Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2009

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Copenhagen Jazz Festival
Various Venues
Copenhagen, Denmark
July 3-12, 2009
In a survey conducted recently by the renowned Monocle Magazine (volume 03, issue 25), Copenhagen was selected as the second best city in the world due to its safety, atmosphere, welfare, infrastructure and—one could be tempted to add—its jazz festival.
Over the years, Copenhagen Jazz Festival has established itself as an international event, which brings together a plethora of people of all nationalities gathered to play for and with each other. It has often been said that music is a transnational language and this is, indeed, a point that is valid here.
Attending the festival, one is likely to experience a wealth of genres more or less associated with jazz and an abundance of challenging collaborations, but the great tradition is also kept alive. Thus, in Copenhagen one is able to encounter every possible style associated with jazz from early Dixieland and ragtime to swing, bebop and avant-garde while, at the same time, bearing witness to the deconstruction of generic conventions.

Actually, it could be said that one of the defining characteristics of the post-modern jazz artist is that he/she is able to maintain a sort of double consciousness where jazz tradition is both referenced and transgressed. In Denmark, this is especially true of the new generation of musicians associated with labels such as ILK, Barefoot Records and the group of artists centered around the distribution company, Pladekisten. Among them, guitarist Jakob Bro, pianists Soren Kjaergaard and Jacob Anderskov and drummers Stefan Pasborg and Kresten Osgood have all done their fair share to break down the boundaries between past and present, avant-garde and popular culture and they all played a significant role in this year's festival which, according to tradition, was spread out all over the city.

A Musical Roadmap of the City

With about 900 concerts hosted by 100 venues, the festival offers immense possibilities to even the most demanding listener. The famous Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who was born in Copenhagen, comes to mind with his dictum that the most important thing in life is to make a choice. What matters most is not whether the choice is right or wrong—one is bound to find out—but rather the importance of taking the plunge, making an active decision as to the many choices in life. The same thing goes with this year's festival program. With several gigs taking place at the same time, and often overlapping, it's impossible to hear everything. One strategy for listening is to walk around the city. That way, one is able to move, not only geographically, but also stylistically through the diverse musical landscape that is the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

At the harbor area, there's a lot of the more traditionally minded groups. The venue, Nyhavns Ankeret (The Anchor) along with Restaurant Dix-Neuf, located more centrally in the city, makes the exploration of the older styles of jazz a joyful journey. Names such as The Spirit of New Orleans, Kim Menzer Jazz & Blues Band, Orion Brass Band and Ole Sterndorff's Ragtimeband speak for themselves. Here, one encounters a relaxed, humorous atmosphere with plenty of room for dancing, smiling and funny anecdotes.

The venue Nyhavns Ankeret (The Anchor) located around the harbor area. The reason for the venue's name is self-explanatory. Here caught on one of the rare rainy days during the festival.

Moving into the heart of the city, one finds a lot of the most significant open venues such as the areas around Gråbrødre Torv, Vandkunsten and Frue Plads, which hosted music within the realm of straight and progressive mainstream. Some of the discoveries to be found here were the tenor saxophonist Jan Harbeck, bassist Steve Swallow in collaboration with The Bohuslän Big Band, pianist Peter Rosendal and guitarist Mikkel Ploug.

Tenor saxophonist Jan Harbeck is an example of the tradition in Danish jazz of exploring the Great American Songbook and with his album In The Still of The Night (Stunt, 2008), he received widespread critical acclaim. For his concert at Vandkunsten he brought the quartet that also plays on the album: pianist Henrik Gunde, bassist Eske Nørrelykke and the ever-present drummer Kresten Osgood. It was a tightly knit constellation that clearly enjoyed playing with each other and the joy spread out to the audience as well. Highlights included "Poinciana—Song of the Tree" and a thoughtful version of John Lewis' "Django" with Harbeck digging deep into the melody and overall that was the characteristics of the concert: the ability to make the old material shine like it was played for the first time.

Harbeck is a former big band player and the festival offered rich opportunities to explore big band music. It is a music that is often perceived as one of the more archaic forms associated with jazz, bringing up nostalgic associations of ballrooms and bootlegging. This, of course, is not true as countless visionary bandleaders from Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Gerry Mulligan, Gerald Wilson, Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones have proven.

At its best, big band music offers a unique possibility of exploring texture and polyphony and some of the big bands that were present at the festival proved that the form is far from being outworn artistically. The span ranged from traditionally minded ensembles like Erling Kroner New Music Orchestra and Klüvers Big Band to the more experimental sounds of New Jungle Orchestra, Tip Toe Big Big Band, The Orchestra and Geir Lysne Ensemble. However, the big band that combined past and present in the most convincing way was Steve Swallow & Bohuslän Big Band. They played an enchanting concert at Vor Frue with a program made up entirely of Swallow's compositions.

