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Jazzahead! 2014

John Kelman By

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Each year, Jazzahead!, in collaboration with automobile manufacturer ŠKODA (one of the event's major sponsors) delivers an award to a member of the jazz community for what is usually a lifetime of contribution. The recipients have ranged from musicians like Dutch drummer Han Bennink, who won in 2013, to ACT label founder/producer Siggi Loch, who received the award in 2012. The 2014 Jazzahead! ŠKODA Award, which comes with a 15,000 Euro endowment, went to Jan Persson, the Danish photographer who has, over the past five-and-a-half decades, documented a remarkable number of jazz musicians in stills that manage to live and breathe. Living in Denmark, a country that became home for a number of American jazz musicians, in particular during in the 1950s and '60s, when African American artists were treated far better abroad than they were at home, Persson had the unique opportunity to capture artists like Oscar Pettiford, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Ben Webster and Horace Parlan, amongst American expats, in addition to just about any jazz artist of significance that passed through the city.

Persson's largely black and white work has been published in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, in addition to appearing in many books and a number of exhibitions—one taking place, in Bremen, at the Artdocks Gallery from April 27 to June 7, 2014.

This was the first time a photographer has received the award that was instituted in 2006, and after a laudation from Danish artist Per Arnoldi, Persson delivered a short but particularly meaningful speech, as he talked briefly about how he came to be a photographer, some of the many encounters he's had during his long life (Persson was born in 1943)...and a parting word that gave encouragement to all aspiring photographers: "And remember: A cell phone is not a camera!"

April 24, Evening: Danish Showcase

Prior to Persson's award, a single composition was performed by Phronesis, a trans-European piano trio with, appropriately, one Dane (bassist Jasper Hoiby, who now lives in London), a Swede (drummer Anton Eger) and one Brit (pianist Ivo Neame, but that only whet the appetite for the trio's full thirty-minute showcase that evening. In some ways the trio's participation at Jazzahead might seem a bit odd, given it's not only got five recordings out—its most recent, Life to Everything (2014), on the UK-based Edition Records label just like the group's previous two, beginning with Alive (2010)—but the threesome have spent significant time traveling in Europe, North America (USA and Canada) and other places abroad. Still, this was a trio of highly motivated individuals and any opportunity to spread the word and expand its potential was one to be taken.

It was a particularly treat to run into Neame and Eger again, so soon after seeing them in Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset's stellar quartet at Jazzkaar 2014 in Tallinn, Estonia just two evenings prior. While both have, over the past half decade, emerged as inimitable players no matter what the context, something different happens when they come together with Høiby in Phronesis, a fact hammered home with particular emphasis when all three (these days, Danish bassist Petter Eldh has replaced Høiby in Neset's quartet) played together in Neset's Golden Xplosion group at the saxophonist's incendiary showcase at Jazzahead! 2012.

The trio's Jazzahead! 2014 was no less exciting as it launched into "Urban Control," the opening track to Life to Everything, another live recording that began with Høiby's virtuosic a cappella intro before Neame and Eger joined in for one of five pieces defined by knotty passages, staggering stops and starts and, well, just an overall complexity that somehow managed to seem completely effortless in the hands of these three outstanding musicians. While there's absolutely nothing that begs comparison to Esbjorn Svensson and his trio, e.s.t., while everyone has been looking for "the next e.s.t." since the Swedish pianist died tragically in a diving accident in 2008, the truth is that the answer may well be right here under everyone's noses.

Phronesis may not have the pop sensibility that yielded some of e.s.t.'s appeal, but the trio's relentless drive has resulted in a slow-building reputation and success that could well be on the verge of becoming something bigger; certainly its full show at the 2012 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal was as good an example of a trio whose playful approach to its rigorous yet open-ended music—music that has, thus far, managed to completely avoid the element of sameness that was beginning to filter into e.s.t.'s until, paradoxically and more than the least bit tragically, the release of its final ACT recording made before Svensson's passing, 2008's Leucocyte—is making fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and whose every new recording since its 2007 Loop debut, Organic Warfare, seems to garner Høiby, Eger and Neame increasing critical and popular acclaim.

The trio also has a curious but successful combination of characters: Eger, the crazy man of the group, with extreme facial expressions mirroring an approach to the kit that's just as outrageous, at times, as it is subtle and nuanced at others; Neame the quiet one who maintains eye contact with his trio mates but rarely cracks more than a slight smile; and Høiby, the true heart of the group, positioned center-stage and looking back and forth between Neame and Eger with something ranging from bemusement to flat-out amusement. Its fiery set may have been brief, but it only served to prove, once again, that Phronesis is one of but a few European piano trios with real— and sustainable—international potential.

If Phronesis was a tough act to follow, Aske Drasbæk Group managed to do so by being something completely different: a two-guitar, bass, drums and saxophone quintet led by baritone saxophonist Drasbæk. It's rare to hear a group with two guitarists in jazz—the most notable group last heard might even be Gary Burton's quintet of the mid-'70s, which featured Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Metheny in the line-up—and even rarer to hear one where the lead instrument is a baritone sax.

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