2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
When pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a tragic diving accident in 2008, putting to an end the remarkable 15-year run of e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio)-Europe's most successful jazz act, selling hundreds of thousands of albums, and already beginning to conquer North America-it was almost impossible to imagine its impact on his fellow trio mates, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström. They didn't just lose a band mate and a dear friend, they lost the gig that had been their almost exclusive focus for the past fifteen years. More like a rock band than a jazz trio, the members of e.s.t. worked as a band, with very few extracurricular activities.
And so, after a couple years of silence-and following, even more tragically, the remarkable Leucocyte (ACT, 2008), which signaled a band still growing and at that point, in considerable transition-both Berglund and Öström began making music again, but this time in their own groups: Berglund with his progressive rock-leaning Tonbruket, with two records out, including its debut, Tonbruket (ACT, 2010) and its follow-up, Dig It to the End (ACT, 2011); and Öström with Thread of Life (ACT, 2011). If Öström's debut as a leader was, perhaps, a tad underwhelming-good, yes, and loaded with plenty of the grooves for which Öström had become known, but lacking a little on the energy front-live, it was something else entirely...and in the best, most surprising way possible.
If the album's material left plenty of space for the group-including, in addition to Öström, keyboardist Gustaf Karlöf, electric guitarist Andreas Hourdakis and bassist Thobias Gabrielsson-live, Thread of Life dug into the music in a far more exhilarating way. Opening with "Afilia Mi," with its wordless theme sung by Öström, Gabrielsson and Hourdakis, let the audience know, in no uncertain terms, that this was going to be a high-energy set with plenty of solo space and some absolutely thundering grooves. Two young members of American saxophonist Kenny Garrett's group-also performing at Umeå but, sadly, missed in order to focus more on the Scandinavian acts- were seen near the front of the standing room section of the room, clearly digging on what they were hearing.
And why wouldn't they? If Hourdakis seemed like a capable guitarist on record, in performance he commanded a broader range of textures from his Gibson SG guitar, but focusing more often than not on a lightly overdriven, warm and reverb-drenched tone that went from biting one moment, to ethereal the next. Karlöf, while set up with electric keys, spent most of his time on an upright piano, and proved just as capable as Hourdakis in building dynamic, climax-driven solos. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Gabrielsson; a fine enough bassist on the record, performing live, he drove the music- both on bass and keyboards-with a stunning combination of unshakable anchor and occasional injections of impressive, Tony Levin-like slurs and leaps into the upper register.
With a kit augmented by a rack of small gongs as well as a table with electronics, Öström led from behind, which allowed him the opportunity for a busier approach to some of the material. His ability to twist, turn and flip time created a shifting underpinning that challenged both band and audience. A particular highlight came in a new song that- as it ultimately led to a massive ostinato that may have inadvertently referenced '70s Canterbury legend Hatfield and the North's similarly psychedelia-drenched "Shaving is Boring," from its eponymous 1974 Virgin Record debut-was referential rather than imitative, as Karlöf and Hourdakis took lengthy, unfettered solos. On the gentler side, "Ballad for E" may not have enjoyed the star power of guest guitarist Pat Metheny (who appeared on the record), but Hourdakis absolutely acquitted himself in his own inimitable fashion.
Closing with a more grounded version of Thread of Life's "Piano Break Song," Östrom and his group finished a set that combined complex progressive rock leanings with unequivocal fusion tendencies, all played with the kind of energy and commitment that comes from a band which has had the chance to evolve its material in performance. With a set like this, perhaps Öström's best next move would be a live recording.
October 27 started out with a fusion-lite performance by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knuttson and American bassist Tom Kennedy's quartet, which also featured impressive keyboardist Charlie Blenzig and drummer Thomas Ojala. Featuring chops aplenty, there was never any doubt that these folks could play, but with a setlist drawing from Kennedy's solo recordings-and albums by pianist Dave Grusin and guitarist Mike Stern-as energetic as it was, it never quite achieved liftoff. Solid grooves, nice charts and strong players does not always a great band make, and if this quartet's show was enjoyable and impressive in the moment, it sadly had little to distinguish itself as a memorable one.
On the other hand, sometimes just a pianist, a bassist and an elegant book of standards is all that's needed for a performance that's both sweet an memorable. Pianist Monica Danielsson may be best-known in Sweden by her married name, Dominique, under which she was an actress in the late '60s/early '70s. She was also member of Bäska Droppar, later changed to Solar Plexus, and cowrote the Eurovision hit song "You're Summer" with her husband Carl-Axel Dominique.
But for those of more international focus, its the Danielsson name that bears more significance. Bassist and brother Palle Danielsson has been a key member of a number of groups over the years, in particular pianist Keith Jarrett's "Belonging Quartet," also featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen-a group whose live, double-disc set Sleeper: Tokyo, April 16, 1979 (ECM, 2012), is one of the year's best archival releases. He's also been a longstanding member of British pianist John Taylor's trio with drummer Martin France, heard recently on Requiem for a Dreamer (2011) and Giulia's Thursdays (2012), both in the Italian Cam Jazz label.
Danielsson and Arild Andersen were, for many years, ECM's bassists of choice, and if their work on that esteemed label was undeniably of the tradition even if it wasn't always in the tradition-also imbued with the inescapable markers of their own Swedish and Norwegian cultures-the bassist's recording with his sister, Togetherness (Dominique Records, 2012), reveals, perhaps more than anywhere else, Danielsson's deep roots in and love of the American jazz tradition.
Danielsson and Dominique's Umeå set drew heavily from Togetherness, performing short but sweet versions of iconic standards like "Angel Eyes" and "Begin the Beguine," but also demonstrating their love of classical music with a gentle rendition of Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Dominique's greatest touchstone would have to be pianist Bill Evans, though her harmonic approach was more direct and, if similarly gentle, less impressionistic. Danielsson, a player for all occasions, kept the contexts clear and focused while his sister soloed, taking his own richly lyrical turns but, like his sibling, never overstaying his welcome.