To hear Swallow as an arranger and conductor of his own songs is an event not to be missed. By now he has established his name not only as superior bassist but also as composer of extraordinary standard and a tune such as "Eiderdown" has become a modern standard. As composer as well as arranger, Swallow works eminently with the textures of the music. Like Gerry Mulligan, he shuns the heavy sound of the big band in favor of a more complex and light approach. In his music, there's room for referencing the classic swing of Count Basie in the appropriately named "Ballroom," but there's also the decidedly modern, polyphonic chaos of "Playing in Traffic," which resembles a traffic jam set into music with horns honking away.

Several times, Swallow mentioned his gratefulness at working with the Swedish big band, and it was easy to understand why when hearing the tight yet bouncing rhythms and melodies that floated from the orchestra, who understood how to realize the music, paying attention to the tiniest detail. That also included doing a trick of showmanship, which has become something of a staple at this particular venue, located as it is near a church with bells often chiming in. For the musicians, it has become a particular challenge to integrate the sounds of bells into the music, and this was done elegantly by Swallow and his orchestra, who used the timing of the bells to stunning effect in the lyrical meditation "Seventeen Chords."

There was a sense of tight yet relaxed choreography with Swallow often stepping back to assume the role of a quiet conductor, gently leading his band into a swirling ocean of sound. There were also times when he stepped up as soloist, as in the beautiful ballad "Away," and, naturally, this caused a huge round of applause from the audience. However, the real star of the afternoon was the music itself, perfectly realized by the leader and his orchestra.

Steve Swallow and The Bohuslän Big Band.

Peter Rosendal and Mikkel Ploug are much younger than Swallow, but have already shown considerable talent as composers and leaders of their own groups. Both played numerous gigs at the festival, but their concerts at the open venues were among their best performances.

For his concert at Gråbrødre Torv, Peter Rosendal had expanded his usual trio of Janus Templeton (drums) and Greg Earle (bass) with ace guitarist Jacob Fischer and saxophonist Hans Ulrik, adding more nuances to his self-penned compositions.

Along with Lars Winther and Magnus Hjorth, who also played at the festival, Peter Rosendal belongs to the cream of the crop of new Nordic pianists that works within the realm of progressive mainstream. The concert showed him as an inventive lyrical pianist, who also adds a healthy dose of humor to his compositions, as is evident in the silly naming of tunes like "Peter og Ulven" ("Peter and the Wolf"). Rosendal and his expanded trio came across as both playful and serious.

Peter Rosendal and his expanded trio playing at Gräbrødre Torv.

Humor is a thing that is somewhat absent in the music of guitarist Mikkel Ploug, but it isn't something that is missed as his tunes still carry a melodic freshness that frees them from meandering. Ploug has collaborated intensely with one of the most talked about saxophonists of the moment, Mark Turner, but it is his current constellation with bassist Jeppe Skovbakke, drummer Kevin Brow and New York-based bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst that has become his most successful musical venture.

At Vandkunsten, Ploug was premiering all new material and the songs augur well for his next album. Among the highlights were the Spanish-tinged "Villa" and "The Loop," making fine use, as the title suggests, of patterns of repetition. As time has passed, Ploug's melodic gift has become clearer and this was evident in the new material. Badenhorst plays wonderfully with the same detached warmth and cool nonchalance of a young Lee Konitz. The rhythm section is one of the best that the Danish scene has to offer right now, with the upcoming Brow, whose melodic gift on the kit is outstanding, and the groovy bassist Skovbakke. It will be exhilarating to follow this quartet in the future.

Mikkel Ploug playing at Vandkunsten. From left to right: Ploug, Badenhorst, Brow, Skovbakke.

A Danish Diva

One of the most fascinating things about the Copenhagen Jazz Festival is that an open venue not only signifies cobblestone and cosy cafés but also large green areas with live music. At Kongens Have (The King's Garden) and Det Kongelige Danske Haveselskab (The Royal Danish Garden Society), one had the possibility to get acquainted with many of the new talents such as emerging pianist August Rosenbaum as well as the established names like Danish tenor giant Jesper Thilo.

With Sinne Eegs concert at Det Kongelige Danske Haveselskab, connoisseurs of vocal jazz were given a special treat. The later years have witnessed a veritable boom in the rise of talented female Danish jazz singers. Names such as Sidsel Storm, Katrine Madsen, Malene Mortensen and Cæcillie Norby, who has released a string of albums on Blue Note, testify to the strength of Danish vocal jazz, but right now there seems to be a singer that towers above the rest: Sinne Eeg.

