Festival Da Jazz: St Moritz 2013
St. Moritz, Switzerland
July 18-22, 2013
How To Run A Jazz Festival 101. Get a big hall, put on some big names: get a small room, put on some smaller names. Stars in the big spaces, up and comers in the little ones. There's a commercial and economic logic to it, maybe even an artistic logic. The Festival Da Jazz does different: get a small room, with space for 150 people, put on some big names. Chick Corea, for example, or Hiromi, or Randy Brecker. It works. Of course, it's a small room like no other.
A glamorous location helps as well and St Moritz, nestling at over 1700 metres (about 5,600 feet) above sea level in the Swiss Alps, is certainly glamorous. For many pop music fans of a certain age it's forever immortalised in the lyrics of Peter Sarstedt's 1969 hit "Where Do You Go To My Lovely""When the snow falls you're found in St. Moritz, with the others of the Jet Set." The Jet Set is still fond of the place.
The town has a population of just over 5,000 people but in winter it's far more populous: a hectic, high-end, alpine sports resort that played host to the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948. In summer it's quieter, but still up-market with prices to match. The town center is modern, built to capture the eyes and wallets of wealthy visitorsthe Main Street, filled with designer stores, is a mini version of Rodeo Drive. St Moritz' major hotels, by contrast, are testament to a bygone age and a very different kind of glamor: the Hotel Kulm and the Hotel Schweizerhof were first opened in the mid to late nineteenth century.
While the sophistication of St. Moritz provided the background for the Festival Da Jazz, the main venue for the big name concerts added its own glamor and just a touch of legend. The Dracula Club is not the typical jazz festival venue. It's a private members club, situated on the edge of town at the head of St Moritz' first bobsleigh run. It was established in the mid-70s by Gunter Sachs, the German photographer, author and sportsman once married to Brigitte Bardot: his son Rolf is now the club's President In Eternity.
The Dracula theme runs strongly through the club's decor, which features coffins and a hologram of the Count rising from his web-encrusted bed for a night of evil doing. There are bats, real ones, living in the rafters of the club too. There's no need to worry: just in case a vampire should threaten the evening's enjoyment the club keeps an anti-vampire kit to hand behind a glass panel.
Usually closed in summer, the Dracula Club opens its doors to the Festival Da Jazz and plays host to a concert on most nights from mid-July to mid-August. It's certainly intimate. The "stage" is an area of the clubroom floor next to the barnot raised and with no physical barrier between performers and audience. Audience members sit on benches, stools or the floorthere are no tables and no reserved seats. It makes for an egalitarian and friendly atmosphere: sitting at the bar for the Hiromi concert I was closer to her than anyone else except her bassist.
The 2013 Festival Da Jazz was the seventh since its inception in 2007. Artistic Director Christian Jott Jenny drew some major league jazz names to the Alps. Week one, from July 11, had seen concerts from singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diane Schuur and Randy Crawford as well as from the young Spanish vocalist and trumpeter Andrea Motis.
One word can neatly sum up the stylistic content of the second week's performances fusion. Corea had brought his new project, The Vigil, to the Dracula Club on the Tuesday nightafter which he delighted the bar pianist in the Hotel Kulm, a Corea fan, when he sat in to play some 4-handed pianoand David Sanborn performed on the Wednesday. The four concerts I witnessed all brought their own kinds of fusion as well.
Thursday, July 18
Japanese pianist Hiromi gave a passionate and energetic performance. Bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Smith completed the trio. Both players did much to create and deliver the energy of the performance, their styles suiting Hiromi's full-on approach to the music. Jackson, on 6-string electric contrabass, was seated center-stage with an almost constant look of surprise on his face. He made full use of his instrument's range on almost every tune, his plectrum seemingly glued to his bottom lip when he played fingerstyle. Tellingly, when soloing he often favored the instrument's upper register, playing some of his loveliest phrases on just the top two strings.
Smith's large drum kit threatened to overwhelm the stage and betrayed his origins as a rock drummer, most notably with Journey in the early '80s. Nothing in his kit was wasted, as he made full use of every drum and cymbal with some powerhouse playing. From my vantage point, only 3 feet behind Hiromi, the sound seemed well-balanced, but there were reports that for those closer to the drums than the piano Smith's assertive style made it difficult to hear Hiromi's playing.
For Hiromi, there was no subtle build up, no easing in to the room or to the instrument. She attacked the piano from the off, releasing an energy that readily spread through the small room. The tune was "Move," from her album of the same name (Telarc Records, 2013).
