Hans Ulrik: Still Searching

Robin Arends By

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Jazz is music that is formed right there, now, in front of all us. That is a very special thing, and the insurance for the future of this art form.
—Hans Ulrik
It is not easy to classify Danish saxophonist Hans Ulrik. He dedicates himself as easily to movie soundtracks and jingles as to an album of Latin or Christmas music. At the same time it is not difficult to recognize Ulrik's dreamy, Nordic voice. Like other European jazz musicians Ulrik started his career in the United States. While studying in Berklee in the mid 1980's he built up a network of jazz musicians and later on, back in Denmark, made good use of it by recording several albums with people like John Scofield, Gary Peacock and Peter Erskine. Ulrik has led and co-led several groups and he has appeared on over 100 jazz, rock and pop albums as a sideman. Ulrik, who has become one of the leaders of European jazz, won a Danish Grammy with his album Jazz and Mambo (Sundance, 1999). Nowadays the 49-year old has focused on composing and leads a trio with Steve Swallow, and drummer Jonas Johannsen.

All About Jazz: Mr.Ulrik, you have been professionally active in music for almost 3 decades; how has music evolved since you started performing?

Hans Ulrik: Well, what I feel more than anything is of course, how things have changed for me personally, and this may well be because of me aging, establishing a family, and generally changing as a human being, more than it is a sign of the times. When I started out CDs were a very new thing. When you wanted to check some music out you bought an LP or a CD. Today there are few shops and the whole industry has changed. But actually I think more music is recorded and a lot of people have their own studio facilities and publish themselves. It is easy to document your music, but harder to sell the product.

In the beginning of my career I played on many recordings, many movie soundtracks, and many jingles. Today I get much less studio work, though occasionally it happens. I think generally real instruments are used less in this type of music. And over the years I have become more and more active in the ensembles connected to the Danish Radio. On a more personal level still really enjoy playing the actual concerts, recordings, etc. but I don't think the business of being a musician is my strongest side. So, I try to stay busy but without having to do so much of that.

AAJ: What do you prefer doing?

HU:When I am called to do a gig, either as a sideman or as a bandleader, I love to prepare myself. I find fresh reeds, I practice my horn, I check out different versions of the songs if it is standard material, sometimes I make new parts for myself in Sibelius. And when the time comes, I generally have a great time hanging with the people involved, and I really enjoy playing a good concert, with all the communication, emotions and creativity involved. It is a playground for grown-ups. That's what I like to do.

AAJ: When did you start playing the saxophone? Which instrument do you like best between saxophone and clarinet?

HU: I started playing saxophone when I was almost 15 —and clarinet when I was 30! So I am a late starter. If you are asking which of my own instruments I love the most, I would answer that the instruments I am most happy with playing are tenor and soprano saxophone and my soprano recorder equipped with saxophone keys the Strathmannflute. But my greatest love is definitely the tenor and soprano. I really enjoy playing soprano in the right songs- -the lyrical ones

AAJ: What makes the sax so special for you?

HU: It is such an expressive instrument. All those colors, all the emotions. Maybe it is as simple as this: it is the instrument I know the best, so I can express myself in greatest detail.

AAJ: You've been working with excellent musicians, like Steve Swallow, Gary Peacock, Peter Erskine, Alex Riel, and John Scofield. What have you learned from working with them?

HU: It is very hard to answer. The difference between working with excellent and lesser musicians is huge. I have most certainly learned a lot from all of them, also on a personal level. Plus the fact that most of these musicians are both important as composers and performers—and bandleaders. So there is a lot to be learned. An example: Swallow often talked about how a jazz tune usually ends up being performed with approximately 75% improvisation in the middle—so this is something you always must have in mind when you compose—very true. I often take that into consideration when I write music.

AAJ: Steve Swallow is a member of your trio. How is it to play with him?

HU: I have deep, deep respect for Steve. Both as a musician and as a person—two things you can't separate anyway. Steve is a warm and intelligent person and musician, a very unique voice, and at same time totally loyal to the music and the musicians he is backing with his bass. He has the hardest driving swing, plays beautiful melodic solos, and is a great composer. That's world class. And it's great fun to play his charts in his own beautiful handwriting.

AAJ: You were inspired by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Who are you inspired by nowadays?

HU: Same guys! And Stanley Turrentine and Joe Henderson. And many others. Not to speak of some of the guys I meet when I play. An example could be Swedish tenor player Karl-Martin Almqvist.

AAJ: Are there other contemporary instrumentalists besides saxophonists that you admire?

HU: Yes, of course. I could mention Chick Corea. I am great fan of him, both as a writer and a player. Toots Thielemans... What a genius. Bill Frisell... I love his sound, his concept, the whole deal...and many others.

