Contemporary Jazz in Denmark: Different Sounds, Different Scenes

Jakob Baekgaard BY

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There's an often-quoted phrase by Shakespeare saying that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" but when it comes to jazz, the environment of the country is indeed very fertile, and at this point, the many sounds of Danish jazz are reaching across the borders and finding new listeners everywhere in the world. The homogeneity of a local scene that welcomed visitors from the outside has given way to a great global community with many genres and scenes. Nowadays, young Danish jazz musicians are tearing down the walls that separated high and low culture, avant-garde and popular music. A keen understanding of tradition blends into a daring exploration of the new. If one were to pick just one word to characterize new Danish jazz, the word would be "curiosity."

Swinging 'round The Montmartre

When did it all begin? Arguably, Danish jazz reached its first phase of fruition from the beginning of the 60s until the middle of the 70s. Of course, the origin of Danish jazz goes further back. In the thirties, a writer like Tom Kristensen connected the wreckage of modernity with the new sounds of jazz coming from the nightclubs, but the 60s was the time when Danish jazz started to get an international reputation. This was mostly due to a special club that to this day still brings back tears of joy when its name is mentioned: "Montmartre."

Jazzhus Montmartre (Jazzhouse Montmartre) was opened by Herluf Kamp Larsen in 1961 and became the prime venue for jazz not only in Denmark but also in Europe. This was the place where Danish players like Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums), Palle Mikkelborg (trumpet) and Jesper Thilo (tenor saxophone) developed their chops and reached the high level of musicianship that would inspire further generations and it was the venue where stars like Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Kenny Drew, Stan Getz and several others found a second home. At that time so much was happening and it all evolved around this particular place. However, all good things come to an end and in the 80s the impact of Montmartre started to diminish and after changing its location it was closed definitively in 1995. An era in Danish jazz was over.

From place to outer space: and Sunship

What has happened recently is that danish jazz has spread itself all over the map: geographically as well as stylistically. It's no longer concentrated around a particular place but rather develops in a sonic space where associations of enthusiasts and young musicians arrange concerts in different contexts and situations. The boundary between a jazz and a pop/rock venue has deliberately been blurred. Two associations deserve a special mention when it comes to the propagation of Danish jazz: Jazz Club Loco in Copenhagen and Sunship in Aarhus.

In recent years, Jazz Club Loco has been an important player in the development of the new Danish avant-garde that has also been propelled by the label ILK. Loco has become famous for its adventurous concerts held at different venues and its series of superb records. Thus, Loco is both arranging concerts and releasing records that avoids the well-trodden road of the mainstream. Among the essential names promoted by Loco are Yak, Bugpowder, Moskus and the surrealistic musical collective yoyo oyoy whose activities include the bands Slütspürt, Kirsten Ketsjer og Fjernsyn Fjernsyn. What unites all these different names is a will to experiment with genres and create new improvised music. Rock musicians meet up with jazzers, concept artists, composers and electronic wizards to make music filled with energy and passion. It is a spirit of looseness, seriousness and anarchistic madness that makes Loco compelling. For a taste of the unique improvisational spirit that pervades Loco see the attached video clip where young Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg, who released his acclaimed album, Triplepoint in 2007, meets up with French free-jazz guitarist Marc Ducret in an intense duo concert that throws away all niceties in favor of a wild spirit and raw energy. It might be said that to Loco jazz is the new punk.

Like Loco in Copenhagen, Sunship in Aarhus is a association that tries to bridge the gap between mainstream and the avant-garde. They have had a huge share in promoting the work of the extremely talented guitarist and composer Jakob Bro, who has gained recognition by the likes of Paul Motian in whose band he is currently a member. Bro's compositions unfold like melodic explorations of texture and sound, emphasizing the organic growth of musical structures that takes in various genres while remaining firmly planted in the idiom of jazz. In 2006 he received a Danish Music Award for his album Sidetracked. To see Bro performing his composition, "Chinatown," live at this event, take a look at the embedded video clip.

Besides putting the spotlight on Bro, Sunship has also promoted the works of several other talented artists including trumpeter Jakob Buchanan, drummer Jeppe Gram, pianists Søren Kjærgaard and Jacob Anderskov and the young avant-garde trio Saft. Like Loco, Sunship favors the young, genre-bending artists, who continues to expand the language of jazz. Going to a concert arranged by Sunship one is both able to experience the ethereal bliss of chamber jazz and the sonic explosions of avant-rock.

Overall, an association like Sunship proves that jazz in Denmark successfully has been spread out geographically. Aarhus, who is the second greatest city of the country, has become the second jazz capital with its own jazz festival, Aarhus International Jazz Festival, to rival the big brother, Copenhagen Jazz Festival. It is a joy to hear the many curious sounds that comes from the city.

