If there ever was doubt about the universality of jazz and its creative spirit, one need look no further than the wildly inventive Danish guitarist/bandleader Pierre Dørge and his New Jungle Orchestra (NJO). Through a career that spans over forty-five years, Dørge has never ceased to surprise with music that touches on a world of traditions and yet bursts forth new and revelatory and never without a sense of great fun. He has constantly added to his primary original influencesDuke Ellington, Charles Mingusby listening keenly to music from many cultures and using diverse elements to broaden his sonic palette.
Dørge was born in Copenhagen in 1946. As a teenager he developed an interest in modern jazz, learned the guitar and was soon making a name for himself as a soloist with his own Copenhagen Jazz Quartet. When Dørge felt that jazz was becoming intellectualized and stiff, he sought new means of expression. Danish saxophonist John Tchicai, who played on John Coltrane's landmark Ascension
(Impulse!, 1965), was someone who helped with that quest. The guitarist found new ways to expand the potential of the guitar by uniting composed music with spontaneous and instinctive improvisation.
In the '70s he took this new approach to rock music in the group Thermaenius. As a player and soon, too, as a composer, Dørge found ways to have chaos and order run smack up against each other. Simple themes met collective improv and thus was born the notion of the NJO.
The NJO came to life in 1980, founded as a composers' workshop by Dørge and Simon Spang-Hanssen, a saxophonist who had imagined a Noah's Ark Orchestra, with two players on each instrument. The name comes from Duke Ellington's Jungle period at New York's Cotton Club. In that setting Ellington actually shocked his white audiences by simulating animal noises meeting traffic noises of the city. In Dørge's NJO, musics from around the world face up with each other and with the brash and often "crazy colors of an orchestra that wants to improvise freely but which must also negotiate Dørge's scores. This "showdown produces a wild mix of sonic colors and allows soloists to take off on personal trips that have proved to be exceptionally appealing and communicative to audiences.
Dørge is proud of the longevity of his band and of its special players. "There are four original members still in the band, says Dørge. "Reedman Morton Carlsen, who specializes in Asian and Balkan music; trombonist Kenneth Agerholm, who picks up all the Cotton Club 'wah-wahs'; keyboardist and composer Irene Becker; and myself. Carlsen, Becker and I also have our own performing trio. We have musicians from Sweden, Norway and Denmark and our percussionist, Aya Solomon, is from Ghana. And we continue to find fantastic, young, newcomers. Every musician must have a specialty and also be totally awarehere and now in the music. It's more than just playing the written partseach player must also have the power to show their feelings on top and out front.
This might be called world music in the fullest expression of that overused term. Dørge has found, over the years, music from Africa, Asia, the Middle and Far East, Europe and, of course, America, but it must be stressed that it's not meant to be authentic but, rather, to renew the spirit of invention that so often becomes bogged down in academics, technical blowouts and the like (in fact, in Dørge's childhood, the fake ethnic music used in early Tarzan movies awakened his interest.). He notes, "Our influences jump from Duke's Jungle music to [Charles] Mingus, [Eric] Dolphy, [Don] Cherry and Ornette [Coleman]. These are mixed with elements from everywhereAfrica, Asia, Australia, Europe and America and also with Gregorian chant, Stravinsky, Ligeti...and then, of course, our main influence is the Danish music from where and when we grew up.
A desire to find the soul of other cultures has always informed the efforts of this explorer. Sometimes that's happened in odd ways. In a restaurant in Paris, the kitchen staff held a late-night jam session, playing spoons, pots, pans and an oud. In this fashion, Dørge met Arabic music. He heard Ravi Shankar in the late '60s, and for a while thought of Indian music in contemplative and healing terms.
There's more than a hint of Dadaism about the art of Pierre Dørge. It provokes the listener out of middle- class complacency, but it's somehow always infectious, optimistic and damned funny. Critic Norman Weinstein, in his book A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz, has called the NJO, "...unabashedly one of Europe's most sophisticated bands...Dørge and band do not simply reverently imitate the Ellington jungle sound, but ironically and humorously carry the sound to its logical musical conclusion. His imaginative play with African styles and instrumentation is unparalleled by any other musician not of African descent.
The NJO has recorded eighteen albums since its inception. It shares a sense of anarchy tempered, somehow, by a gentle restraint that makes it both adventurous and appealing. Negra Tigra is its most recent recording and it manages to incorporate stylistic flourishes from early jazz into a brash and noisy contemporary setting.