High notes, tall peaks: a bijou jazz festival in Switzerland

I was here for the jazz taking place far, far below, towards Lausanne; I hadn’t planned to climb a mountain through three-metre snowdrifts. But my new friend, Bernard, had laid the bait: “You really have to get all the way up to the summit deck: the view is incredible.”

A retired local charity worker, showing off the area to his South African son-in-law, Bernard had noticed me stepping tentatively on to the snow outside the 2,000-metre-high cafe below the peak of Rochers de Naye. He glanced at my trainers doubtfully, then squinted at the deep snow on the slope ahead, dazzling under a blazing sun. “But you do know you could break your leg if you fall through the crust and hit a rock?” I smiled. A joke, surely? “It happened to my nephew last month.” I stopped smiling.

Although the nearby Cully Jazz Festival on the shores of Lake Geneva was proving a delightful base, I had decided to venture further afield before that day’s gigs began, taking the cog-wheel train into the mountains, hoping for a stroll amid flower-laden Alpine pastures.

But this canton, Vaud, said Bernard, had experienced some of the heaviest spring snow for years, so I found myself slipping, sliding and lurching my way to the summit. After 30 minutes of lung-busting, ankle-twisting effort I made it to the deck. A 360-degree panorama awaited me: from the Eiger in the east to the Jura mountains in the west. I gazed at the scene in solitude for over an hour.

Somewhere down below, musicians were arriving and soundchecking for that evening’s festival performances.

The word “jazz” when used next to the word “festival” often misleads. Here, there was gospel (the superb Blind Boys of Alabama), electro-funk, avant-garde, Nordic folk, soul, a deafening act involving hippies thrashing electrified banjos and, well, some jazz. An open mind is required and, on occasion, generous ears.

On the train to Cully from Lausanne, an American couple had discussed whether the festival has got too big. “Last year was crazy,” I overheard. But, for me, the proportions were perfect. The village stood up to the numbers well and the variety of venues, food stalls and bars absorbed everybody comfortably.

Enthusiastic audiences from far and wide flock to the village for the gigs. Rather like at the UK’s much larger Love Supreme festival, they were of all ages with similar numbers of women and men. Very few stroked their chins and said “Nice.”

The venues range from the main stage, Chapiteau, in a large marquee-like structure, to a former wine cellar, now late-night hangout called Caveau, where, on sax, I joined a revolving cast of horn players soloing over funk grooves laid down with esprit by the young house band on most nights of the festival. The sessions here got a raucous, enthusiastic reception – partly, perhaps, because they were free.

Cully itself is a winemaking village on the south-facing shores of the lake, at the foot of tumbling terraces of 1,000-year-old vineyards – the Lavaux Unesco world heritage site. Some of the vines infiltrate the streets, creeping across the facades of older buildings. Almost every nook and cranny is used for grapes, a consequence of the steep valley wall putting space at a premium. The festival’s history is entwined with the vines: its early incarnations in the 1980s used wine cellars for gigs and audiences sauntered from venue to venue with a glass of the local white in hand. This tradition endures.

Few festivals can boast settings as glorious. In the late afternoon, festivalgoers sit by the waterfront and enjoy street food while contemplating the view across the serene lake into France, which sometimes seems close enough to touch and at others blurs with the mauve dusk sky, melding to gold towards the setting sun. Even noisy neighbour the Montreux Jazz Festival (similarly eclectic but no relation), held in July at the eastern end of the lake, can’t improve on the aesthetics, for all its belle époque appeal.

The first show I saw was singer Lisa Simone, who has a love of Switzerland from her mother Nina’s sojourn in the country in the 1980s. After her rapturously received soulful set, I set off up the street for edgier sounds at the Next Step venue, a standing-only auditorium. Here, Canadian singer-songwriter Mélissa Laveaux performed songs reflecting her Haitian heritage, with infectious riffs and lush vocals. The jazz purists might have given her trio a miss but few could deny her strong identity and sheer talent.

Next morning I joined a guided tour of the patchwork of terraced vineyards, all linked by meandering stone lanes and steps. The vineyards take up 700 hectares between Lausanne and Montreux, so there’s plenty of scope for a major roam. The fantastic vista from these sunny slopes was the star, but closer at hand colourful flowers billowed from the ancient gneiss and sandstone walls. Beneath the vines, splashes of grape hyacinths painted pools of vivid purple.

Our two-hour stroll took in traditional Epesses village – a miniature Cully, but higher on the valley side. It felt almost under siege from the encroaching vines, with its tall houses crowded together. Some of the inhabitants came from the 150 or so families who have been making wine here for around 20 generations.

After descending back into Cully we stopped off for a swig of the local quaff in a courtyard belonging to the Potterat family. In a side room, a centuries-old wine press sat incongruously in front of a stage set up for a jazz quartet.

The white wines are made from the chasselas grape, which has been grown here for hundreds of years – although the variety cultivated here originally, by 11th-century Cistercian monks, was red. Certainly, the whites’ subtle, elegant tones, worked wonders on our sun-drenched group.

Another intense night of gigs followed: virtuosic guitar and violin-led jazz from Biréli Lagrène, Jean-Luc Ponty and Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son), as well as a joyous Middle Eastern- and Latin-fused set from the Omer Avital Quintet.

After a late set at Caveau, I reflected on one of the highlights of the trip. At the summit of Rochers de Naye, a shadow had passed over me. Three golden eagles (an adult and two eaglets) spiralled on a thermal.

“You were lucky,” Bernard had told me as I shook the snow from my clothes after stumbling back down to the cafe. “Some people here have never seen eagles. They sometimes scavenge, you know? Perhaps they were hoping you’d break your leg.” He’d added: “I must visit the jazz festival one day, but tell me, which do you prefer, the wine or the music?”
Hotel accommodation and concert tickets were provided by Montreux-Vevey Tourisme and Hôtel Lavaux (doubles from £102 B&B). Two-hour guided tours of the vineyards from £12, lavaux-unesco.ch. Cully Jazz 2019 is on from 5-13 April and features legendary US bass player Stanley Clarke. Tickets from £31-50 for paid events; passes for all gigs over the festival £390; “Off-Festival’ gigs free (open air, cellars and Caveau). Fly to Geneva, train to Cully takes one to two hours, change at Lausanne (from about £25 one way)

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