The Copenhagen Jazz Festival does not just span the city, it takes it over. From venues large to small with jazz starting at 10:30am and going into late night, the jazz festival convincingly makes the Danish capital New York-like for ten days with its overwhelming concert schedule. And much like New York city, it wasn't too difficult to catch at minimum 3-4 shows each day for the week and a half of the Festival.
Inaugurated in 1979, this year's edition tallied nearly 1,000 concerts in 100 venues from the city's regular jazz haunts (Copenhagen JazzHouse, La Fontaine, Huset) to cafes and many non-jazz associated venues presenting live music during the Festival. The idea and hope - to encourage these places to present jazz to some extent during non-Festival months. The reality - the city becomes an epicenter of jazz for its 10 days featuring much great local, European, American, and international jazz talent to an extreme, leaving the rest of the year rather up in the air and - in essence - quiet in comparison. The commendable programming end-result, however, evenly mixed local legends (violinist Svend Asmussen) with young Danish jazz stars (pianist Jacob Anderskov, saxophonist Lotte Anker, vocalist Caecilie Norby) and international talent hailing from America (pianists Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper, and guitarists Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny,) to France (multi-instrumentalist Michel Portal and accordionist Richard Galliano), Ukrania (Mikhail Rudy, pianist Misha Alperin) to Australia (vocalist Julie O'Hara). And unlike American and international counterparts which feel the need to include pop, R&B and other non-jazz headliners to sell tickets - most performances at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival all fit into the "jazz" realm. And with punctual start and stop times, rarely a set extending over an hour as if each set was being treated like an album (more lp-length versus CD-length if you will), focused and absorbing listening experiences were plentiful.
Though the first night featured the questionable and disappointing new group of Herbie Hancock, the Festival could and did only improve. Other than brief precipitation that offered a much needed cooling of the warmer than usual temperatures, conditions were ideal for the many outdoor concerts in particular, including in many of the city's more popular squares, concerts along the waterfront, as well as for the several New Orleans- style marching bands that zigzagged through the cobblestone streets such as the Orion Jazz Band which, if you weren't following them, they and their music followed you (led by the great Danish trombonist Ole Lindgren). You couldn't escape jazz even if you tried, but what would be the point of trying if you were in Copenhagen during its annual jazz festival, with music resonating down many of the main thoroughfares and sidestreets for tourists that came from all corners of the globe coming especially for the festival, and for the locals alike.
Of local legends, the 90-years old violinist Svend Asmussen - the finest living jazz violinist and arguably one of the three greatest ever - was the festival's apex at Tivoli Gardens the penultimate night. Asmussen's playing was lucid as was his onstage banter. From the opener ("Bye Bye Blackbird") to the second set's closer ("Blue Skies"), the violinist was in good spirits, his longtime quartet - Jacob Fischer (guitar), Jesper Lundgaard (bass) and Aage Tanggaard (drums) - providing ideal foundation for inspiring improvisational interplay. " Take Off Blues" showcased Asmussen's virtuosic strumming and plucking techniques, holding the violin as if a ukulele, playing it as if a bottleneck guitar. His swinging rendition of Fletcher Henderson's "Wrappin' It Up" (originally recorded only a year after Asmussen's 1933 professional debut Copenhagen concert) was a festival highlight. Asmussen entertained always with a tasteful sense of humor, relaxed and natural in his delivery with no detectable arthritis or stiffness, and received nonstop thunderous applause and smiles from one end of the hall to the next. Appropriately, his was the first of the ten Festival concerts to sell out prior (others included those by Hancock, Sergio Mendes, the Gotan Project, Salif Keita, and the Jack DeJohnette-John Scofield-Larry Goldings cooperative Trio Beyond tribute to Tony Williams' Lifetime), though each concert attended by this reviewer by showtime was quite literally packed to the hilt regardless.
Other unforgettable highlights came from many mid 50- to mid 60-year old Danish jazz veterans, most of who performed on numerous occasions throughout the festival. Guitarist Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra played an evening-time outdoors concert at the Islands Brygge. Even with it's 8 o'clock start it seemed more of an afternoon concert (the sun doesn't go down until a good two hours later this time of year in Scandinavia) while sitting along the beautiful waterway with a view of the sun eventually setting in the direction of the city's skyline towards the concert's end.