Hiromi concentrated on this album for most of her selections. "Endeavor" most closely resembled the work of her hero, Frank Zappa, with its nifty, humorous, electric keyboard phrases. She cooled things down with "Brand New Day" and "Haze" a quietly graceful solo performance from Voice (Telarc Records, 2011) then ended her set with "Suite Escapism." Parts 1 and 3 maintained the high energy of the early numbers, the second part ("Fantasy") proved to be the prettiest tune of the evening, with a distinct country feel at times almost moving into Floyd Cramer territory.
Friday, July 19
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez took over the Dracula Club for the Friday night concert with his quintet, including tenor saxophone and trumpet. Rodriguez opened the set with drummer Henry Cole, an impressive musician and consistently the strongest player of the night. Donning headphones, Rodriguez began to build up layers of sound on synthesiser, both players driving each other on to more flurried and faster grooves. It was an exciting start, but despite Cole's creative percussion the extended duel went on for rather too long.
Rodriguez returned to the synthesiser later in the set and once again early promise fell away as ideas were over-extended. The acoustic tunes were more impressive, especially when the band was stripped down to Rodriguez' piano, Cole's percussion and the tall, relaxed, bassist Reiner Elizarde. The closing tune, an upbeat quintet re-working of "Guantanamera" fusing the sound of mariachi horns and free form passages with the classic Cuban song, showed that the band has potential especially once Rodriguez reigns in his use of the synthesizer and gives his skills as a pianist the emphasis they deserve.
Saturday July, 20
The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion stormed it. Throughout a 90 minute set the band was on top form technically, tight as a unit, funky as anything has a right to be. This was a genuine reunion of players who were central to the original Brecker Brothers lineups, including keyboard player and producer George Whitty. The notable exception was, of course, Michael Brecker who died in 2007. His place was taken by Italian saxophonist Ada Rovatti, trumpeter Randy Brecker's wife.
At the beginning of the set Randy Brecker apologised in advance for what he promised would be a loud evening, as they had been expecting a 1500 seat venue until less than 48 hours earlier. Bassist Chris Minh Doky explained later that Steve Smith had called them after his gig with Hiromi to put them right about the size of the venue.
The band certainly was loud, but the musicians had such a great sense of dynamics and ensemble playing that it never seemed too loud. The set mixed Brecker Brothers classics with Randy Brecker's newer compositions including tunes dedicated to his young daughter (the bright, Brazilian flavoured, "Stellina") and to brother Michael (the moving "Elegy For Mike"). Many of the tunes will feature on an upcoming live CD recorded at the Blue Note.
The band opened proceedings with the aptly-titled "First Tune Of The Set." On "Really In For It" Brecker put down his trumpet to tell the sad story of a loser in love and life. He rapped with an effortless, dude-ish cool, growling the tale over a suitably gritty vamp. "Spherical," Michael's tribute to Thelonious Monk, brought another cooled- down vibe. Dean Brown produced a great guitar soloinitially economical, crisp and understated, then building in intensity to a frenzied conclusion. The tune also benefited from Doky's rock solid but funky bass groove.
An extended "Some Skunk Funk" closed the set, with each band member soloing in turn. Doky and drummer Dave Weckl both impressed with their lengthiest solos of the night. Applause soon turned into a standing ovation. With a pleasing disregard for convention the band never left the stage. No "will they, won't they" tensions for the audience to ponder. Instead, the band kicked straight into "Inside Out" to bring the performance to a suitably joyful close.
Sunday July 21
Another packed house greeted violinist and all-round geezer Nigel Kennedy. Kennedy has been a major star in classical music for 30 years: his recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (EMI, 1989) has sold over 2 million copies. It's the Festival Da Jazz, however, so it seemed like a decent bet that Kennedy would perform some jazz tuneshe has form, having recorded numerous jazz albums including Blue Note Sessions (Blue Note) in 2006. A decent bet, but not a safe one: after all, Kennedy has long been as famous for his idiosyncratic approach to performance as for his talent as a violinist. So the programme for the evening consisted mostly of the violinist's own compositions plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartok and Fritz Kreisler. The sole jazz standard of the set was Django Reinhardt's "Swing 39," delivered with a certain aplomb but not too much swing.
Kennedy is many things, as became apparent during the evening. There was Kennedy the rocker, the serious classical musician, the stand-up comic, the crooner, the composer, the folky, the eccentrically punkish English dandy. The audience loved all of themexcept one.
Kennedy's visual image has been constant for many years, with trainers, black trousers, a football jersey from his beloved Aston Villa and a spiky haircut. To begin, the outfit was topped by an elderly black satin shirt, left sleeve rolled up, right sleeve hacked off at the elbow: later, the elderly shirt was replaced by a slightly shinier, less damaged, one.
