Pernille Bevort: Cowboys and Girls
“ I would like to show young females that it is possible to play instruments at a high level and that it is possible to tell your stories and to trust and believe in themselves... ”
Since making her recording debut in the mid '90s, saxophonist/composer/arranger/vocalist Pernille Bevort has established herself as one of the leading lights on the Danish jazz scene, with half a dozen recordings as leader under her belt. Playground + 1 (Calibrated, 2007) provides ample proof of her outstanding musicianship, whether on tenor or soprano saxophone, as well as underlining her noteworthy compositional skills.
In her native Copenhagen, Bevort brings her energy to duo, quartet, quintet, sextet and larger ensembles, and is a member of the Ernie Wilkins = 11362 Almost Big Band for which she also composes and arranges. All About Jazz took the opportunity to talk with Pernille Bevort about Playground + 1 (the excellent quintet recording alongside pianist Marie-Louise Schmidt), the state of Danish jazz, and the efforts of some to promote a more active participation of women in jazz.
All About Jazz: The playing on Playground + 1 is very tight and intuitive-sounding; how long has this line-up been together?
Pernille Bevort: We started out as a quartet in 2004; the pianist and I had been playing once in a while in different kind of set-ups and we liked playing with each other and liked playing each other's tunes, so we put a quartet together. We released a CD called Playground, (Calibrated, 2005) which was our first CD with that ensemble.
AAJ: On this album you've added saxophonist Jan Harbeck, and he's listed as a guest, but to my mind his contribution is pretty fundamental to the success of the album; do you prefer working with two horns in the same line-up?
PB: I very much like this set-up with an added horn player. I find it very inspiring with two horn players in front, and since I like working as a composer and arranger I really like writing lines and figuring out how to get a nice sound together. I'm inspired by two soloists on the same kind of instrument but with a slightly different sound and different approach. When we play live there's a lot of energy and a lot of conversation going on.
AAJ: That's what I hear on Playground + 1a lot of energy and conversational playing. When you play live do you usually play with two horns?
PB: As much as we can. It's a matter of economics (laughs) as so many other matters in life. It depends how much money we can get from the different clubs and how far we have to travel but I prefer being five. The compositions were meant to be for two hornsthe way they are thought and the way they are arranged. I hear those two lines all the time and I really miss that if we play as a quartet, and we also need to consider what tunes we can play in my opinion.
AAJ: I think if I came to see your group, I'd want to hear two horns, I'd be excited to hear two horns.
PB: The horn player, Jan Harbeck, I've played with in other ensembles. I play quite a lot in bigger ensembles such as the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band, and trombonist Erling Kroner has a big band, the New Music Orchestra he calls it, and we know each other from there. I picked him up for this recording because I figured that would be a nice sound.
AAJ: I can very easily imagine these compositions in a big band context; is that something that was at the back of your mind, or is it a possibility that you might do that?
PB: It's funny you should ask that as I'm working on that right now, writing for a bigger ensemble. I've studied both line writing and Duke (Ellington) writing, some principals that (trumpeter) Herb Pomeroy has been teaching at Berklee, and the trombone player that I play with, Erling Kroner, he has taught me those principals for arranging. These principals are very useful especially when arranging for four horns/reeds or more. I also have a radio group, the Radio Bevort group where I have four horns so there I can use these principals for arranging. Right now I've been writing two new pieces for the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band, and there we are nine horn players with four saxophones, two trombones and three trumpets
AAJ: I know Ernie Wilkins died in '99, were you in his big band while he was still alive?
PB: No, although I've been with the band for quite a few years now. The baritone saxophonist Per Goldschmit gathered the orchestra together again at the end of 1999. Through Ernie Wilkin's Danish wife, who had a lot of those old scores, he talked to her, and now we are the orchestra playing Ernie Wilkins arrangements.