AAJ: You played a lot as sideman in different formats, you play in a trio, together with the DR Big Band, as well as duets. What is your favorite format?

HU: Probably quartet; sax, piano (or guitar), bass and drums.

AAJ: Why?

HU: It gives me room to shape the music, I get the drums to play with the rhythm and work with the energy, and I get harmony to work with melodies and textures.

AAJ: In 1999 you won the Danish Grammy 'Best Jazz CD of the Year' for your album Jazz & Mambo (Stunt Records, 1999). How do you look back on this album? 

HU: I still think it is a fine album. And we were very lucky in the studio. Everything clicked, and this is something you always aim for, but you can't be sure. It happens. Inspiration...

AAJ: What was the cause of this click?

HU: You never know, that's why I choose to call it luck.

AAJ: One of the more recent projects in which you participated is called Jonas Holgersson 4003 (Prophone Records, 2013), a collection of Blue Note tunes from the sixties. Can you tell us more about it?

HU: This is the project of Swedish drummer Jonas Holgersson. He had this idea to play a collection of tunes, only from Blue Note records from the 60's and very loyal to the original versions but with new players, new solos. This is actually a very daring thing to do. It could go totally wrong and become a shadow of the past. Again, we were lucky. I think it went very well, and this new album shows the great value of the compositions from that period. And it sounds alive.

AAJ: Could you agree with Holgerssons choices? Coltrane, Rollins and Turrentine are not included.

HU: Mmm. The Blue Note era includes a lot of fabulous musicians, groundbreaking recordings, and there is no way you could cover all of it on one CD. Holgersson focused on mainly Art Blakey and I think he did a good job. It was definitely fun to play.

AAJ: Last year you released your album Equilibrium (Stunt Records, 2012), on which you play in perfect harmony with the Lars Jansson Trio. You have also played with Jansson on Strange World (Stunt Records, 1994), one of your earlier albums. What did you learn from playing with Jansson?

HU: Lars is the master of the lyrical side of music. But he also swings. He is very true to his talent both as a composer and a performer, you can always hear it is Lars Jansson. He has a wonderful sound on the instrument— very soft and thick, and great to lean into with the saxophone. It is interesting, if you focus on his lines in his solo playing, and his harmonies in his compositions, he is obviously out of the jazz and bebop tradition. But at the same time he is also clearly one of the strongest voices of the "Nordic" jazz. He sounds Scandinavian. I have played a lot of music with him, and I am still a great fan.

AAJ: What do you mean by a Scandinavian sound? Do you believe there is such a thing as a national sound in music?

HU: We talk about a Scandinavian architectural style —the cool scandinavian furnitures of the 50's and 60's and so forth. And in much the same manner, we often talk about a "Nordic" sound, or the Scandinavian sound. The whole discussion is vague, but this could be some of the parameters: The Nordic jazz, as a musical style, sometimes incorporates world music, sometimes elements of classical music, and it often has a strong lyrical side. It is not quite as based on the American songbook or standards, as American jazz.

As for the countries... there is a great difference between Norway, Sweden and Denmark—but we also have a connection, a history together, and we are all from the same small corner on this planet. We have some very important figures, that we relate to (sometimes with respect, sometimes more rebellious)—I could mention Jan Johansson, Monica Zetterlund, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Jan Garbarek and others. But when you look at these great musicians separately, they all have their own distinct sound, and that is why we love them. So how can you begin to talk about a national sound in music?

AAJ: You have also lived and worked a short time in New York. Do you think jazz in Europe is developing a different direction than jazz overseas?

HU: Yes, there has always been a certain difference between European and American jazz, generally speaking. This difference is hard to define, and you can find a lot of musicians that won't fit the generalization. The pianist Bill Evans, for example; you could claim that he sounds European. And I also feel that Europe is closer to USA now than when I started playing. Globalization....

AAJ: ...brings together all jazz directions. And what about the jazz tradition? Recently Marc Copland said to me: "Without the tradition, I wouldn't or couldn't exist." Does this count for you?

HU: This is very true—we all evolve as artists out of the tradition. We learn from it, some of us fight it fiercely, some of us guard it with equal passion.

AAJ: So jazz is still evolving. Do you think there will be jazz in the future?

HU: I think so. Especially if you look at jazz from a very wide perspective: jazz is improvised music. It is music that is formed right there, now, in front of all us. Both the musicians and the listeners. That is a very special thing, and the insurance for the future of this art form.

AAJ: Your musical activities span a wide range of styles and combinations. Which projects do you have in store for us?

HU: I don't know! It is wide open for me right know. I hope to keep on writing music and playing both my own music and other peoples' projects... Nothing feels certain to me, and I am still searching.

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