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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.

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