Archive for November 2016
Chicagoan Alfonso Ponticelli, 50, is an accomplished master of a wide variety of music played on the acoustic guitar–Flamenco, Gypsy swing, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, Mexican love songs, folk music from Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, etc. This past weekend I played in his band, called “Swing Gitan,” at the Suncoast Classic Jazz festival at Clearwater Beach, FL.
Alfonso claims Italian and Lebanese extraction. He became interested in various European musical forms while attending an annual Gypsy jazz music festival held during the last week of June at Samois-sur-Seine, France. At this large, unique outdoor gathering devoted to the music and hosted by Gypsies, he jammed with “Manouche” players and enthusiasts from widely diverse regions of the world, from Chicago to Australia.
The Suncoast, in its 25th year, is one of the last surviving large multi-day festivals originally focused on pre-WWII “hot” jazz. For the last 30 years, the biggest yearly events were in Sacramento, Los Angeles (now defunct), Monterey CA, Elkhart IN, Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix), New Orleans, and a dwindling number of other smaller events, many in California. “Dixieland” was used in the festival titles at first, but due to the relentless aging and attrition of the attendees, during the last 20 years or so many had to drop this descriptor in order to broaden their appeal to a younger, more diverse mix of “nostalgia” and current musical tastes: 30s Swing Dancing, Cajun/Zydeco, New Orleans brass band “Bounce,” Big Band, Rockabilly, etc.
A kind of identity crisis ensued for these festivals. Some tried more modern forms of jazz or wound up featuring the (thankfully) now-declining “Smooth Jazz” format. Some promoters saw the contradiction and dropped “jazz” from the event title entirely, but one can still attend a “jazz festival” and have to search very diligently for any music even distantly related to any recognizable style of jazz. A very hopeful trend for fans of old jazz is the advent of the New York (City) Hot Jazz Festival, founded in 2013, which attracts a healthy cohort of 20-30-somethings and features, among many other styles, “Jazz Manouche,” otherwise known as “Gypsy Jazz” inspired by the 1930s-40s French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
The Suncoast has managed to keep a large cohort of bands playing in a variety of traditional New Orleans or Chicago styles from the ’20s and ’30s as well as the ’40s-’70s San Francisco revivalists Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. The audiences I played for were overwhelmingly white and over 70, not a surprising demographic for the Central Gulf Coast of Florida in November.
This year was the first appearance for Alfonso and his Chicago-based quintet consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, violin, drums and Cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly found in the Eastern European region formerly known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and used in the traditional music of Gypsies, Slavs, Jews, Hungarians, Turks, etc. I’m pretty sure this was the first-ever appearance of a Cimbalom at the Suncoast.
As with the Chicago-Miami jazz legend Ira Sullivan, Alfonso’s performances evolve organically from one groove or song to another without any pre-determined program or tune list. He improvises not only the musical elements of the tunes but also the narrative of the medleys and the flow of the set itself. A D-minor vamp with an Eastern European rhythm feel would morph into a series of Gypsy folk songs, which would become “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin, which would be followed by “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt. After a masterful classic Flamenco guitar solo Alfonso launched the band into the familiar Brahms “Hungarian Dance No. 5.” He opened another medley with the standard “Lover Come Back to Me” in an Appalachian finger-picking style reminiscent of Chet Atkins, followed by the bop classic “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins.
The authenticity of all of the players’ stylistic diversity was very convincing. The Cimbalom player, Alex Udvari, a Chicagoan of Hungarian extraction who plays with the Chicago Symphony, is capable of blowing swinging choruses on American Songbook standards. The other band members, violinist Steve Gibons and drummer Bob Rummage, are similarly widely-diversified and masterful.
The band’s performances are remarkable amalgams of music from the Americas and Europe. The audiences were intrigued, as was I. There were standing ovations for all of the 6 sets we performed. A personal epiphany: since this was my first significant exposure to Gypsy music, I noticed how similar it is to the Klezmer/Yiddish forms and tonality I had grown up with, not surprising given the geographic proximity of the two cultures in Eastern Europe.
The arts often lead the general culture. One trend of the world’s music from the 20th century up to recent years has been toward ever greater inclusiveness in an ever shrinking globe. Jazz is often cited as an analog of America itself: polyglot, inclusive, amalgamated, an alloy of many ingredients forged into an instrument that teaches the the world a way toward a greater good.
Many of us who play for a living are well aware of the healing power of music for individuals. Formal music therapy is routinely used to treat stroke, dementia, etc. We know that a good groove can “tune up” an audience to a remarkable degree.
It occurred to me while performing with Alfonso that his healing gift goes one step beyond. He melds together all the music he’s absorbed. Each performance is a musical journey that leaps effortlessly over borders and continents. One could think of Alfonso and his band as planet-healers in the Age of Xenophobia, on the march in Europe for decades and at the present moment posing a clear and present threat to our most deeply foundational American idea–E pluribus unum, the melting pot.