Vocal supreme. Sinne Eeg at Det Kongelige Danske Haveselskab with bassist Mads Vinding.

Eeg's breakthrough came with the masterpiece, Waiting For Dawn (Calibrated, 2007), where she brought together an A-list of Scandinavian jazz musicians to interpret a program consisting mainly of her own compositions. It was this quartet of Swedish pianist Lars Jansson, Danish bass-giant Mads Vinding and young drum-star Morten Lund, who visited the venue. Naturally, the program thrived on their collaboration on that particular album, bringing in such heartbreakers as the title track with a masterful vocal performance ranging from a sensual whisper to a soaring cry. There was also a good deal of relaxed swing in numbers like "Let's Stay Awake" and "Sudden Change of Weather." The mood of the band was jovial, with especially Jansson being a prankster, making imitated percussion-sounds with a bottle of water. The concert proved that it's possible to combine tight interplay, humor, seriousness and showmanship.

Nights at The Black Diamond

Whereas the open venues were able to provide a relaxed, informal atmosphere, there was a much more serious air around the concerts held at the Royal Library—also known as "Den Sorte Diamant" (The Black Diamond). The concerts shared a similar Nordic sound and all the acts had or could have recorded for the German label ECM.

The Royal Library or "The Black Diamond" as it is also called due to its color and shape.

Pianist, Enrico Pieranunzi played with his Danish trio and especially drummer Jonas Johanssen adds a wildness and rhythmic punch that is different compared to the more ethereal elegance of Joey Baron, one of Pieranunzi's preferred drummers. The program was varied with both original compositions and standards, up-tempo and lyrical moments and the trio played convincingly. It would be thrilling to hear this constellation, which also sports the fine bassist Jesper Lundgaard, on record.

Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen has already recorded with his new trio, who released the acclaimed Live at Belleville (ECM, 2008) and it was the repertoire from this album that formed the core of his concert with a spirited interpretation of "The Independence Suite." Added to the trio of Andersen, saxophonist Tommy Smith and drummer Paolo Vinaccia was the excellent Danish pianist Carsten Dahl, who recorded with Andersen on the highly recommended albums Sign (Stunt, 2002) and Moon Water (Stunt, 2004). The quartet played intuitively together with just a few mishaps and the music struck a perfect balance between the wild passion of Smith and Venaccia and the more cool impressionism of Andersen and Dahl.

Percussionist wizard Marilyn Mazur and her Celestial Circle of John Taylor (piano), Anders Jormin (bass) and Josefine Cronholm (vocal) completed the trilogy of concerts held at Det Kongelige Bibliotek. Taylor is perhaps one of the most underrated pianists of our time and his complex harmonies graced the hypnotic chant of Cronholm and the strange sounds generated from Mazur's many instruments. An almost otherworldly sphere of sound arose that perfectly matched the name of the project with the music moving in celestial circles.

Avant-garde Locations

If the concerts at The Black Diamond gave an impression of jazz as high art mostly suited to quiet concert halls, the concerts held at the venues Jazzkælderen (The Jazz Cellar), LitteraturHaus, Råhuset, Borups Højskole and M/S Staubnitz showed jazz in all its wildly eclectic, youthful splendor.

Bassist Thommy Anderson performing at Jazzkælderen.

Jazzkælderen hosted one of the most interesting new labels in Danish jazz: Barefoot Records. Like its more famous big brother, ILK, it is a collective of young Scandinavian musicians, who make music across generic boundaries. Some of the mainstays of the label are bassist Adam Pultz Melbye and drummer Haakon Berre, who have just released a mind- blowing album with free jazz legend Peter Brötzmann entitled A Tale of Three Cities (Barefoot Records, 2009). The concerts at the venue showcased a variety of the label's many talented musicians in different constellations, including pianist Morten Pedersen, bassist Thommy Anderson and saxophonist Maria Faust. It must be said that some of the music, with its frequent mixture of abstract electronics and free excursions, isn't easy listening—it wasn't a coincidence that at one point, a child started crying, and another one shielded his ears, but, nevertheless, most of the time the acts managed to get the approval of an audience, who was open to musical challenges.

The Venue M/S Staubnitz as seen from the outside.

During the festival, M/S Staubnitz was both literally and figuratively a flagship for the new Danish avant-garde. Performing at the old ship was a Who's Who of the Danish underground. Everyone from Kresten Osgood to members of the experimental label collective yoyooyoy was present. Yoyooyoy is also a label whose impossible name alone seems to suggest that they don't care much about the commercial distribution of art—and rightly so.

