I'm just back from another adventure with my Capital Focus Jazz Band (CFJB) youth group -- a week in beautiful Switzerland. This came about through the invitation of Nicolas Gilliet, Director of the JazzAscona New Orleans and Classics Festival, who engaged the band to play at this prestigious event. (Look for Bob Byler's in-depth coverage of the festival next month.) As with other band trips, we took along a contingent of fans from the Potomac River Jazz Club, the band's sponsoring organization.
Nine band members, one director and 17 fans boarded a plane out of Baltimore on a hot, steamy afternoon, arriving the next morning in Zurich, where it was...hot and steamy! Luckily, our tour bus had air conditioning, a luxury in short supply in public buildings throughout the country. We saw Zurich's hillside villas, ancient guild halls, medieval squares and towering cathedrals before checking into our (un-air-conditioned) hotel. That night the downtown area became one huge block party as the town turned inside out for the Euro 2008 soccer playoffs. Thankfully, our hotel was well away from the city center.
The next day we schlepped all our gear several blocks down the street to the tram stop, getting off at the train station. We then took a train from the German-speaking part of the country to the Italian-speaking part to the south. The three-hour train snaked through the valleys of the Alps, past beautiful lakes and picturesque churches. Even though the mountains were largely engulfed in haze, it was an impressive trip. We arrived in Locarno, the town adjoining Ascona, and the band got a good laugh upon disembarking at the train station. There, greeting them in big blue letters, was a sign reading -- FART. This is a reference to the local bus system, but, as you might imagine, it became a running gag with the band throughout their stay.
After settling in at our Locarno hotel, the band members and I went into Ascona to sample the opening night's offerings. Surrounded by lake, mountains and colorful old taverns, we caught a set by the Larry Franco Jazz Society, an exciting trad band led by pianist/vocalist Franco. Our jaws dropped at the amazing cornet and trombone work of Michael Supnick, an expatriated American. We also caught a bit of clarinet virtuoso Evan Christopher's terrific quartet in a lakeside restaurant before heading back to Locarno for some sleep.
The next day, CFJB played a late-morning/early-afternoon set at an old church complex called the Collegio Papio. This first performance, in a fountain courtyard setting, was for the grand opening of a Lionel Hampton exhibit set up by the Jazzorama Swiss Jazz Museum. The band displayed the breadth of its repertoire, from flagwavers like "Stevedore Stomp" and "Oriental Strut" to the introspective "I Cover the Waterfront" and "Blues in My Heart." A standing ovation for this initial outing boosted the band's confidence. Later that afternoon, some of us caught the wonderful cornetist Bob Barnard with the Dave Paquette Trio at a restaurant patio. That night, it was CFJB's turn at that venue. An enthusiastic crowd spurred the band into a truly inspired performance. Lena Seikaly's renditions of tunes associated with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were especially well-received, and I joined in for a two-cornet recreation of King Oliver's 1923 recording of "I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody." The band's "Over in the Gloryland" featuring trombonist Matt Musselman (a CFJB alumnus who now leads his own trad band in New York City) had some of the audience up on their feet and dancing. At the end of the evening the crowd was chanting for more.
The band's first set the following day was at another restaurant patio, right at the lakefront. Evan Christopher dropped in and listened for several numbers, then came up to the band during their break to congratulate them, saying, "You guys sound great!" That helped pump them up for their moment in the big-time that night, a set on one of the big waterfront stages. Here the band played for a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of several hundred people, with a live video feed of the performance displayed on a huge screen behind the band. You'd think they were Metallica or something. The band made the most of it, earning a roaring response for a two-cornet "Big Bear Stomp," a beautiful reading of Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" featuring John Kocur's soprano, and Lena's rousing "On Revival Day" among others. The band spent the evening's final hours digging a spectacular set by the clarinet-cornet team of Allan and Warren Vaché, together with monster trombonist John Allred.
CFJB seemed to gain a following as the festival progressed, as faces in the audience began to become familiar. People were also starting to recognize the band members on the streets, stopping to issue compliments. The band's CDs were selling fast, and the purchasers wanted autographs!