Water-bound onlooker for Pierre Dorge
The lively mix of guitar, bass clarinet, trombone, saxophones, trumpet, percussion, deep acoustic bass, keyboards, occasional vocals by special guest Aida Nadeem, etc. lends itself to such outdoor presentation (though strangely only a few in sight were up and dancing with most others intently listening and taking in the view and sounds). This veteran Danish ensemble is similar to what Boston's Either/Orchestra (E/O) musically stands for: continuous rhythmic shifts, endless colors provided by all members and off the wall improvs over and under an established groove (from trumpet splatters to high pitched Klezmer-influenced clarinet cries to mouthpiece duck calls). As a matter of fact the two bands would make a great double bill.
Bassists Bo Stief, Mads Vinding and Hugo Rasmussen showcased their diverse takes on the well-documented Danish bass tradition (made known internationally by the late Niels- Henning Orsted Pedersen).
Stief played with fellow Dane trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg as well as with his One Song III group (a trio with pianist/accordionist Paolo Russo and accordionist Lelo Nika - one of several accordion-heavy featured groups at this year's Festival). Rasmussen's Allstarz performed rollicking and packed sets at the Knitting Factory-like multi-floored Huset as well as at Kulturhuset's waterfront Island Brygge. His musically and visually memorable duo with tenor man Jakob Dinesen (who played the night previous with one time Fela Kuti drummer/musical director Tony Allen) at the latter venue's "Jazz for Kids" morning series had several hundred kids and parents dancing, a few dozen joining the musicians onstage. One little girl led others into a strutting walk- like-an-Egyptian dance for the near 10-minute duration of "Caravan", a promising sight to behold for the country's next generation! It's no wonder where the saying "childlike abandon" comes from.
Jacob Dinesen, Hugo Rasmussen
Similarly, Vinding performed in duo with accordionist Oyvind Ougard in a morning outdoors concert for kids adjacent to the city's zoo. Again, to witness a packed crowd dominated by youngsters age 2-7 was nothing short of extraordinary, as many if not most were dancing, playing, and soaking in the jokes and children's music mixed with folk songs and some jazz that had many singing along. Vinding's assured and fine tuned basswork subtlety however may have been these kids' first exposure to true jazz bass and unknowingly these young ears were being directly exposed to legends since passed such as pianist Kenny Drew, trumpeter Howard McGhee, and so many other jazz greats Vinding has been associated with in his many decades as a professional musician. And what a great thing to expose kids at such an impressionable age to music that has become as much part of their culture as ours, and - dare I say - even more appreciated.
Contemporaries of the aforementioned bassists came in performances by pianist Thomas Clausen and drummer Alex Riel.
Alex Riel with Jesper Lundgaard
The latter performed frequently, including at Borups Koncertsal where he showed why he has been such a valued accompanist to visiting and transplanted Americans for five decades. His classic hornless jazz piano trio - Jesper Lundgaard (bass) and the young and noticeably Bill Evans-influenced pianist Heine Hansen - allowed Riel to evenly mix tasteful brush work ("I Can't Get Started") in an even treatment of his kit that spread continuous colorful accents aplenty including some especially fine cymbal work (sometimes a sorely neglected part of the kit or conversely sorely abused). "Emily" evenly featured the trio, Lundgaard's bass noticeably upfront. Due to the instrument's worthy and extensive history and tradition in Denmark, the bass always seems to get special treatment in Danish jazz, as opposed to their unfortunately undermic'd (or sometimes overmic'd) and mistreated counterparts here in the US.
Clausen's solo piano recital of classical-inspired jazz originals at Mogens Dahl Koncertsal (a Venice, California-like gallery space once a stable and then car garage) included striking and gripping renditions of "'Round Midnight" and "Body & Soul". As the Copenhagen Jazz Festival has an extensive history, so too does the city's and its musicians' connection to the jazz tradition (Clausen is one of many Danes to have performed and recorded with Miles Davis); you can't ignore how many American musicians traveled to and wound up staying in the fare Scandinavian city, including a massive influx of American expats particularly in the '60s. Hence they have a high appreciation for the jazz standard repertoire stemming from decades-past collaborations with American expats such as Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Horace Parlan and the still very active mid-70 year old drummer Ed Thigpen.
Thigpen's Scantet features two young promising Danes in pianist Kasper Villaume and bassist Jesper Bodilsen along with a veteran tenor-trumpet frontline (Thomas Franck and Jens Winther respectively) in the tradition of Horace Silver and Art Blakey quintets. Documented on over 300 recordings and mentored by a legend in jazz brushes - Papa Jo Jones - Thigpen is one of the living masters of the brushes himself as evidenced on a breathtaking "In a Sentimental Mood", a sole horn feature for Winther's warm and mute- like sensitivity.