The concert, with some of the most prominent members of the collective, saxophonist Johannes Lunds and trombonist Marie Bertel, who work together under the moniker Gud Er Kvinde (God Is A Woman), assaulted the senses with an extreme wall of sound. The noise of the brass instruments occasionally became further enhanced by a row of guitar and bass pedals, creating a massive carpet of noise and feedback, throwing the audience into a state between fascination, joy and terror. Mix the wails of Peter Brötzmann and Albert Ayler into a giant bowl of industrial noise reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their most extreme and an idea begins to emerge of the sound of this radical duo, but the music is best sampled at the label yoyooyoy's website.

Blowing everything to pieces. Johannes Lunds and Marie Bertel of Gud Er Kvinde.

Inevitably a project like Gud Er Kvinde will divide the waters. Fortunately, a lot of the bands present at the M/S Staubnitz, in spite of their experimental nature, were more accessible. Thus, one could encounter, among many other things, the consistently beautiful music of guitarist Jakob Bro's trio with drummer Jacob Høyer and bassist Anders Christensen, jazzy post-rock from Grammofunch and the atmospheric electro-jazz of Emil de Waal and Spejderrobot. The main attraction, however, was a marathon concert with multitalented drummer Kresten Osgood's project Hvad Er Klokken? who made their concert into a veritable feast. Encompassing everything from free jazz and rock to the funky soul-jazz of Stanley Turrentine, the band invited the audience on stage to participate in the concert. One of the climaxes of the concert was a totally spaced out version of the Danish national anthem and this, in a way, underscored the nature of the music of Osgood and his friends—it's both accessible and experimental, bodily and intellectual, national and transnational, playful and serious— in short, impossible to pinpoint.

It could be easy to forget the other avant-garde venues with so many exciting things taking place at M/S Staubnitz, but especially LitteraturHaus, where the Danish experimental guitarist Mark Solborg premiered new material with the trumpeter, Herb Robertson, and Råhuset provided good alternatives for the curious mind.

Drummer Stefan Pasborg played a smoking concert with his Odessa 5 orchestra at the old meatpacking district where Råhuset is located. In front of a packed venue with many young people attending, he explored original material and reworked the music of Igor Stravinsky and Charles Mingus. It was a wildly eclectic and yet coherent concert experience.

The absolute revelation, though, in terms of drummers, was the solo concert by the living free jazz legend Andrew Cyrille, who started his concert at Råhuset by playing on everything at hand: the floor, the stairs and an old piano, before he entered the room where his drum set was placed. Starting out by saying that drummers normally are perceived as noisemakers when they are, in fact, melody-makers, Cyrille proved his point by playing a continually engaging concert where he referenced the whole jazz tradition from early blues to Art Blakey. All the time making the rhythms sing, he created a freedom and beauty that planted itself into the audience where many of the young Danish jazz musicians, such as pianists Simon Toldam and Søren Kjærgaard, were present.

Andrew Cyrille at Råhuset.

The Art of Solo Piano

As usual Søren Kjærgaard was extremely busy during the festival, playing in everything from the mainstream ensemble of saxophonist Niels Lyhne to the free-form post-rock improvisations of the group White trash. However, there was a chance to see Kjærgaard alone as he played a solo concert at Københavns Hovedbibliotek (Copenhagen's Library). It was a gig that emphasized his knowledge of jazz tradition, bringing in the repertoire of Duke Ellington with the classic "Mood Indigo" suddenly arising out of the blue, but the concert also showed Kjærgaard's use of humor as one unlucky member of the audience coughed. Kjærgaard cleverly used the sound of the cough as a jumping off point for an improvisation where the sound was layered electronically and echoed in the playing. Thus, there was both room for beauty and humor at Kjærgaard's solo recitation.

The same could be said about Chick Corea's solo concert at the impressive Det Kongelige Teater (The Royal Theatre). While still undeniably a virtuoso on the keyboard, Corea's versions of songs by Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Bill Evans came across as a bit uninspired in terms of improvisational zest. Still, there's no doubt that Corea can make the piano sing, and he laid the audience down and even arranged for everyone to participate as choir in a classical piece. A smile was undeniably put on everyone's face, and a great feeling of togetherness arose, which gave the concert its own beauty. It was a beauty, which wasn't about reaching into the higher emotional or intellectual realms, but rather about enjoying the basic process of making music. That way it really was, as Corea said, a peak into his practice room. Not the atelier of the struggling artist finishing his masterpiece, but the unspoiled joy of a painter still enjoying the different shades of color on the canvas.

