A selective review of JazzAscona 2012
Thomas Wolfe's famous title, "You Can't Go Home Again" struck me as I considered whether to accept the invite to attend this year's Ascona Jazz Festival on behalf of the Journal. I had thought JazzAscona 2011 to be a tremendous musical highlight in my life and impossible to top or even come close to replicating. The freshness of an exotic location would be diminished on a repeat visit and some musical highlights, particularly those relating to the Roy Eldridge tributes, would be missing. But, when festival artistic director Nicolas Gilliet announced that this year's festival was to be dedicated to female jazz, I perked up and began to think seriously of a return trip. While the tribute to "Little Jazz" was my primary motive in attending JazzAscona 2011, it was the memory of discovering heretofore unknown (to me) performers like Denise Gordon and Carolyn Mhlanga that lingered in my consciousness. It also struck me that this broadening of the scope of the Journal could help attract some newer (and younger) membership.
Benjamin Schwarz, writing in the November 2012 issue of The Atlantic, states that "there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source [the Great American Songbook] has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic - and as such, in 2012 it cannot have... an 'expansive and adaptive repertoire.'" Perhaps, but in attending a festival like Ascona, one is treated to scores of artists, many of them very young, who are still able to work with the old standards and say new things musically, thus keeping the genre alive and helping perpetuate it for future generations that had no living experience with the jazz masters of the past. While many members of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors restrict themselves to a category (trad, swing, bop, etc.), the ability to transcend not only these boundaries, but the generational boundary makes the difference as to whether jazz really survives in any form recognizable to us. Festivals like Ascona that attract many thousands of attendees are a major factor in keeping the music alive. For that reason, coverage of the festival highlights can only help by informing the membership as to the evolving dynamics of the jazz field.
"Sophisticated Lady," with its nod to Duke Ellington, was the motto of this year's tribute to the ladies of jazz. Recognizing that jazz has always been primarily a male dominated art form (excepting for vocalists), Gilliet decided to "mix things up a bit" to emphasize the role females now play in the jazz world. This afforded me the opportunity to see some familiar artists in new surroundings and discover other artists from around the world that I would never likely get to see otherwise. As the list of invitees was gradually announced, I became more and more attentive to the prospect of a return to Switzerland.
Bria Skonberg and Nicki Parrott were early entries and as I had seen both in major Midwest festivals and been favorably impressed, I was inclined to want to revisit them both in new settings. When I mentioned this to Luca Martinelli of the festival's press office, he countered with names like Champian Fulton from New York and Emma Pask from Australia, both unfamiliar to me. That only whipped up my interest level a bit more. When the final line up was announced and I saw that it again included Nawlinz Lagniappe with Carolyn Mhlanga, I was hooked and immediately booked a flight. I was only disappointed that I didn't see Denise Gordon on the program, although from previous correspondence I knew that Trevor Richards, her musical accompanist in 2011, was not coming this year. So, with the trip in place, follow this chronology of the highly personal account of the highlights of four nights at JazzAscona 2012.
Last year, I had expanded the trip into a mini vacation by staying an added five days in Switzerland exploring the country. …