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Live Review

Aarhus Jazz Festival 2022

Aarhus Jazz Festival 2022

Courtesy Hreinn Gudlaugsson

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Aarhus Jazz Festival
Various Venues
Aarhus, Denmark
July 9-16, 2022

With around 283,000 citizens, Aarhus is the second-largest city in Denmark, and the role of playing second fiddle doesn't suit a city that tends to be overshadowed by its big brother, the capital Copenhagen. Or so you would think. In fact, the vibe in Aarhus is laid back and relaxed. It's not without reason that the city is known as the "City of Smiles." However, in recent years Aarhus has become more aware of its status as a big city.

In 2017, Aarhus was the cultural capital of the European Union and the art museum ARoS, one of the biggest in Europe, is literally a monument for art with its towering building and Olafur Eliasson's Your Rainbow Panorama, a gigantic circular walkway in glass in all colors of the spectrum. Situated at the top of the ARoS building, it has become a brand for the city, signaling diversity and playfulness.

These are also words that could be used to characterize the jazz scene in the city, and it all comes together during the jazz festival with more than 300 concerts. Aarhus Jazz Festival started in 1989 and since then it has become inextricably linked to the identity and infrastructure of the city. This is underlined in this year's jazz poster that shows the tracks from the light rail that opened in 2017, but with a twist: the tracks are rendered as the strings of a bass. To put it another way, jazz is the soundtrack of the city and during festival time, it can be heard all over the city from traditional venues to open-air scenes and the art museum. There's even a venue in the old city, the world's first museum for the history and culture of market towns, where you get to travel back in time and experience Aarhus as the city used to be.

One of the most charming places to hear music is the jazz raft situated at Flemming Bamse Jørgensens Plads near the yachting harbor. The musicians here are playing on a raft and it's not unlikely that people will drift by on the water while the music is playing.

Kiosk, a young Aarhus band, was one of the acts performing on the raft. Poet and rapper, Maj Ørskov, said that their music was hard to explain and instead of trying to do this, they would play the music. And so they did. They started out with "Primadonna," the opening track from the album Tæt nok på (Gateway Music, 2021). Supported by a groovy bass line, Ørskov rapped words that are too dirty to be quoted here, but as she explained, the point of the song was exactly to provide a kind of poetic relief where words and thoughts that would otherwise be taboo are allowed to be expressed.

Clearly, Kiosk is a band that goes its own way. In a time of political mistrust, "Privatliv" (private life) was a quirky homage to the Danish system and all the things that do work in the Danish society. On other hand, the text "Hvidovre" (the name of a Danish city) was about being pregnant and "Uro i systemet" (unease in the system) was a Latinate piece that transmitted a joy that transplanted itself to the audience. An artist was making live drawings, people danced, and free beers were handed out. It was a feeling of joy that Kiosk matched perfectly.

Kiosk managed to portray a special Aarhus feeling and the spirit of the city was also the subject of saxophonist and composer Nana Pi's major work "The Sound of Aarhus," commissioned especially for the festival. Pi led her own Extemporize Orchestra that uses a compositional sign language she has developed, which gives plenty of room for improvisation in the moment. They played one long composition that merged field recordings with the sound of instruments that sometimes imitated the horns of cars in traffic and other times came closer to the sounds of nature.

The seagull became a motif. As Pi explained, this bird is an emblem of Aarhus, but there were also sounds of city hall bells and train announcements mixed in with the music. In fact, the music moved like a slow train, an organic, moving landscape of sound with rain and birds, but also drilling, scat song and multiple voices. At one point, Eric Clapton's song "Tears in Heaven" was quoted, but otherwise this was a very local piece that was tied specifically to a place.

