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When Jazz Musicians Set Classic Works to New Tunes

At the first Jazz Festival in Stein am Rhein, pianists play on two grand pianos in various formations. In this setting, specialists in traditional jazz give renowned classical works a whole new touch.

STEIN AM RHEIN. Young journalists were once taught to be cautious with superlatives. Here's an exception to the rule: The first concert of the Ist Piano Jazz Festival on Thursday in the sold-out Windiersaal in Stein am Rhein was simply sensational. Accordingly, Maurice Imhof, Chris Conz, and Dave Ruosch (all on piano), superbly supported by Martin Meyer on drums, were celebrated with spontaneous applause and a standing ovation at the end.

This euphoria had several reasons: Firstly, all three pianists are top-class, as evidenced by concerts all over the world and numerous awards each has received over the years. Secondly, the program titled "Classic meets Jazz and a touch of Boogie" was diverse and extremely well-curated: Pure classics, blues, and boogie-woogie, as well as ever-new combinations of these styles, resulted in a program where highlight followed highlight, constantly surprising the audience. It almost feels wrong to single out one aspect, but many arrangements, largely by Dave Ruosch, were repeatedly surprising and virtuosic.

Jazz in Three-Quarter Time

To start the review from the end: the second encore, which made the audience cheer and stomp, is a particularly successful example of the quartet's style. Led by Imhof, who took the lead in this piece, "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" was probably never heard in this style before. After an intro with the classic theme by Imhof, Conz and Ruosch joined in on the second piano, softly at first, then with increasing intensity, reimagining the waltz classic in ever-new variations, always complemented by the original melody from Imhof and Meyer marking the three-quarter beat. Jazz meets Viennese waltz to perfection. Overall, it is important to appreciate the combinations of classic pieces and piano jazz, predominantly boogie. Notable are pieces like "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky-Korsakov, with a wild interpretation of the main theme by Ruosch, or the "Sabre Dance" by Khachaturian. Even famous opera arias like the "Toreador" from "Carmen" were jazzed up without in any way being cheapened. "It's fun to jazz up tunes," Ruosch commented, who contributed many of these arrangements. The harmonization of the pianists was evident in pieces like the "Toreador", where the theme was started on one piano and seamlessly picked up on the other in mid-tune.

The Famous Album Leaf

The repertoire went well beyond opera. That Johann Sebastian Bach can be jazzed up is known since Jacques Loussier's "Play Bach" recordings from the 1960s. In Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor", all three pianists initially played on the same piano, rotating from bass to the top and back down – one of many examples showing that the trio also mastered the show. The first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 was presented in Caribbean style. Beethoven's frequently played "Für Elise" was, as befits the piece when played well, also interpreted very danceably in its jazzed-up version. Classic jazz without any classical infusion was also not neglected. In "Walking the Dog", for instance, one could almost visualize a happily prancing dog when Dave Ruosch played with his right hand. The concert was repeated in the same formation on Friday. Today, Saturday, and tomorrow, Sunday, Imhof will perform with Rossano Sportiello (piano) and Valerio Felice (drums) under the title "The Classic meets Jazz Trio". Anyone wishing to get a ticket should hope that someone doesn't show up: all four concerts are sold out. A clear sign that the first "lano Jazz Festival" will hopefully not be the last.

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