AAJ: I wanted to ask your opinion of Ernie Wilkins as a composer/arranger as he was a very influential arranger with big bands from Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry to Harry James and above all Count Basie yet he's maybe an unsung figure in jazz.
PB: I like very much playing his arrangements, some of them are quite funny actually, and he switches between very strong passages with a lot of things going on and then a lot of open spaces where you as a soloist can really interpret his arrangements in a very personal way. You can play in a very modern style in his arrangements and put your own personality into those arrangementsthere is a lot of space for that too.
We're also performing quite a few concerts with singers, and also there he leaves a lot of space for the singer, and he uses the ensemble in a way I like.
AAJ: The sound of the tracks recorded in the studio is as good as the sound of the three live trackswhich sound greatyou must be pleased with the overall sound of Playground + 1.
PB: Yes I am. You know, I took a chance, which I usually do (laughs); I had a feeling that it would be a good idea to record this live session that we had, which was the first step. Then I listened to it and I thought, yeah, I really like some of those tracks. I like the live energy, sometimes things happen when you play live, because you're in front of an audience and it's now or never. Then I thought it would be nice to add some studio recordings of other tunes I had in mind, and I thought what kind of story should be on this CD, what would fit, something like a gathering of novellas.
The bassist, Thomas Vang, is the one who made the studio recording and the one who mixed it all, and he has a good feeling for that, to make the sound fit between those two recordings.
AAJ: It s quite rare for a CD which mixes studio and live recordings to do it quite as seamlessly as this, so hats off to Thomas Vang.
PB: He did a very fine job. I've used him for three or four of my CDs.
AAJ: You've played before with pianist Marie Louise-Schmidt; tell us a little about your history of playing with her.
PB: As you can hear she has the inspiration of Thelonious Monk in her playing, and I really like it. I met her at the Rhythmic Conservatory in Copenhagen although we didn't study in the same year. She started a trio with a female bassist and a female drummer a lot of years ago called Sophisticated Ladies and they played with the trombone player Richard Boone, and I've been playing once in a while with that trio as a soloist. I liked her playing and figured it could be fun to do something together. We've also done some concerts as a duo.
AAJ: The Rhythmic Music Conservatory is an unusual name, is it somehow different to the typical musical conservatory?
PB: In Denmark we never had a place where you could study rhythmic music in a concentrated fashion, not really. We had the ordinary classical conservatory and then we had the university where you could study some rhythmic and some classical, but not at a very high level for the rhythmic students. Therefore some people gathered who thought we have to do something, for rhythmic students who want to study harmony and improvisation at a high level, and they succeeded to get support from the government of Denmark and start this education. I might be wrong but I think it started in '84, or '85.
In the beginning it was just an ordinary apartment of several floors in Copenhagen and it was sound-proofed so it wouldn't bother the neighbors. They took in fifteen students a year and you studied for four years and you would become what they called a Musician and Teacher within Rhythmic Music.
They had about forty five students all in all when I started and it was kind of fun because sometimes it was difficult to get a place to practice, so you just had to practice downstairs on the toilet, (laughs) and we were very creative that way.
It was a little school but fun because everybody knew each other. Now it has become a much bigger institution, with a totally new building, totally new equipment and it is a very fine place indeed where the students study now. They also take in more students each year and it has become quite a big institution. I guess it is different in each country, but now you can become a teacher of rhythmic music but at a higher level than before.
AAJ: What was your route to the saxophone?
PB: What was the mistake in the beginning? (laughs) Like many small girls in school around the age of seven or eight I got a recorder as a Christmas present, and I was hooked on music somehow. I had a good teacher who was one of my parent's friends, who took all those kids and made us play together, so I was used to playing together. I practiced on this recorder and I reached some kind of level playing a lot of different things but then I grew older and, well, you know, there wasn't enough noise in that instrument. (laughs) I needed something with more output I guess.