To underline Pi's point about the sea gulls, a formation of sea gulls could be seen during the concert by Girls in Airports at ARoS. It took place at the rooftop terrace with a splendid view of the city and Your Rainbow Panorama in the background, but the spectacular surroundings also provided some challenges. As saxophonist Martin Stender said, he couldn't play flute because of the wind, but in the end it didn't matter. The band quickly settled into their melodic mixture of world music and jazz. By now, they have their own signature, and whether playing an old composition like "Stonehouse" or the forthcoming single "Kabul," there's a balance between melody, semi-psychedelic landscapes and a deep rhythmic groove. The interplay between drummer Anders Vestergaard and percussionist Victor Dybbroe added different layers to the rhythms while keyboard-player Mathias Holm Jørgensen immersed himself in collages of sound, but also carried the melody with Stender. The tight chemistry among the band's members made it all come together.

Great interplay was also found at Klostertorvet, an open-air scene, where guitarist Gorm Askjær and his trio played several tracks from the record Blodmånen Og Dig. It was released in 2020 on Mathias Jaeger's Jaeger Community Music label. Askjær is also connected to the Aaarhus scene and has recently composed an ambitious symphony to Aarhus.

At Klostertorvet he could be heard in a more minimal setting with support from drummer Thomas Eiler and another significant musician from the Aarhus scene, bassist Jens Mikkel Madsen, who leads his own band I Think You’re Awesome.

A reading of the standard "A Night in Tunisia" proved Askjær's link to jazz tradition, but with a personal twist. The song was mostly played in rubato, giving a droning quality to the song while keeping an up tempo-feeling that was paradoxically both fast and slow. Another personal twist on a genre was "Almost Calypso" where the trio did their own version of calypso. "Fatamogona" was a slow, bumpy groove with dreamy chords while "Nede i et dybt hul" (Down In a Deep Hole) gave the trio the chance to rock out.

The highlight of the concert was a beautiful version of Sam Amidon's "All Is Well." Without too much embellishment, Askjær got to the heart of the folk melody with the trio. It was a nice ending to a concert that took the guitar trio in subtle new directions without losing the ties to tradition.

While still young, Askjær is already an established musician, and another generation is coming up. They could be heard at the Irish pub Tir na Nóg and Teaterkatten, but also at VinDanmark, a wine shop and restaurant near the harbor with an impromptu music scene. Drummer Antonio Dayyani played songs from his debut album, Herfra Kan Det Kun Gå To Veje (2022), with a band of promising musicians from the Aarhus scene, including his brother, guitarist Carlo Dayyani, bassist Harald Hagelskjær, pianist Andrea Maagaard and trumpeter Halfdan Hesselager. The music had a melodic, folk-like quality and a cover of a song penned by the Danish singer/songwriter, C.V. Jørgensen, "Sæsonen er forbi" (The Season Is Over) underlined Dayyani's infatuation with a strong chorus, and without a singer he and the band made the music sing.

Fortunately, there were also plenty of opportunities to hear different vocalists. Just a little further down the boardwalk, guitarist Morten Haugshøj, another omnipresent Aarhus musician, could be heard at Bar and Restaurant Lula. He played with singer Samara Bahrami in a reduced duo version of the group Sam and The Soulmates. However, nothing felt missing as they worked themselves through a repertoire that included chansons, bossa novas and standards with Bahrami's beautiful voice in the center, changing effortlessly between English, French and Portuguese.

Another charismatic multilingual singer is the Estonian born Karmen Rõivassepp whose album with her quartet, Breathe (Jaeger Community, 2021) provided the foundation for her concert at Dokk1, the impressive library of the city.

The thing that reveals Rõivassepp as a true jazz singer is her ability to scat and a new number written by pianist Simon Gorm Eskildsen, which was yet untitled, was delivered entirely without lyrics, but Rõivassepp is also a singer who writes lyrics with meaning, and she both sang a political song about the Estonian government and a personal song about dealing with anxiety. A lot of things were happening in the music and in way it was a relief when she showed how much she can do with a hushed ballad on Jimmy Rowles's "The Peacocks" with lyrics by Norma Winstone.

