Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2009
Harbeck is a former big band player and the festival offered rich opportunities to explore big band music. It is a music that is often perceived as one of the more archaic forms associated with jazz, bringing up nostalgic associations of ballrooms and bootlegging. This, of course, is not true as countless visionary bandleaders from Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Gerry Mulligan, Gerald Wilson, Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones have proven.
At its best, big band music offers a unique possibility of exploring texture and polyphony and some of the big bands that were present at the festival proved that the form is far from being outworn artistically. The span ranged from traditionally minded ensembles like Erling Kroner New Music Orchestra and Klüvers Big Band to the more experimental sounds of New Jungle Orchestra, Tip Toe Big Big Band, The Orchestra and Geir Lysne Ensemble. However, the big band that combined past and present in the most convincing way was Steve Swallow & Bohuslän Big Band. They played an enchanting concert at Vor Frue with a program made up entirely of Swallow's compositions.
To hear Swallow as an arranger and conductor of his own songs is an event not to be missed. By now he has established his name not only as superior bassist but also as composer of extraordinary standard and a tune such as "Eiderdown" has become a modern standard. As composer as well as arranger, Swallow works eminently with the textures of the music. Like Gerry Mulligan, he shuns the heavy sound of the big band in favor of a more complex and light approach. In his music, there's room for referencing the classic swing of Count Basie in the appropriately named "Ballroom," but there's also the decidedly modern, polyphonic chaos of "Playing in Traffic," which resembles a traffic jam set into music with horns honking away.
Several times, Swallow mentioned his gratefulness at working with the Swedish big band, and it was easy to understand why when hearing the tight yet bouncing rhythms and melodies that floated from the orchestra, who understood how to realize the music, paying attention to the tiniest detail. That also included doing a trick of showmanship, which has become something of a staple at this particular venue, located as it is near a church with bells often chiming in. For the musicians, it has become a particular challenge to integrate the sounds of bells into the music, and this was done elegantly by Swallow and his orchestra, who used the timing of the bells to stunning effect in the lyrical meditation "Seventeen Chords."
There was a sense of tight yet relaxed choreography with Swallow often stepping back to assume the role of a quiet conductor, gently leading his band into a swirling ocean of sound. There were also times when he stepped up as soloist, as in the beautiful ballad "Away," and, naturally, this caused a huge round of applause from the audience. However, the real star of the afternoon was the music itself, perfectly realized by the leader and his orchestra.
Steve Swallow and The Bohuslän Big Band.
Peter Rosendal and Mikkel Ploug are much younger than Swallow, but have already shown considerable talent as composers and leaders of their own groups. Both played numerous gigs at the festival, but their concerts at the open venues were among their best performances.
For his concert at Gråbrødre Torv, Peter Rosendal had expanded his usual trio of Janus Templeton (drums) and Greg Earle (bass) with ace guitarist Jacob Fischer and saxophonist Hans Ulrik, adding more nuances to his self-penned compositions.
Along with Lars Winther and Magnus Hjorth, who also played at the festival, Peter Rosendal belongs to the cream of the crop of new Nordic pianists that works within the realm of progressive mainstream. The concert showed him as an inventive lyrical pianist, who also adds a healthy dose of humor to his compositions, as is evident in the silly naming of tunes like "Peter og Ulven" ("Peter and the Wolf"). Rosendal and his expanded trio came across as both playful and serious.
Peter Rosendal and his expanded trio playing at Gräbrødre Torv.
Humor is a thing that is somewhat absent in the music of guitarist Mikkel Ploug, but it isn't something that is missed as his tunes still carry a melodic freshness that frees them from meandering. Ploug has collaborated intensely with one of the most talked about saxophonists of the moment, Mark Turner, but it is his current constellation with bassist Jeppe Skovbakke, drummer Kevin Brow and New York-based bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst that has become his most successful musical venture.