And then I fell in love with the sound of the soprano saxophone because I heard Sidney Bechet on some old records, and I thought, wow, now this sounds good, now we can talk about output, a special sound. I don't know why, it just caught me somehow. I borrowed a soprano saxophone at the beginning and then bought one when I was thirteen or fourteen, and just started playing without a teacher. I did a lot of wrong things in the beginning but I had this energy and this urge to do something and that carried me through. Later on I had lessons and had to change a lot of things. But I had this energy, this childish energy that just wanted to do something, and I managed not to spoil it, and I guess that's why I continued. (laughs)
AAJ: So Sidney Bechet was your first inspiration?
PB: I find it in a way a bit funny now, because when I listen to him now I can really hear this body in the sound and all these things, but the use of the vibrato I don't use myself, and maybe I don't even like it anymore. (laughs) But that was my kick-start somehow. And then I changed to the tenor when I was fifteen and went to a school where I studied music with other young people and I got to know Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and lot of different things.
AAJ: As a saxophonist you have your own voice, which in this day and age is something of an achievement, and maybe the only influence I detect, and that's more in a compositional way, in terms of phrasing less than in terms of sound, is Wayne Shorter.
PB: I have listened to him also, very much, in a formative period of my life. I've listened to him quite a lot, his phrasing, his way of writing, his seams, his sounds. Sure I have, I've been there too.
AAJ: You are also a vocalist, there are a couple of interesting vocal tracks on Playground + 1; how important is singing to you?
PB: That's a good question; I guess I started singing because I started a bigger group where I had four horns and in the beginning. I worked with other singers to sing my songs, but I figured when I sat there composing, and wrote all the lyrics, I had some feeling for these tunes and I wanted them sung more straight-aheadthe stories in my tunes should be sung in a relaxed way, not so complicated. You know, when I used other singers to sing my tunes sometimes I didn't really recognize my tunes. I also made a recording which I called Radio Bevort where I sing all the vocal tracks myself, and in a way I liked it and I started performing live with singing, but I don't do it so much in the quintet.
AAJ: Who are your singing models?
PB: Well of course I've listened to Joni Mitchell, and then I've listened to Sidsel Endresen. Then here in Denmark we have Josefine Cronholm who made a recording with Django Bates she's from Sweden originally but she lives in Denmark now. I'm totally aware that I'm not a jazz jazz singer, I'm not Sarah Vaughan, I'm just Pernille trying to tell my own story. I don't see myself in front of a big band as a jazz singer.
AAJ: You are involved in the organization IMPRA; tell me something about IMPRA. What is the idea exactly?
PB: IMPRA was started in Sweden. It started in 2006 and they did so because they saw when they looked around at the music business, within the rhythmic scene, that there were so few females, especially playing instruments and composing and they wondered how can that be so, and why is it so Let's gather, let's talk about, let's put some focus on this issue, and in a way they have succeeded so far in that once in a while they set up concerts with female instrumentalists, workshops and so on, and focus on this.
One school in Sweden called Fridhem Folkhogskola has made a special year for female students that prepares them for the conservatory so that they can study a year together and alone, without all the boys. They have had success with that. We don't have that kind of thing in Denmark, but we got inspired by this Swedish initiative and started the Danish IMPRA in the spring of 2008
When I started studying, and when the Sophisticated Ladies started, it seemed like the percentage of female instrumentalists was increasing and we thought maybe we were at the beginning of something and that it would be more equal in the coming yearsnot that it has to be fifty-fifty, I don't think it will ever be, but maybe it will be twenty five per cent, or thirty percentbut it has gone the opposite way actually.
We did a little research on the conservatories and those places for rhythmic music and we saw that this year when they had to apply, when they went to the auditions to enter, only 1.3% who applied for these auditions in Copenhagen were female instrumentalists. We have other rhythmic conservatories in other parts of the country and there we found that there were none at all; no female instrumentalists applied, and we think this is a pity because it means that there are so many stories that we will never hear.
AAJ: What do you put this down to, Pernille? Why do you think there are so few women applying for auditions in the music conservatories?