The Danish singer Malene Mortensen also sang at Dokk1, but although she did a varied program of standards and pop tunes, her own compositions came across most successfully. They were closer to pop than jazz and so it made sense that the concert was concluded with a jazzed-up version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" that was a sung as duet with pianist Søren Baun.

One of the biggest names of the festival also turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments. To be fair, it has to be said that the audience loved Melody Gardot's concert at Musikhuset and it delivered a beautiful example of audience participation when it sang with Gardot, but overall, there was too much entertainment and too little art, and the sound was marred by a booming bass and a percussionist who took up too much space. Gardot couldn't resist joking in an intimate ballad, and it was a symptom of a concert where it was never possible to get completely into the mood of intimacy and sophistication that is Gardot's strength. Perhaps the concert hall also had something to do with it. Hearing the music from a balcony certainly didn't do anything to overcome the feeling of emotional distance, but there were times when an intimate musicality nevertheless broke through, as when musical partner and pianist Phillipe Powell accompanied her in a version of "This Foolish Heart Could Love You" from her latest album Entre eux deux (Universal Music, 2022).

If the concert hall seemed to work against Gardot's music, the room worked wonders for guitarist Mark Solborg, who inaugurated a series of concert at Aarhus Cathedral. Solborg has just released Canto (ILK, 2022) with reedist Franceso Bigoni and pianist Emanuele Maniscalco, a lyrical exploration of sounds and subtle melodies in a chamber setting. The line-up was a perfect fit for the church, although Simon Toldam replaced Maniscalco. Solborg himself is a scientist of sound. He has previously investigated the spatial dimensions of music on the album Omdrejninger (ILK, 2017) with sound-installation artist Christian Skjødt, and he has made an ambitious roadmap for the guitar with his Tungemål trilogy.

At the concert, the trio explored the resonance of music in a room as Bigoni and Solborg moved in different directions in the church while playing, but Toldam was naturally tied to the piano. Nevertheless, he made a world of sound emanate from the instrument and played as much with space as he played on the tangents.

Unlike the concert with Bigoni, Solborg and Toldam that allowed each note to breathe, the finer details of the interplay between the instruments got lost at the concert that pianist Nikolaj Hess played with bassist Peter Vuust at the impressive rooftop terrace at Salling Shopping center. Seldom can you listen to jazz music while someone passes by saying: "I don't like that jazz," but this was possible at a concert where a steady stream of people passed in and out with many just wanting to experience the view. The program that included standards and Duke Ellington tunes didn't receive the attention it deserved and when the duo played "Bye Bye Blackbird" early in the first set, it was a cue to leave.

The good news was that it wasn't the only chance to hear Vuust who is an institution in Aarhus jazz. Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley once humorously remarked that there is a "Heath clan in jazz that is too much," and so you can say that there is a Vuust clan in jazz that is too much. The family was gathered at another rooftop concert where bassist Peter played with singer Clara, pianist Frederik, drummer Mikkel and saxophonist Christian.

The future of jazz in Aarhus is secured by the Vuust family and Peter Vuust was the king of Salling Rooftop with several concerts with different line-ups. Later, he played a lovely duo set with saxophonist Michael Bladt. If you got a seat away from the moving crowd, it was possible to enjoy a delicate version of "Cherokee" and to echo the concert with Mortensen, the second set ended with another cover of "You've Got a Friend," this time with Vuust's engineer who had a smoky voice that gave the song a mellow feeling.

Salling Rooftop and Aarhus Cathedral are two very different things, and it was good to be back at the church to hear how instruments can interact in a room built for contemplation. Saxophonist Thomas Agergaard and pianist Lars Jansson could be heard together performing music from two albums, premiering compositions from their forthcoming work Garden of Sound. Changing between flute, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone, Agergaard filled the room with tones of dark density and light, with the melodic center of the compositions supported by Jansson's lyrical piano. The reading of Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" was delivered two times with Agergaard sticking purely to the melody and it was the profoundly singing sound of the melodies that lifted the concert.