The serious classical musician was in evidence before the concert began: audience members were given a copy of the night's program as they entered the club, with each composer and composition listed in order. The serious musician was also in evidence when Kennedy played some of these compositions, particularly in the first, acoustic, set of the evening. The intense concentration and respect he brought to his solo performance of Bach's "Chaccone" resulted in a fine rendition of the piece and a rapturous reception. The folky side of Kennedy was revealed in a bright, joyful performance of Bartok's "Romanian Dances," in some of the loveliest moments from his own compositions and in his choice of "The Londonderry Air" as the second encore.
The stand-up comic and the crooner were in evidence throughout the nightstories about his band members, bad jokes, repeated more than once, and a voice that won't give Kurt Elling any sleepless nights delighted the audience. Kennedy adapted a line from Ian Dury's "Billericay Dickie" when he introduced himself (Dury's own distinctive visual image may well have been an inspiration for Kennedy's), sang short ditties about some of the women in the room and constantly bumped knuckles with bandmates and audience members alike.
The Kennedy that didn't go down so wellalbeit temporarilywas the Leader Of A Suddenly Very Loud Rock Band. The warning signs were there at the start of the second set. Black drapes at the rear of the room had been removed, to reveal a bank of heavy duty amplifiers. Yaron Stavi now had a Fender Jaguar bass guitar to hand as well as his double bass, Doug Boyle had his electric six-string strapped on and Kennedy was holding an electric violin and standing behind an array of at least six effects pedals.
A minute or so into Kennedy's prog-rocker "Hills Of Saturn" it happened. A short pause then Bam! An almighty power chord rent the air. The impact was enough to make a few of the people seated in the front row fall backwards. As they recovered many others began to cover their ears and a few sets of earplugs were hurriedly put in place. It didn't take long for the audience to acclimatise however and Kennedy soon had them back on-side.
One band member kept a low profile during the high decibel rock, accordionist Marian Mexicanu. No problem, for the rest of the group mustered plenty of enthusiasm and volume and Mexicanu had already made his mark during the first set. His playing was quite beautifulemotionally engaging as well as technically impressive, he was Kennedy's equal as an interpreter of the tunes and even outshone the leader on the quieter passages. When "Hills Of Saturn" cooled down during its mid-section and Stavi and drummer Krzyzstof Dziedzic layed down a relaxed reggae beat, Mexicanu produced one of the most graceful and emotive solos of the week.
Free midnight shows took place not in the Dracula Club (presumably the Count is too busy by that time of night) but in the Miles Davis Lounge of the Hotel Kulm. The basement venue, a short walk from the Dracula Club, worked well as a relaxed, late night, space. It was smart, comfortable, provided a large and raised stagebigger than the stage area of the Cluband table service.
Special mention must go to Groovin' j5, the band which played on the Saturday and Sunday nights. Strictly speaking this was the Groovin' j4, as the trumpet player was unable to make the gigs. The band had a winning formulahard bop and groove jazz from the '50s and '60s played with skill, conviction and a real feel for the vibe of the music. Dave Freusi proved to be a engaging front man as well as a tenor saxophonist with excellent dynamic and tonal range and a fine beard.
Groovin' j5's Saturday night performance, with tunes like Bobby Timmons' "Moanin,'" Joe Henderson's "The Kicker" and a storming take on Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder," was almost an "All Star" set of classic tunes. It got almost the entire contingent of visiting journalists on their feet, throwing some shapes and generally grooving well into the early hours.
The band was augmented for its second Sunday night set by Kennedy, Boyle and Stavi, fresh from their Dracula Club gig. Kennedy was as irrepressible as ever, joining in with Grooving' j5's set, improvising some fiery violin solos and encouraging his fellow players with shouts, cheers and, of course, much bumping of knuckles.
The Festival Da Jazz offered many of the same great musicians to be found at 2013 festivals the world overafter all, the jazz festival circuit is a busy time for musicians. There's a very distinct character about this event, however. The alpine scenery has to be some of the most dramatic in Europe and it forms a superb background. The Alps are also readily accessible from many points around the town and its outskirtscable cars run all year. So alpine walking and mountain biking are on offer every day. This might just be the only jazz festival that gives fans a chance to leave physically fitter and healthier than they were when they arrived.
Most of all, a true Unique Selling Point, is the Dracula Club. At the end of a great evening of music, walking out of the club past the Count and his coffin, into the night air as wood fires burn, bats swoop and dart and the Alps loom large and mysterious, there's a real sense of somewhere rather magical. Just keep the silver bullets and the garlic handy.
Page 2, Page 3 (Top): Matthias Heyde
All Other Photos: Bruce Lindsay.