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A postcard from Willisau Jazz Festival

I was privileged to be invited to the Willisau Jazz Festival recently and was able to enjoy a great mix of music in a lovely small Swiss town in the Emmental cheese producing area.

The festival has been going since 1975 and the programming is very much a family affair, and becomes the major summer event in the town and is supported administratively by a large number of local volunteers and in terms of audiences seemingly by everyone in the town.

It is for me almost a dream come true to witness large audiences, who probably do not really consider themselves ‘jazz people’, getting enthusiastically into what might be considered ‘difficult music’.

Apparently audiences had dropped off somewhat in recent years, but this year they are 25% up on the previous year and certainly both the small and the large venue seemed to be at around 85/90% capacity – the large hall must hold at least 500 people.

It is the excellence of the programme that has achieved both the local support and the international reputation – mostly a mix of touring American bands and Swiss bands, from all cantons, but with many from Zurich that has a strong contemporary scene.

The organisers generally refer to the programme as a ‘free jazz’ programme, but I suspect that this is partly because the term is less of turn-off in Switzerland than it is in UK, but it also relates to the early days when jazz was more polarised between straightahead and free jazz and that free jazz was more of a separate identifiable strand of jazz.

To my mind what I heard was much more varied and fits under the broader category of ‘contemporary’ jazz ranging from the Americana of the Bill Frisell Quartet to the wit and eclecticism of the Swiss Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard Learns to Fly). There were certainly no bands playing in the bop/mainstream tradition.

Each of the day’s concerts began in the small venue, seemingly an Art Gallery, 6pm on the Friday, 11am on the Saturday and the Sunday with solo or duo performance. Trumpeter Yannick Barman playing solo was probably the most inventive using electronics, especially loops, to broaden the range of his improvisations and to move from more ambient sounds into more of a groove based approach. But I also enjoyed the duo between two double bass players, Peter K Frey and Daniel Struder.

When I started listening to jazz, I don’t think I would ever have envisaged hearing let alone enjoying a 50 minute set with two basses, but the variety and dynamics of the music were easily sufficient to hold one’s attention. They played with the bow, then plucked, then just using the body of the basses, then back to bow and finally a mix of all approaches. On the Friday evening Flo Stoffner on solo guitar also engaged the audience with the use of electronics and produced some great effects. The audience for these events was interesting, and seemed to be a mix of mostly local people and some visiting fans. They were mostly middle aged, but there were several family groups with young or teenage children who clearly came not really knowing what to expect, but willing to give it all a try. The reaction made it clear that they had enjoyed the experience and had taken a lot from the performances.

The main acts in the Main Hall were all of an extremely high standard with no difference in quality between the Americans and the Swiss. Perhaps one doesn’t need to say that these days, but this fact is certainly a big difference from when I first listened to this music.

The highlight has to be the Bill Frisell Quartet, which is digging deep into the different styles of American music, from jazz to blues to bluegrass, and producing wonderful rich music from the blend. This is not music about solos, though there are some, but more a constant playing around with with melodies enriching them and stretching them through the interaction, especially between Bill on guitar and Tony Scherr on bass guitar with Greg Leisz adding colour on steel pedal guitar and Kenny Wollesen adding a constant commentary on the drums to the ongoing interaction.

Another American guitarist, Elliott Sharp, played an extremely powerful and wonderfully mad set with bass guitarist Melvin Gibbs adding ‘heavy’ bass sounds and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli really driving both guitarists. This trio had first played at a gig in New York organised by the Swiss record label Intakt and this was only their second gig, but it was clear that they have already achieved a true cohesion.

Swiss trombonist and composer Christian Muthspiel led an intriguing quartet featuring Matthieu Michel on trumpet and flugelhorn, Franck Tortellier on vibes and American bass guitarist Steve Swallow playing a set of material entirely (I think) by John Dowland, the English Renaissance composer who lived from 1563 to 1626. Muthspiel was brought up in a family that listened to this music, seemingly every day, and when he discovered jazz he realised that it has much in common with Renaissance music. Apparently Dowland’s music is presented in the score just as a series of lines with no indication of soloist, tempo or accents; these are left to the performers. Muthspiel’s arrangements draw on this similarity to jazz, and in a way parallel to the Bill Frisell Quartet allowed for a group performance with no member of the quartet dominant. This was a very different and beautiful set.

Both Der Grosse Bar (The Big Bear) Big Band and the 6-piece Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard Learns to Fly) made a huge impact on the audience, in the case of Der Grosse Bar through the use of aspects of both rock and big band music, and, in the case of Hildegard …., the use of humour and high energy performance. Both work well, and are characteristic of what I perceive to be a key feature of the European jazz that I have heard this year, the overriding desire to wow and entertain the audience.

Finally, it was great to hear a particular favourite saxophonist of mine, Ellery Eskelin, playing in the Gerry Hemingway Quintet. Ellery has the big tone on the tenor sax of the great players of the 1930s and 40s, e.g. Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but uses it to play the much more complicated lines of contemporary New York jazz. It’s a great combination. And the whole quintet led by Gerry Hemingway on drums played a great set.

We’re hoping to have some of these Swiss players or bands over to UK in the next year or so. And if music lovers would like to take in the Willisau Jazz Festival as part of a summer trip to a beautiful part of the world, I think they will enjoy it.

Tony Dudley-Evans – Artistic Adviser, Jazzlines