It was compelling to hear how different instruments reacted to the church room, but there was no doubt that the piano was the focus of all the concerts there and two concerts focused solely on the piano. The living Danish piano legend Jan Kaspersen was invited to do a solo concert. He played a repertoire that included compositions from his heroes, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dollar Brand, but he also delved deep into his own music. The composition "Night Reflections" was the most striking example. Reminiscent of Bill Evans' "Peace Piece," the slow ballad was a perfect fit for the church room, but overall Kaspersen didn't seem to think too much about playing on the strength of the room. Instead, he played the concert as any other solo gig and the fast runs on the piano became too muddled in the enormous resonance of the room. Nevertheless, his musicality came across and it was still a concert that underlined what an excellent pianist Kaspersen is.

Carsten Dahl is also a great pianist and with his concert in the church he showed that if you understand the room, you can do anything, even play fast. Dahl who has both played classical music and jazz has sometimes been compared to Keith Jarrett and this comparison is both flattering and misleading. True, Dahl sings with the piano and is able to improvise long movements like Jarrett, but he also has his own thing going. This was underlined when he incorporated fragments of the Danish psalm "Her Vil Ties, Her Vil Bies" and the Danish standard "Den Blaa Anemone" into his improvisations that moved between thunder and silence. One of the highlights of the concert was when Dahl did a duet with the church bells as he played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It captured the unpredictable playfulness and lyrical beauty that carried the concert perfectly.

Outside the church, the piano could be heard in a classic trio setting. Pianist Josh Nelson visited Dokk1 with a Scandinavian trio that included Danish bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk and Swedish drummer Cornelia Nilsson. The concert proved to be an upward curve that started out with the too flashy display of technique on "Mint Blues" and ended convincingly with "Atma-Krandana," which combined technical mastery, groove, and emotional depth. In between, Nelson presented a program focused on his own compositions and he showed himself as a diverse and compelling writer. The ballads especially stood out: "Peter Sellers" was an homage to the famous actor that caught his complexity in music and "How You Loved Me on Mars" was sung beautifully by guest star Sinne Eeg, who had played with Nelson the night before.

Another noteworthy piano trio was presented at the humble, but charming venue, Erlings Jazz-& Ølbar, where pianist Jacob Anderskov played a thrilling concert with his "Allusion" trio featuring bassist Anders Christensen and drummer Jakob Høyer. Anderskov is a master of the single line and complex chord formations, but the wonder of the trio was how enjoyably it made everything swing. Who would have thought that avant-garde composer Morton Feldman's music or the shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine could swing like another Morton or Monk? In Anderskov's universe everything comes together, old and new, indie- rock and jazz, avant-garde and standards. Established jazz icons meet overlooked masters like Mary Lou Williams and Herbie Nichols whose composition "2300 Skiddoo" was introduced as the first punk composition in jazz.

Both Carsten Dahl and Jacob Anderskov were presented in the program as "world class piano music" and their concerts lived up to the hype. It's always a good sign when other jazz musicians turn up at a concert. It's like spotting a famous chef eating at a restaurant. It must be good, and so it was.

Solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet, and big band. The jazz festival changes between minimal and maximal settings and alto saxophonist Signe Emmeluth's Amoeba was a master of both formats. At the avant-garde venue Det 3. Rum (the third room), Emmeluth played a solo concert that turned the instrument inside out with percussive clicks and melodic lines to wild honks and screeches. It was an exercise in structured improvisation that took the listener through an emotional journey of peaks and valleys. This was also the case with Emmeluth's concert with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra that was a mind-blowing highlight of the festival.