PB: I think in a way that to convince women that it is a possibility takes a bit more than it does for men, I think there is a point there. And another point is the media; here in Denmark we used to have, and felt the responsibility, to show people a variety of things in the media, but it seems that everything goes more and more towards business thinking, and it has become more and more this concept of "Star for a Night," I don't know what you call it, we have all these shows on television where they all stand in aline and the best amateur in whatever field gets chosenthe best amateur tap dancer, or singer or whatever, but in the media the only thing that female gets presented for within rhythmic music is as singers. It's the only option you are shown.
You don't see female instrumentalists, so it seems that it is not presented a s a possibility for young females, and I guess that is a problem because you need to feel that it is a possibility at fifteen or whatever so that you continue playing. Because they do play, but they seem to stop again.
AAJ: You are obviously quite well established as a musician, as a composer within Denmark and within the region, but for a young female jazz musician starting out how difficult is it to get gigs in Denmark?
PB: Well, it is difficult for all jazz musicians at the moment. These are not good times. But what we often meet, that our male counterparts don't, are the kind of comments like: "Oh, you play like a man!" There is a habit, not because people are mean...
AAJ: It must annoy the hell out of you, no?
PB: Certainly. There was one concert, where we played with a big band, a very nice concert, and the pianist got a compliment from one of the listeners: "Wow, you play really well," and then this man from the audience continued to me, "Yeah, and I really liked your legs.' And then I got upset. (laughs) I mean, he would never have said that to a man. But that is what we have to deal with and we also have to deal with, OK, it's not because people are mean, it's because they are not used to seeing it, and they don't hear what they are saying, and they don't even reflect. Maybe he was just trying to be kind by telling me that I looked nice on stage, which is nice to know, but it would also be nice to know that he liked my playing.
PB: (laughs) I think there is another thing, and it lives in both men and women actually, and that is that we are used to thinking that men of course can be very, very good instrumentalists, and be successful and have a high level, but they are not so used to thinking that females can be the sameand that goes for both men and women I'm afraid to say. So we have to look within ourselves also.
AAJ: What does IMPRA stand for?
PB: I thought you might be asking me that question, and I'm also wondering, I think it's just some kind of playing around with impro; doesn't it denote female gender when you end with 'a'?
AAJ: Yes, in Latin-based languagesthat must be it then. I was interested to read on the site the obituary for Rosetta Reitz, who died in November; she was a very interesting woman who did a lot to preserve and promote the earliest blues and jazz recordings of women and she said that she hoped that one day there wouldn't be a need for record label specially for women, in other words that women would have parity with men. Is what IMPRA is doing not doing just that, putting women musicians into a category of their own?
PB: What I would like is not to put women into a category of their own but make people more conscious of these issues and this habit of thinking, and I think what a lot of us would like to do is to tell each other, yeah, it's great that we are here and there is a reason that we should continue working with music, because we have a lot of power and we have a lot of stories to tell.
You can never turn off your sex, I mean first of all you are a human being and then you are your sex, but you cannot walk around being completely neutral in life, that's impossible. We need to make people think about this and I would like to show young females that it is possible to play instruments at a high level and that it is possible to tell your stories, and to trust in and believe in themselves; that way we can maybe give each other some more power, because sometimes you maybe feel all by yourself and who fucking cares anyway? (laughs)
I play in a lot of orchestras where I'm the only female, or we are only two, but I don't walk around thinking I only want to play with females.
AAJ: No, sure. You play in quite a lot of different contexts, small and large ensembles, straight ahead and Latinhow much of that is out of financial necessity and how much if out of a desire to play in a wide variety of settings?
PB: (laughs) I try to see it as a whole; what I do makes me who I am as a musician. I play in the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band and I enjoy that very much. I also play in the Monday Night Big Band which is more swing-oriented music and in the trombone player's Erling Kroner's big band we play very bluesy stuff, very inspired by(bassist/composer) Charles Mingus and we also play tango-inspired music. In my own group I express my own voice the way I have digested all those different things. I also play in a couple of big bands as a sub, and I do some theater gigs.