Jens Winther with Ed Thigpen
The leader's accompaniment was nothing short of brilliant. Being that the drummer's last NYC visit was around 10 years ago (to Bradley's) and the fact that he's looking to bring this group to the States, there would be good reason for serious celebration amongst American jazz fans if plans for such a trip came to fruition since it's obviously been a long time coming for one of the living drumming legends of this music. The packed house that began lining up two hours (!) before showtime at Copenhagen's renowned Jazzcup CD store certainly knew what a treat they were in for and were happily and musically rewarded.
Tenor saxophonist Bob Rockwell is yet another in the long line of American ex-pats, one of two major reasons that makes such a jazz epicenter as Copenhagen so very unique. The other of course being the city's time-tested homegrown musicians such as the aforementioned Riel, Rasmussen, etc. who are steeped in the history of having played with many visiting jazz greats from America, most of whom are now no longer with us, a fact sorely reminded with the recent passing of altoist Jackie McLean. And a third reason that makes Copenhagen such an internationally desired jazz stop are the next generation of players, a new crop who contribute new music and youth into the music such as pianists Villaume and Jacob Anderskov. Rockwell, performing too at Jazzcup, also shared Thigpen's pianist Villaume whose fleet-fingered Bud Powell tradition of playing was beautifully featured on Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" as well as his subtler but no less virtuosic display on the ballad "God Bless the Child". The group revealed once again that the jazz tradition is kept very much alive in Copenhagen with straight-ahead improvisationally based structured bebop along with a deep appreciation and understanding for its standard repertoire.
Like Villaume, many Danish up and comers were busy every day, perhaps none more than drummer Kresten Osgood.
Of his festival collaborations, two stood out: one with underrated and undervalued American saxophonist Charles Davis (in a preview of a CD tribute to late Danish sax legend Bent Jædig) and another with Danish-born septuagenarian multi-instrumentalist John Tchicai (who also was a regular performer throughout the festival, likewise in various contexts). At Studenterhuset with Osgood, trumpeter Jonas Müller and bassist Nicolai Munk, Tchicai's intense tenor, soprano and chanting vocals on Müller's Don Cherry tribute "Dashiki Man" and Sun Ra's "Carefree" proved a so-called 'avant gardist' can still be melodic.
Tchicai celebrated Osgood's flexibility by relentlessly chanting "Kres-ten Os-good!" towards the end of the set against the drummer's inventive rhythmic licks.
At Christianshavns Beboerhus, Tchicai also collaborated with another great young Dane drummer in Stefan Passborg (Jeppe Skovbakke rounded out the horn-bass-drum trio). The unamplified (excepting a needed, but certainly not over-mic'd bass amp) pared down context allowed Tchicai to roam freely on the sole horn he played that evening (tenor sax), and he more than adequately proved he has played with the same if not escalated vigor ever since the New York Art Quartet of the '60s, unlike the momentum casually dropped and sometimes picked back up by comrades like Archie Shepp, or others who of course have either since passed or are no longer playing (e.g. altoist Marion Brown). The youthful propulsiveness from his supporting cast of two most significantly allowed the music to breathe, an essential element to Tchicai's musical message full of dark deep notes and tones and ever-musical, always singing progression of notes all his own. One thing for certain is that cliche is as far from Tchicai as any other element of his musical persona. Never resting on his laurels for a moment, he turns the seemingly most ordinary into the extraordinary. Tchicai's tone screams of "now", always swinging if not singing. And speaking of singing, his bouncy vocal rendition of "Alice in Wonderland" was sung in his own inimitable delivery over inventive rhythmic shifts provided by Passborg and Skovbakke. The sometimes dramatic meter changes proved that Tchicai on tenor can be melodic AND rhythmic, not to mention harmonically in tune. The group's encore, an island-inflected number much like Sonny Rollins' "St.Thomas", presented the leader similarly in a Rollins-esque mode of improvisation, melodically developing theme upon theme in a non-stop burst of progressions, feeding off of his bandmates and trading ideas with Passborg's polyrhythmic playing. Every note breathed by the saxophonist had a personal inflection and bent, never a straight "C" per se, but it's own C-like familiarity.
In a double-bill with Michel Camilo and guitarist Tomatito, Frenchmen Michel Portal and accordionist Richard Galliano's telepathic duet improvisations at the Royal Opera represented Denmark's European neighbor to the southwest (and where Tchicai resides these days).
Portal's bass clarinet buzzed like a purring cat then hit high notes with scientific though personal accuracy. Switching between clarinet, soprano and bandoneon, Portal's greatest contributions to improvisational music arguably are on bass clarinet and with both musicians given an unaccompanied feature towards the concert's conclusion, Portal's extended solo bass clarinet improvisation was one of the Festival's indisputable high points.