Danish Divas: Mona Larsen, Malene Mortensen, Katrine Madsen

Jakob Baekgaard By

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In 2009, Danish vocal jazz is enjoying a golden age. Never before has there been such a wide variety of high quality female jazz singers in Denmark as there is now. Singers like Cecillie Nordby, Sinne Egg and Sidsel Storm are all worthy of international recognition, but they're only the tip of the iceberg.

Stunt Records has specialised in bringing out the best in Danish mainstream and modern jazz and they also have a significant roster of jazz singers. In terms of age, they cover the spectrum from the young femme fatale to the elderly femme elegante, but what they all have in common is that they have ambitions of writing their own material and succeed in doing it. These are women who combine a sensitive vocal touch with lyrical depth both in writing and choice of material.

Mona Larsen
Grains of Sand
Stunt Records/Sundance Music

Mona Larsen is no stranger to jazz singing. She has been on the scene for a long time and her recordings with pianist Jorgen Emborg have achieved almost classical status. On Grains of Sand, Larsen interprets songs ranging from Bill Evans' tender ballad "Very Early," which gets a swinging treatment, to a successful adaptation of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's "Sonet XIX," where Larsen stretches her voice to a soaring cry against the night sky of Thomas Clausen's piano.

Clausen is also a specialist in Brazilian music, and this is shown in the gently swaying "Dindi," where his elegant harmonies provide the ideal backdrop for Larsen's exploration of Antonio Carlos Jobim's classic. Besides the core trio of Clausen and bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek and drummer Karsten Bagge, Larsen also brings in some welcome variation in the shape of violinist Kristian Jorgensen, who adds a Stephane Grappelli-like touch to Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those things." Saxophonist Hans Ulrik is also present and his longing tone graces four songs, among them Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule with Nellie" with lyrics written by Norma Winstone. Like Winstone, Larsen is able to use her voice as a pure instrument, but she also masters traditional jazz singing. Her age lends authority to the songs, which capture the melancholy feeling of time passing away.

Malene Mortensen
Agony And Ecstasy
Stunt Records/Sundance Music

If Mona Larsen's Grains of Sand shows a woman approaching the end straight of life's journey, Malene Mortensen's Agony And Ecstasy has something of youthful exuberance about it. One look at the covers will spell out the differences: Larsen looks calm and focused, her sea-blue eyes matched by her grey hair, whereas Mortensen is depicted in a blurry format with a sensual gaze.

Mortensen has enlisted the talented trio of pianist Magnus Hjorth, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Snorre Kirk, supplemented by guitarist Carl Morner Ringstrom. The material is made up of originals by the band with Mortensen providing the lyrics. Musically it resides somewhere between pop, jazz and rock. While the somewhat rigid structure of the songs mimics the form of pop, the gradual intensification gains much of its pathos from the vocabulary of rock, with the guitar forming a climax: "Black Amy" culminates in a distorted guitar solo. Most of the music is pretty and melodic. Mortensen has a nice voice that she uses well for her purpose and lyrically the subject is, as is often the case, the trouble and joy, the agony and ecstasy of love.

Visit Malene Mortensen on the web.

Katrine Madsen
Simple Life
Stunt Records/Sundance Music

Katrine Madsen's Simple Life is undeniably her most ambitious record. Not only does it feature almost all original songs by Madsen, but also a lush setting with the autumnal string arrangements of Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder, providing the perfect background for Madsen's voice, which manages to be seasoned and mellow and yet fresh as spring water. As a vocalist, Madsen is simply in a class of her own with a distinct phrasing that spans the register from a smoky, sensual whisper to a full-blown cry. Another notable thing is her talent as a lyricist. Songs like "Under A Gray Dusty Morning," "Wide Open Sky" and "Green" successfully combine the imagery of nature with the internal state of being. In "Eden" the symbolism of nature imagery is combined with the kind of storytelling that is so often a part of jazz standards: "There's a road leading to a little cottage way out in the outskirts/A winding bending road/He has travelled every turn to see her/Now green green leaves make it hard to pass through/As he drives drives under an April moon/Maybe it's too late too late to say goodbye/Maybe she has left a little while ago."

The excellent cast of musicians bring out the best in the poetic words. Among them are bassist Jesper Bodilsen and percssionist Morten Lund from Stefano Bollani's Danish trio. It may be that the seasons change and the green leaves will eventually have to wither, but with Simple Life, Katrine Madsen has created a record for the ages.

Visit Katrine Madsen on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Grains of Sand

Tracks: Something's Coming; All The Things You Are; Very Early; Dindi; She's Young; Crepuscule With Nellie; Sonet XIX; Lazy Afternoon; Grains Of Sand; Just One Of Those Things; Hymn.

Personnel: Mona Larsen: vocal; Thomas Clausen: piano; Thomas Fonnesbaek: bass; Karsten Bagge: drums; Hans Ulrik: saxophones (4-6, 11); Kristian Jorgensen: violin (10).

Agony and Ecstasy

Tracks: Enigma; The Light Up Ahead; Eternal Three; Tidal Wave; Black Amy; Valentine; Into Your Heart; Tools And Rules; Seeds Of Summer; Transparent; Good At Goodbyes.

Personnel: Malene Mortensen: lead and background vocals; Carl Morner Ringstrom: electric and acoustic guitars; Magnus Hjorth: piano; Petter Eldh: double bass; Snorre Kirk: drums and percussion.

Simple Life

Tracks: Simple Life; Under a Gray Dusty Morning Sun; Turbulent Time of Life; Eden; Wide Open Sky; Green; I've Grown Accustomed to His Face; Forecast; Home of the Wayfaring.

Personnel: Katrine Madsen: vocal; Joakim Milder: saxophones; Henrik Gunde Pedersen: piano; Jesper Bodilsen: acoustic bass; Jonas Johansen: drums; string section from The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Morten Lund: percussion; Ole Kibsgaard: guitar.

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