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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.

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