Great music, good conversation, delicious food plus total relaxation awaited us for our 4th year at Ascona in Southern Switzerland. After the covid-induced hiatus, the shores of Lake Maggiore and surrounding mountainsides once again echoed to the musical sounds of New Orleans.
Now in its 38th year, this festival has an intimacy that words alone cannot convey. Unlike stadium or other outdoor festival venues, Ascona dedicates the whole historic town to “The New Orleans Experience.” Live music is everywhere. Turn a corner in the narrow streets and find a group of buskers. Pass by a restaurant and the sounds of New Orleans wafts out. With the official stages set up along lakeside front, just standing on one’s hotel balcony puts you in the heart of the activity. At 6:30 pm every evening the Roots of Music marching band paraded along the main lakefront, led by Trixie Minx, the burlesque queen, followed by a dancing second-line, past the open-air restaurants, to open the official program at the main stage.
It was great to see the large numbers of young people, both in the audience and among the musicians. This latter was in keeping with the decision to create a musical program stylistically more open while still being faithful to its historical roots. That it succeeded is a major tribute to the artistic directors, Matt Zschokke and Adonis Rose who led about one hundred musicians, including some sixty from New Orleans, in playing the entire spectrum of the sounds heard in the Crescent City today—Trad, Roots, Zydeco, Gospel, Funk, Swing and Blues.
Trad Jazz was still here in abundance. The difference is that it was played for the most part by relative youngsters. New Orleans Street musicians, Frog & Henry, who describe themselves as a “String & Brass Band” of the ’20s, performed daily in the streets and on stage. Equally good was a similar age group of Italian buskers, The Hot Teapots, playing vintage jazz with passion.
Our second night we had a front seat at a most memorable musical evening; the nightly “Midnight Jam Session.” This night the Moonlight Gang joined forces with the Fat Boys. The result was brilliant acoustic swinging music into the wee hours, each of the musicians reaching down into the depth of his ability to respond to the other. It was a moment that could not be replicated in an orchestrated set. With regret this pair of octogenarians had to pull ourselves away about 2:30 am.
The Fat Boys, a veteran Swiss band, led by trumpeter Adriano Bassini featured Thomas Winterer, reeds, and Brenno Boccadro on piano, brilliantly covered Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet. Regulars at Ascona, they won the Jury award 2017.
The Moonlight Gang, a younger-aged quintet from Italy, re-create the music of the ballrooms of the ’30s and ’40s. Double bass, guitars, drums, trumpet and even the kazoo were used. Their sets were among the most swinging and exciting of the festival—a pure delight for lovers of Trad. That jam session could have arguably been the highlight of the festival for us. However, the best moment was the final night of the festival.
The instant Dee Dee Bridgewater, backed by the full 20-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), opened her mouth she owned the audience. We knew we were in the presence of someone special. She has a star-quality, nurtured over many years, which we were now privileged to experience at her peak. A worthy inheritor of the mantle of Ella, whether scatting with Michael John Bradford’s trumpet or the orchestra’s trombones. Her interaction with Alexey Marti, the incredible Cuban percussionist was another memorable highlight.
She took us through “St. James Infirmary,” exploring the total range of her incredible voice, then finished the evening leading the entire orchestra, off the stage, through the huge adoring audience, to strut down “Bourbon Street.” Having starred in Lady Day on Broadway, she also treated us to the memory of Billie Holiday. This performance was a fitting finale to the ten days of this Festival’s unique tribute to New Orleans.
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), directed by Adonis Rose, formed the backbone of the festival. In addition to two full-band sets, the band members were everywhere in smaller combos such as the NOJO7 or combining with local European musicians to entertain and educate. Their informal mingling with the locals was also important. Back home, under his leadership, NOJO is also a major force in music education offered free to youngsters in Jazz and Classical idioms.
With over 300 sets on offer what remains in my head are a few special musicians with whom we crossed paths. Ashlin Parker, trumpet, is a key member of NOJO and its offshoot, the NOJO7, either joining in or leading several sets with an intense drive that usually descends into a mellow softness. He is a regular at Ascona with appearances in 2018 and 2019. Ashlyn’s “Trumpet Mafia” project was a highlight in 2019 and again this year. Here, as at home, trumpet players of all ages from six onward, professional and amateurs, gather for 10 days of learning and playing. Space doesn’t allow for full coverage of the “Trumpet Mafia.” It is worthy of a separate review on its own.
This year the festival introduced us to a whole new generation of New Orleans musicians. For me, heading the list was another key member of NOJO. Michael John Bradford, a New Orleans native is an incredibly talented trumpeter. Already, at 25, he is a master of the many varieties of music that make up the Crescent City’s unique sounds from trad through blues, funk, hip-hop, and soul. I particularly enjoyed, in a set with “Ashlin Parker’s Trumpet Crew,” his take of the evergreen “St. James Infirmary.” Like Ashlin, Michael John takes the time at home to work with local young musicians.
Another important member of NOJO, Bo Dollis, Jr., is also the “Big Chief” of “The Wild Magnolias” one of the most significant bands in the Mardi Gras Indians culture. Here on center stage or leading one of the daily parades, his band wowed the audience with their incredible Mardi Gras costumes as well as their funk music. It’s as authentic as one can get about New Orleans.
In the same vein, Sean Ardoin literally has the great Cajun tradition in his blood. He is a descendant of Amédé Ardoin, the Father of Zydeco as well as son of Lawrence “Black” Ardoin. In a career spanning twenty years, Sean is a three-time Grammy Award-nominated artist. “Music is life,” says Sean. “I’ve known since I was five that this is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Sax Gordon, who won the 2019 audience voted AET award, once again wowed his audience with his great energy and soul which has made him a legend in the great tradition of American Rhythm & Blues musicians.
The most heart-warming of the New Orleans contingent were The Roots of Music, from a program dedicated to using music to keep kids between the ages of nine and 14 away from the streets. After school, they are collected, fed, helped with homework, and given music lessons by the Rebirth Brass Band. In a wonderful moment, the final day, the whole band shared the stage to receive the Ascona Jazz Award for 2022. As an aside, the last time it was awarded, in 2019, the recipient was the 93-year-old Othella Dallas. Never to old nor too young.
Roots were part of the festival project called “Groovin’ Up.” Its aim is to give young musicians the opportunity to perform and meet with the many internationally renowned musicians present. Several other young bands, from Europe, were invited. It was a great success.
The strangest act was The Dead South. Pure bluegrass and folk music, by no stretch of the imagination could they be considered New Orleans. In fact, they are Canadian. Yet they were fabulous. The combination of Nate Hilt’s captivating vocals with a highly stylized approach to the use of cello, guitar, mandolin, and banjo, produced a high energy, irresistible sound whether it was the evergreen “You are My Sunshine” or their original composition “In Hell, I’ll Be In Good Company.”
Summing up the whole experience, as an 87-year-old trad jazz fan who recalls so many of the greats, though it saddens me to see the change from “Jazz Fest” to “New Orleans Experience,” I am the first to acknowledge the need to move on. In many ways the change is a positive. The song is ended but the melody lingers on. Just as classical music evolved to Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and post-modernism so it was here; the same melodies interpreted in a different style yet drawing from the same experience. Jazz is alive and well in Ascona and we look forward to joining again June 22 to July 1, 2023.