Valby Summer Jazz Prøvehallen in Valby and The Betty Nansen Theatre Copenhagen, Denmark July 6-13, 2013
In a time of financial crisis, the solution to many festivals seems to be to cut down on the experimental budget and ambitions and focus on familiar names that are sure to attract a sizeable audience. While Valby Summer Jazz, which takes place in Copenhagen and the suburb of Valby, certainly is able to list some of the finest names in modern jazz, the goal of the festival isn't to present the audience with something they already know. Instead, what you get at the festival are familiar artists in new contexts and a cross-fertilization of genres whose common denominator is the joy and love of music.
Context is a keyword. While some experiments have an air of unapproachable intellectuality and exclusion, the festival makes sure that the audience isn't left behind. Amidst the many challenging sounds, there is always a tune, a melody or a rhythm to hang on to. If anything, the festival has proven that experiments are possible within a mainstream context and you don't need to belong to a closed community to understand what's going on.
Another way of providing context was the fine artist talks that took place before many of the concerts. This was a new and welcome feature that allowed the audience to familiarize itself with the artists in an informal setting where a music journalist interviewed many of the participating musicians. Particularly enlightening was the meeting between the Danish and American composers Anders Koppel
and John Blake Jr., who touched upon the similarities in their works. Both emphasized the inherent spirituality in music and the merging of folklore and classical music.
The theme of the festival was "Big Band and Choir," and while the festival included both big bands and choirs in spectacular settings, there wasn't really a headline that could cover everything. Here was everything from intimate duo interplay to cooking quintets and chamber music and jazz-pop extravaganza.
The festival began with an ambitious concert where organist Anders Koppel and violinist John Blake Jr. performed two suites for choir. The two artists were joined by bassist Morten Ramsbøll and their sons, drummer Johnathan Blake
, and it was actually the younger Koppel who originally conceived the idea of getting the two together. On stage they were joined by the choir, Ars Nova Copenhagen.
Koppel's work Gemmer hvert et ord, which was inspired by letters from Danish soldiers during The Battle of Fredericia in 1849, began the concert. While the words in the letters were sometimes imbued with melancholy and anxiety, the music corresponded with a search for light in the middle of darkness. Koppel's bubbling Hammond organ was coupled with Blake's soaring violin that added extra poignancy to the music, and the choir interpreted the words of the letters with skill. In general, Koppel must be applauded for his will to combine history and music, and unlike some modern composers, his work was carried by a refreshingly clear sense of melody and harmony.
John Blake Jr. also reached back in history, but this time it was the Afro-American tradition of gospel and spirituals. His re-imagined and rearranged versions of songs like "A Balm in Gilead" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," formed a strong narrative of the quest for spiritual freedom. The Danish choir rose to the occasion and sang the words deep from their hearts and Koppel's spirited organ brought the songs back into the church.
It was clear that both artists respected each other. Blake Jr. also found time to honor Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, who introduced him to solo violin playing. It was an evening of respect and sense of tradition, but also a life-affirming experience of hearing the past turned into new music.
Respect is also a word that can be used about the relationship between the two artistic directors of the festival, Benjamin Koppel
. Through the years, they have refined the festival, but also their own musical language, and an unexpected duo session provided the opportunity of hearing them unfold their deeply musical connection. Originally the concert was planned as a duo between Werner and Anders Koppel, but when he became ill, his son stepped in.
The setting was a new concept of jazz and brunch, but once the music started, there was no rattling of cutlery. The audience became transfixed by the sensitive touch of Werner's crystalline piano and Koppel's empathic response and finely shaped melodic lines. Both artists understood how to vary the music that unfolded like one long suite without any introductions. Werner especially showed his encyclopedic skills on the piano and incorporated everything from stride piano to bop lines and classical flourishes, but at the heart of the sound was a tranquil lyricism. A member of the audience remarked that she wished that the music had been recorded, but in a way it has been. Werner and Koppel recreated the magic feeling of their duo session Walden (Cowbell, 2009). The question now remains when they will record new music together. Their concert certainly whetted the appetite for more.
Like the other incarnations of the festival, Koppel and Warner were involved in most of the concerts, but they proved to be sympathetic sidemen who brought out the best in their fellow musicians. This was also the case when bassist Scott Colley
and, naturally, Koppel was inspired by the competition and delivered heated playing himself, twisting every tone on his instrument.
At one moment during the concert, Scott Colley, while tuning his bass, called his instrument: "this old ship" and Colley was indeed a captain who guided the group in the murky waters of his complex compositions that nevertheless showed accessibility through recognizable themes and motifs. Among the highlights were "January" and the ballad "For Sophia," both taken from his album Empire (Cam Jazz, 2010). Without guitarist Bill Frisell
, who played on that record, the bluegrass-shades of the compositions were toned down in favor of a more straight hard-bop approach.
While all musicians proved to be incredibly gifted, the danger of too much soloing was also present. This was the case on a reading of the standard "If I Should Lose You," where Werner introduced the song beautifully, but the band hardly settled into the song before the first solo was delivered, and the standard was quickly turned into a formulaic solo vehicle where every musician had to have his due. Fortunately, this was the only misstep in an otherwise inspired performance where the friendship, virtuosity and originality of the musicians shone through.