The strength of Corea was that he reached out, very verbally, towards the audience. At LitteraturHaus, Jacob Anderskov did the exact opposite: in order to speak, he turned inside to create the music, letting the notes do all the communication. It was a recitation of great beauty and concentration that underlined why Anderskov is the most interesting pianist in the country right now. His musical knowledge comes out unforced and quite naturally. He has an intuitive feeling for the ebb and flow, crescendo and diminuendo of his instrument, mastering both percussive tactility and light melodies that seem to flow out of the air. Never was there a time where the music lost momentum, and when Anderskov said that he thought that it was time to stop, a feeling of closure was achieved outside the conventional formalities of sets and encores.

Old Masters Revisited

Jacob Anderskov is just at the beginning of his career but this year's festival witnessed what might be one of the last performances of a living legend: Yusef Lateef. Lateef performed with the quartet of drummer Kresten Osgood, trumpeter Kasper Tranberg and percussionist Adam Rudolph. Together they recently recorded a self-titled album under the name of The Universal Quartet, released on the Danish label Blackout Music, and it was material from this album that was performed live at Tivolis Koncertsal (The Tivoli Concert hall).

Lateef has always been a musician that has broken down boundaries between East and West, avant-garde and popular culture. His music is carried by a deep spiritual understanding of life that gives his music an unshakable depth. While it was clear to see and hear that he is coming towards the end of his life's journey, he still plays with the soul and conviction of a true artist. The meeting between the old master and the young talented generation of Danish musicians, Osgood and Tranberg, underlined the ability of music to communicate beyond age and nationality. The music was simply about reaching into the human condition.

The concert was played as one continuous suite where the polyphonic use of instruments, combined with recurrent melodic motives, gave the expression of a meditative music in motion. Percussionist Adam Rudolph particularly added a variety of musical colors, using a frame drum, flutes and congas. Lateef also played on a variety of instruments, giving the music a rich texture. However, the most pregnant instrument was still the saxophone, but his soulful chant and poignant piano also gave the music a strong spiritual vibe. As a whole, the concert became a work of art comparable to Pharoah Sanders' Karma (Impulse! 1969). Balancing on the edge between life and death, form and chaos, it was a beautiful, life-affirming experience.

While the concert with Yusef Leteef was a testimony to the artistic strength of a living legend, the concert with trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg revisiting his homage to Miles Davis on the album Aura (Columbia, 1985), had all the spirit of Davis about it because it wasn't a nostalgic view at an old piece, but the revitalization of a work of art. Aura has achieved iconic status in Denmark but it is still one of the most unappreciated works in the canon of Miles Davis. If anything, the concert underlined that it is about time that the album gets its proper due as an important part of not only Mikkelborg's but also Davis' oeuvre.

The concert followed the structure of the album which is a suite with an intro and a division into nine colors: "White," "Yellow," "Orange," "Red," "Green," "Blue," "Electric Red," "Indigo" and "Violet." In terms of style, the music is all over the map. From abstract meditations to neo-classical work with woodwinds, heated funk and world-music, Aura is a work that seems to catch the chameleon-like nature of Davis' artistic personality. More than that, with its eclectic use of genres, it also became a portrait of the jazz scene in Denmark as it is now and a microcosm of the jazz festival. This was emphasized by the fact that the concert brought together all kinds of people, old and young, but, more importantly, there was a meeting between different generations of musicians. Established Danish musicians like Marilyn Mazur, pianist Thomas Clausen and Mikkelborg himself played with the young and talented Blood Sweat Drum 'n' Bass Big Band.

Whether it's Mikkelborg re-interpreting his classic work, Jakob Bro playing old standards with his trio or Kresten Osgood destroying the boundaries between avant-garde and popular culture, it is all about keeping the music fresh and getting a new perspective on the evolving history of jazz.

The name of this year's festival poster, created by the artist Tal R, is named "Jazz Is Not Born Yet" and, in a way, it pretty much sums up the post-modern patchwork nature of this year's festival. It wasn't about propagating a restricted image of jazz, but questioning the idea of what the music is. Is it improvised? Composed? Blues-based? Electronic? Acoustic? Vocal? Instrumental?

Like Samuel Johnson being asked by Boswell what poetry is, it becomes hard to define exactly what jazz is. To quote the famous pair:

Boswell: Then, Sir, what is poetry?

Johnson: Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.

Coming to the end of the festival, one is, indeed, still struggling to define what jazz is, but what matters in the end is that at this year's Copenhagen Jazz Festival, the light of jazz still shone as bright as ever.

Photo Credit

Jakob Baekgaard

Kristoffer Juel Poulsen

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