The orchestra played Emmeluth's composition "Physicality in/emotion" but it was an open approach to composition where the boundary between composition and improvisation was blurred. The problem with much free improvisation is that it ends up with its own restrictions and clichés where regular grooves and melodies are banned in favor of presumably limitless freedom. There is also a tension between individual expression and organic unity where the latter is often downplayed. Somehow Emmeluth succeeded in creating a musical frame where all these restrictions and traps could be melted down and the music could exist on its own premises as pure emotional expression. It was impressive how the tension and interest was kept as the orchestra played with dynamics and texture, including musical tropes from heavy metal, noise, classical, jazz and pop—not as postmodern quotes, but rather as a seemingly endless palette of sound, a true expression of musical freedom. There were wonderful rhythmical grooves and complex layers of sound and it also helped that Emmeluth had a superb line-up of musicians that could translate a wide range of emotions into sound, among them the voice sculptor Maja S.K. Ratkje.

Yet all musicians made important contributions as soloists, not least as a part of the organic unity that was the band. The music had a physical presence and was both catchy (not a word used a lot with avant-garde music) and ethereal.

Emmeluth and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra challenged the boundary between soloist and group, improvisation and composition and small group and big band, but there were also more traditional expressions of the big band genre that nevertheless added new perspectives to the format. This was especially done through the use of guest stars.

Blood Sweat Drum + Bass is the avant-garde sibling of Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and perhaps the most experimental big band in Denmark. Led by Jens Christian Chappe Jensen, it has continued to redefine itself with a lineup that includes two drummers and use of electronics. Their concert at Musikhuset was announced as a collaboration with rapper and saxophonist Soweto Kinch, but it was a collaboration in the beginning stages and the band had only learned a small handful of Kinch's compositions. This was a shame since they constituted the best part of the concert and merged traditional jazz with contemporary hip-hop sensibility.

The rest of the concert consisted of previously performed material, including original songs, a "Suite To the North Sea" and a big band interpretation of Stravinsky, but the balance between Kinch and the big band could have been improved. His saxophone should have been turned up more. Sometimes he almost disappeared into the big band's ocean of sound, but the balance was good on his own compositions, including "Savages" and "Revival Time," and whetted the appetite for more.

If Blood Sweat Drum + Bass came off as an unfinished project still in the making, The Tip Toe Big Band from Odense fortunately arrived as a work that was finished. They had enlisted saxophonist Frederik Lundin to write for the orchestra and the result, the forthcoming album It Takes All Kinds (to make a world), could be heard at the concert. Lundin has a lovely, knotty approach to composition, often venturing into alleys of darkness and uncertainty. Dissonance and melody, chaos and order exist side by side in Lundin's compositions, but the melody was allowed to shimmer in "Walk with Me My Friend." It was a challenging, but nevertheless very rewarding concert and the lineup of the band that included pianist Makiko Hirabayashi and the trumpeter Tomasz Dabrowski was superb.

While Lundin challenged the listener with his complex compositions, Aarhus Jazz Orchestra did their best to please and succeeded. Their concerts at the jazz festival have become an institution and an event where everyone in the city from young to old gather to enjoy the music. This year's theme was the music of harmonica player Toots Thielemans and guest star Mathias Heise was handed the role of Toots and did well. He even wrote a compelling "Blues for Toots" and told an anecdote about Toots walking his dog every day and practicing "Giant Steps" before settling into his own version of "Giant Steps" in Maria Schneider's refined arrangement.

Many of Toots' hits were delivered, among them the theme song for the television series "Sesame Street" and "Velas" from the Quincy Jones album The Dude (A&M Records, 1981). The Brazilian flavor continued throughout the concert that also included some lovely ballads like "Song for My Lady" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life" sung by guest star Sinne Eeg.

The concert was of course wrapped up with Toots' signature song "Bluesette." It was performed in a luxurious double version with Sinne Eeg, who started out singing the lyrics before the band launched into a freewheeling exploration of the melody. It was a perfect Aarhus moment of singing and swinging, and of course, the seagulls had also been circling outside during the concert. In Aarhus, even the birds appreciate jazz.

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