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2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012

2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
John Kelman By

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2012 Umeå Jazz Festival
Umeå, Sweden
October 24-28, 2012
Nestled about 20 kilometers from the coast of the Baltic Sea in northern Sweden, connected by the Ume River, sits Umeå (pronounced: ooo-me-oh), a town of about 120,000 (including the surrounding region). Small it may be, but since 1968 it has hosted an annual jazz festival that takes place the last week of October and acts as kind of final big splash before the winter and long nights settle in. "How short the days are kind of depends on the weather," says Lennart Strömback, who has been the festival's Artistic Director for 22 years. "If it's snowing it can be quite dark, but if it's sunny, the days are usually about four hours long."

Even at the end of October, nearly two months before the winter equinox, it's already getting dark quite early, and it's cold-early mornings in the week spent in Umeå to attend the jazz festival saw the mercury dip, at times, as low as -11 Celsius. Even for a Canadian, that's cold for this time of year. "I don't know what their aims and wishes were in 1968 [when the festival began]," says Strömback, "except for peace and love, but at this point I think it's a kind of celebration, with a sparkling week before darkness comes to this part of the world."

The 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival definitely brought some warmth to the town, with a remarkable series of concerts at the Umeå Folkset Hus and Norrland Opera that included American artists like saxophonist Kenny Garrett, guitarist Pat Martino and drummer Gerry Hemingway; European artists like Norway's In The Country and the duo of singer Tone Åse and percussionist Thomas Strønen; a multinational trio featuring saxophonist Lotte Anker, bassist Joëlle Léandre and drummer Raymond Strid; and the American/Norwegian collaboration of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's Northern Lights, with keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, bassist Arild Andersen, saxophonist Bendik Hofseth and drummer Audun Kleive. There was also plenty of focus on young acts like England's WorldService Project, and young Swedish singer Isabel Sörling and her group, Farvel. Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson, in addition to a bass duo concert with Christian Spering, performed some music from his recent recording, Togetherness (Dominique, 2012), with his sister, pianist Monica Dominique, while former e.s.t. drummer Magnus Ostrom brought his rock-inflected Thread of Life group.

"I'm always looking for those young artists that will surprise people. It's important to be able to communicate with a younger audience, so [performers like Canadian pianist/singer] Elizabeth [Shepherd] act as a kind of catalyst. I'm interested in food, where you have all these different flavors coming together to create delicious dishes. Elizabeth, she's one of the sweets," says Strömback, laughing.

When Strömback took over the festival in 1990, there were some significant challenges. "Until then, I think most artists brought [to Umeå]were big American names-and some really amazing names-but my contribution has been to bring some of the leading artists in the field of improvised music that are A bit more electric in their approach," says Strömback. "It was more of a mainstream festival. Still, now and then there were some pretty creative artists coming into town. Sun Ra was here in 1969 or '70, and he was pretty far out, so there has been some activity on the edge. But you have to consider that this town is not a big town. When I moved here in 1988 there were only 80,000 people, and the city has been growing by, more or less, about 1,000 people a year.

"Today, you can see a lot of lesser-known musicians," Strömback continues. "I think the profile of European jazz musicians is rising at the festival, as well as musicians from all over the world. I see Umeå as an arena, as a meeting point for different kinds of directions. It's not necessary to be labeled as a contemporary improv festival. You can find so many aspects of jazz here, and that's my vision. When I first started, I had this Jazz Lab-the small room with some far out-musicians-and it was almost empty every concert the first year; but over the years, this series has grown and now there's almost always a line to get into it. People have adapted and they're also really curious about these kinds of new concepts, the new directions of jazz and improvised music that they very seldom get the opportunity to hear."

Umeå may be a small town in relative terms, but a major university-and a military presence, beginning in the 1920s and '30s, that brought in some soldiers who were also jazz musicians-has resulted in a scene which has continued to gradually expand in the ensuing decades. "There were jazz musicians playing in their spare time, even in the '30s and '40s; there were some great amateur musicians," Strömback says. "In the '50s, an especially hot guy name Lars Lystedt was working and playing in bars, and he went to New York, because of working on the boats, buying records, hanging out in the clubs and coming back with dozens of great records. So, even in the late '50s, when there were really great musicians who were, in their own way, on a more professional level, there was this guy-who also became the first promoter of live music here in Umeå.

"The first concert with an international musician was [trumpeter/singer] Louis Armstrong, and it was so popular that thousands of people gathered," Strömback continues. "So, Lars then started the jazz festival in 1968; it was really important to have this dedicated person to start off the movement at the time."

Since then, Umeå has been the home of a number of important jazz musicians. Some of the more important and internationally known names include saxophonist/pianist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Morten Ågre and saxophonist Jonas Knutsson.

The festival is not unlike The Netherlands' North Sea Jazz Festival, albeit on a smaller scale, with most shows taking place at Folkset Hus, which houses a number of performance spaces ranging from a capacity of 60 to 1,200. With approximately 4,500 attendees in 2011, the festival also participates in a local, volunteer-driven jazz club that brings one jazz show to Umeå each week.

While not as extensive as Norway's, Sweden's arts funding is still better than most European countries-though it could use, according to Strömback, more attention to exporting some of the country's fine musicians to the rest of the world. "For the last six years we've had a right-wing administration," says Strömback, "and it has really had an effect on funding for the arts. Still, there has been plenty of support, with the majority of Umeå's funding coming from the municipality."

One weakness of many international festivals is a focus on artists from abroad, to the exclusion of local artists or artists from their own countries. Umeå addresses that by producing an opening night show where students from Midgårds-ranging in age from 16 to 18-deliver an evening's performance of jazz music. And on the Sunday night at the tail end of the festival, a collection of local musicians (some quite famous in Sweden) put on another show that's more like a festival after-party, but one with some seriously fine music and an emphasis on fun and booty-shaking grooves.

With a fine lineup over the course of the week, one of the most eagerly anticipated performances was, however, from Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla and her quintet, collaborating with the local symphony orchestra on a newly commissioned composition. It was a great way to kick off the festival's main program, and a perfect place to begin coverage of the 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival.

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