Traveling Spirits and World Citizens

It would be wrong to assume that the country's jazz scene is strictly a national phenomenon. Part of the fertility of the danish jazz scene is its ability to work outside the national borders. Danish jazz has lost its air of provincialism. To have a capacity like the English composer and singer Django Bates teaching at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC) in Copenhagen obviously has meant a lot. It is in the creative milieu around RMC that many young jazz musicians have expanded their activities—one of them being the formation of the label ILK, who has brought a new generation of jazz musicians to public attention.

The drummer Kresten Osgood is one of the persons, who has a connection to the milieu around RMC and ILK. In many ways, Osgood could be said to be the embodiment of new Danish jazz. He is a traveling spirit and world citizen, who is at home both in New York, Copenhagen and Berlin and he doesn't care about genres—it's all about the music. Osgood is equally at home backing a mainstream jazz singer like Caroline Henderson and creating his own playful avant-garde pop in Hvad Er Klokken as well as doing free form improvisation and playing boiling post-bop. Osgood plays with everyone—legends and unknown people. To name a list of his credentials is indeed awe-inspiring: Sam Rivers, Derek Bailey, Paul Bley, John Tchicai—just to name a few. What it comes down to in the in the end, though, is the goal of making the audience participate. Sometimes this is achieved by inviting the audience on stage and sometimes it is done simply by promoting an intense joy of playing that spreads around the room where he is playing. It is a friendly avant-garde that Osgood and his peers are promoting.

A Sound of Joy: Beyond the Nordic Sound

Joy and the curiosity is the key to understanding what is going right now on the Danish jazz scene. For a long time, critics have been raving about the "Nordic sound," a cool, melancholic aesthetic associated primarily with Norwegian artists recording on ECM like Jan Garbarek, Jacob Young, Tord Gustavsen and lately Mathias Eick. Danish jazz never really fitted the bill of this aesthetic and that is probably why so few danish artists have recorded for ECM and when they did, like percussion-genius Marilyn Mazur, they presented something entirely different than the main roster, something more pulsating, something more joyous but still with hints of melancholy.

What has happened lately is that Danish jazz has finally come to terms with its own diversity and it has become a strength. A wealth of Danish labels are promoting everything from mainstream to avant-garde and pop, often mixing it all together. Labels like Stunt, Calibrated/Cope and Steeplechase continue to cater to an audience that wants quality mainstream while ILK and Loveland Records create the sounds of tomorrow. It is different sounds and different scenes that are still somehow tied together. Tradition is revised and carried on into something new. The time when critics longed for a "Danish sound" is over. While the clichés of the "Nordic sound" is in danger of repeating itself ad absurdum, Danish jazz musicians continue to find unity in diversity, exploring a wide range of feelings and genres. This is the strength of contemporary jazz in Denmark as it unfolds in all its shapes and sizes right now.

How to get started with New Danish Jazz. Fourteen Suggestions for further Listening:

  1. Jakob Bro, Pearl River (Loveland Records 2007). The young guitarist delivers his first masterpiece. Sidemen include Paul Motian, Mark Turner & Chris Cheek.

  2. Søren Kjærgaard—Ben Street—Andrew Cyrille, Optics (ILK 2008). Søren Kjærgaard's Optics is a study in movement and sound. Echoes of Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor permeates throughout this bold, adventurous release.

  3. Jacob Anderskov, På dansk (ILK 2006). Anderskov interprets Danish folklore in a convincing manner. Look out for his other releases too!

  4. Sinne Eeg, Waiting for Dawn (Calibrated 2007). A female jazz singer with international potential steps out into the limelight.

  5. Jonas Westergaard, Helgoland (Stunt 2008). Westergaard is a much sought-after sideman but on this ambitious release he plays his own challenging compositions and gets help from some of the finest musicians on the scene.

  6. Yak, Yak Værk (Loco 2006). High energy and lots of noise from Yak, a typical example of the wild Loco sound.

  7. Sound of Choice, Rugby in Japan (Quark Records 2006). Hasse Poulsen is the Danish Derek Bailey and continues to push the boundaries for his own music.

  8. Carsten Dahl, Solo Piano (Stunt 2003). Three albums worth of solo material from Carsten Dahl, a very original player with a poetic touch -not unlike Keith Jarrett.

  9. Paul Bley & Kresten Osgood, Florida (ILK 2007). A meeting between the master and his disciple on this lovely release.

  10. Jakob Buchanan Sextet, I (Long Life Records 2006). Promising trumpeter delivers the goods on this album that features the talent of Chris Speed

  11. Blood Sweat Drum 'N' Bass Big Band, Live Sessions with Arve Henriksen & Studio Recordings (Calibrated 2007). Interesting mix of big band jazz and electronic soundscapes

  12. Stefan Pasborg, Triplepoint (ILK 2007) . Highly ambitious outing from masterful drummer. Three cds of constantly inventive music.

  13. Saft, Thirteen (KakoFone 2008). Hear the sound of Danish jazz tomorrow today. Abstract grooves, free form chaos and lyrical beauty from the very young trio, Saft.

  14. Kasper Villaume Quartet, #2 (Stunt 2003). Superb mainstream from pianist Villaume and his outstanding quartet.

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