Of course, I need to do a lot of different things because of the economy but I also think of it as a lot of different ways to... how can I say, stay ready. (laughs) Do you know what I mean? To stay ready to play, to always develop this ability to sit in with different ensembles and to listen to what is going on and think what is my part and how do I do my best? All of it has to do with music.
Right now I'm doing a very interesting thing. This summer I invited Marcelo Nisinman, the bandoneon playerhe's quite famous on his instrument, having played with Dino Saluzzihe comes from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I met him in the big band with Erling Kroner. I invited him to play some concerts with my big group and at the jazz festival in Copenhagen, and that was really great fun, and we even wrote together.
He is coming to Copenhagen in March and we will co-write new material. His background is from tango but he is very modern; he studied composition in Switzerland and also Buenos Aires, so he has both tango and classical music and he has a free spirita bit crazy(laughs) so he's a very special guy and a really, really good instrumentalist. I think it will be fun.
AAJ: You said these are difficult times, what's the jazz scene like in Copenhagen?
PB: With the conservatory the level of playing has got higher and higher so there are lots of great jazz musicians, and really nice composers with a lot of creative ideas and we have clubs with different styles and jam sessions going on, but the economy is not that good, and I guess it is difficult because a lot of the jazz musicians live in Copenhagen so we are so many. We need a bigger audience. (laughs)
AAJ: Or an annual cull.
PB: A what?
AAJ: Sorry, a bad joke, I suggested an annual cull of jazz musicians.
PB: It is a bad joke. (laughs) But a lot of good things are going on, and a lot of great music actually; in that way it is healthy. I hope there will be some kind of revival. And it may be that people get sick and tired of all those entertainment shows on telly.
AAJ: I hope you are right but it seems as if people have an insatiable appetite for it.
PB: But there must be some people waking up, who want to be entertained instead by people standing there really playing: "Wow, they're taking risks!" Sometimes it turns out very well and sometimes it doesn't, people struggling with instruments on stage, they cannot cheat, no playback, it's just real, and there and nowa level of intimacy. I hope there will be some kind of revival. (laughs)
AAJ: The media has a big responsibility I think. Every time I have dragged friends along to, I was going to say jazz gigs, but I'll use your term, rhythmic music, be it Wayne Shorter, Zakir Hussain or Hiromi they are blown away by the power of this music and the musicianshipyet they then go back to the old menu of soaps and reality TV; if only they had more exposure to it.
PB: I also think that the media have a great responsibility for this. And music is a very special kind of art, it can do something very special, because you really sense it with your whole body, you can really feel hit by music, it's not just visual, I mean you really sense it with...
AAJ: Body and soul.
PB: Body and soul.
Erling Kroner New Music Orchestra, Strada Anfosa, La Mariposa Tango Project (Calibrated, 2008)
Pernille Bevort/Marie-Louise Schmidt, Playground + 1 (Calibrated, 2007)
Radio Bevort, Radio Bevort (Calibrated, 2006)
Erling Kroner New Music Orchestra, Tango Jalousie and All That Jazz (Calibrated, 2006)
Monday Night Big Band, Live from Paradise (Calibrated, 2006)
Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band & Putte Wickman, Kinda Dukish (Gazell, 2005)
Pernille Bevort/Marie-Louise Schmidt, Playground (Music Mecca, 2005)
Pernille Bevort Sextet, Who's Blue? (Dragon Records, 2000)
Erling Kroner Dream Quintet, Trombonissimo (Music Mecca, 1999)
Erling Kroner Dream Quintet, Ahi Va El Negro (Storyville, 1998)
Pernille Bevort Quartet, Back in Business (Storyville, 1998)
Pernille Bevort Quartet, Alive (Music Mecca, 1996)