In his native Sweden they call big, bearded Karl-Martin Almqvist "The Bear." He's one the best of the current crop of jazz saxophonists there. Critics even make comparisons with Lars Gullin, the legendary reedman who gave Swedish jazz its own, highly distinctive voice. "I would love to be able to say Gullin was my first influence," Almqvist responds ruefully. "But actually, you know, it was Dexter Gordon. He was the first tenor player that really did it for me."
Almqvist is back in Stockholm after rehearsals in the west coast city of Gothenburg for a concert of Gullin's music by the Bohuslan Big Band. He's been 'depping' for Ove Ingmarsson, the band's regular tenor man, who's on sick leave. "Great charts," says Almqvist, shaking his head in disbelief, "Just amazing."
The concert was to mark what would have been baritone player Gullin's 80th birthday had he not died in 1976, aged only 48, body and career wasted by years of drug misuse.
Swedes call Gullin's music from his productive years "Fabod jazz," a fabod being a small alpine farm where cattle were traditionally taken to graze in summer. The term reflects a landscape of forests and lakes and echoes a national tradition for lilting, melancholic folksongs. There is the same feel about much of Almqvist's playing. "It's not something intentional," he says. "It's just the way it comes out. I don't really think about how it should be. I just play the music I feel inside."
That musicmelodic, meditative and inventivehas evolved gradually since boyhood in Karlstad, principal city of the province of Varmland, renowned for its folklore. In addition to Dexter Gordon, Almqvist was influenced in youth by John Coltrane and Stan Getz, and then caught up on Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster later.
He persuaded his parents to buy him his first saxophone at the age of ten. "My father plays a little piano but there are no other real musicians in the family," he says.
He left home to study seriously, first at the Academy of Music in the southern city of Malmo and later at Mannes College in New York City. Here pianist Phil Markowitz taught him piano technique and George Garzone, saxophone technique. "It was a great experience," says Almqvist. "The big difference between their methods and those of my teachers back in Sweden was that in New York I was encouraged to go out and play the things I'd learned."
This he duly did, sitting in on diverse sessions, including one in Birdland. "I guess I should have found that pretty daunting but in fact I didn't. I also played at Small's and the Knitting Factory. It was all marvelous experiencejust great fun really."
It was in New York too that Almqvist first started playing with a fellow Swedish student, pianist Mathias Landaeus. An album with Landaeus as leader, recorded in Brooklyn, was released under the title, Blabete by the Swedish label Amigo in 1996. The pair cut a second album, Darling," for Amigo on their return to Sweden and gigged together. Almqvist also frequently played with Landaeus's band, The House of Approximation, which cut three albums for Moserobie.
Their personal collaboration culminated in Double Door, a duo album on the Prophone label that received rave reviews in the local press. Almqvist says: "Originally, we were going to play with other instruments but a friend of ours said, 'No. You should do it just with the two of you.' We took his advice."
Landaeus says, "I love Karl-Martin's playing. He's always been a really good player, like he was a complete musician right from the start. He has gotten deeper and deeper emotionally and spiritually over the years. He can set a venue on fire with his energy but at the same time he shows more vulnerability than most horn players. I was always attracted by the confidence and honesty of his playing.
"He has developed a unique voice. It doesn't matter if he plays totally free or if he solos over the most complicated formall you will hear is Karl-Martin. He is void of all mannerisms. I knew from the start that he was a world class player and felt privileged to play so much with him."
Eventually, the two went their separate ways, although they stay friends and maintain musical contact. But when Almqvist formed a quartet of his own, it was with Jan Lundgren on piano. Lundgren has since graduated to a host of other things and gained international recognition. Almqvist replaced him with the inventive young pianist, Jonas Ostholm. Other members are Flip Augustson (bass) and Sebastian Voegler (drums).
The quartet's latest album is enigmatically titled Stretching the Portfolio. The standout track, "Senter," has a very folksy feel to it, with Ostholm's solo evoking memories of the late, great Jan Johansson. Another track with a pastoral feel to it, "Home," is a tribute to Almqvist's parents' house in Varmland, "just 15 meters from the lake."