknowledged in a past Downbeat interview. While the uninitiated may be dazzled by speedy fretboard wizardry, musicians know that it becomes ever more important, and also in some respects harder, to maintain accuracy and expressiveness of tempo as the tempo slows.
As a writer, Riepler has a penchant for grooving, catchy, but heartfelt, tunes, as can be heard on his recent album Wild Life. The riff-based ‘Gillett Square Blues’, which refers to the square outside of The Vortex, which lately has become something of a haven for skateboard enthusiasts, has a Miles-esque feel to it and sounds like it might have made the cut on one of that trumpeter’s stronger electric-period albums.
– Graham Boyd
– Photos by Robbie Chard
Show tune is a vague term. First and foremost, it denotes a song pulled from musical theatre, but that is also unspecified semantic soil when one considers the marked differences between the tallest tress to have sprung from it. West Side Story; Pal Joey; My Fair Lady; Girl Crazy: Carousel: Guys And Dolls. All of the above, with their tales of delinquent street gangs, Cockney girls made good, the cheerful pursuit of the fair sex, and hard mobsters and molls, depict aspects of the grand fresco of human experience in vivid terms. There is a light show tune and there is also a heavy one.
Given the talent of the composers of these works – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Loesser, to name but some – it is no wonder that jazz musicians splashed their own creative colours on the melodic and harmonic canvases they crafted, and the plethora of productions that dots the 1940s and 1950s heralds the immediate post-war period as a defining era for the show tune as a largely American phenomenon.
However, the recent arrival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre is a timely reminder that that these two genies of German drama also made a not insignificant contribution to the lexicon. First staged in 1928, it is a show not so much with tunes that are light and heavy as a show with a tone that is deliciously dark and sumptuously cynical. Threepenny’s wry comment on immorality, lust, greed and the irrepressible human instinct for survival, by any fiends necessary, makes it a relevant meditation for and on the 21st century. Good as Simon Stephens’ new adaptation is, the centerpiece, certainly from a jazz lover’s perspective, remains the unforgettable theme of ‘Mack The Knife’, which is superbly performed by ‘the balladeer’ George Ikediashi, and reprised in snippets throughout the punchy scenes.
The tale of ‘Macky Messer’, the supreme cutthroat anti-hero of Brecht and Weill’s gloomy 1920s Berlin, with its desperately shredded economy, is transposed to a grimy cyber-Victoriana East End, where Mack aka Macheath’s long blade is liberally wielded to cut short the life of whoever gets in the way of his dodgy dealing in the underworld. But, as the references to blood spilling fly past, it is difficult to wipe away the swagger of Sonny Rollins’ saxophone on his 1956 version – ‘Moritat’ from the immortal Saxophone Colossus – as an additional soundtrack in the sub-conscious.
Jaunty, perky, buoyant, the horn is like a sunbeam skipping on a fresh summer lawn, and all of the brightness and joie de vivre it conveys expertly captures the mood of the original theme, which bounces along as if it is written for a world in which there is no reason to despair. The key words in the lyric – ‘pearly white’, the reference to Mack’s dazzling set of teeth – do indeed call for a sound that is upbeat, but the real genius of Weill and Brecht’s creation is that he delivers us to rather than from evil on a carriage of seductive appearances and irresistible charm, a reminder that a lady killer kills ladies, literally as well as figuratively. So Rollins, like Wayne Shorter, like Louis Armstrong, like Ella Fitzgrald, and many others who have covered the song, embraces the double-edged sword, or rather submits to one of the most heinous but universal of truths, namely our capacity to deceive and lie and cheat, a theme which is entirely apt in an age of tax avoidance that runs from visible individuals to faceless corporations.
As prized a jazz standard as ‘Mack The Knife’ is, the depth of its cultural resonance can also be discerned in other related forms of music, for the figure of Mack is more than comparable to that of R&B’s badass Negro ‘Stagolee’ and also to the picaresque character of ‘Pedro Navaja’, the louche Latino flick-knife hood memorably evoked by salsa giant Ruben Blades. Having said that, the current production so convincingly hammers home the importance of bucks, booty and ostentatious bling that it is entirely possible that the avarice of the characters as well as their understanding of the enslavement induced by money will have hip hop fans hearing the eerie beats and rhymes of Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’ as the search for cold, hard currency cranks up the climactic heat. Yes, Cash Rules Everything Around Macheath. Note the uncanny linguistic twist: what is a ghetto pimp-prince if he is not… a mack?
Fittingly, Rufus Norris’ fluid direction, ballasted by assured performances from Rory Kinnear (Macheath), Nick Holder (Peachum) and Haydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum), captures the rushing surf and clinging scum of Mack’s life by way of a revolving stage, leaning towers and descending crescent moons that all serve to underline the feverish and fragile nature of a world of depravity, set to tumble down as easily as a poor chump is dispatched by a sly man with a weapon in both jacket and trousers.
One of the sharpest visual touches in this respect is the representation of long spurts of blood by a red ribbon, twirling around a neck, trailing from a bosom, or in the case of the hapless Officer Smith, fluttering from a slashed buttock with all the foppish idiocy of the latest fashion victim. This arty butchery is exactly what is required to convey how toxic is the delicatessen of sex, violence and betrayal that pickles away in the story, one of the ultimate urban fables for its zipwire rhythm.
To a certain extent the sprightly sophistry of ‘Mack The Knife’ consolidates the status of jazz as a town rather than country music, a sound for the city in a state of perilous flux. Rollins used the original title ‘Moritat’ (‘Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer’), and the choice could not have been more pertinent. It places the composition in a specific genus: the murder ballad; the dying chorus; the death tune; the show tune with the wrung neck of a funny valentine. It is a reminder that jazz does irony. Mack escapes.
Furthermore, the players at the National trudging dolefully with their brass, banjo and drums have a mild flavour of a New Orleans marching band. That city’s famous son Louis Armstrong started life as a dirt-poor ‘colored waif’. In Brecht’s broken Berlin the cheapest theatre seat cost two eggs and the most expensive a tablespoon of butter.
– Kevin Le Gendre
The Threepenny Opera runs at the National Theatre until 1 October.