Karsten Vogel & Robin Taylor: The Bird and Bear of Danish Fusion

Anthony Shaw BY

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Robin TaylorMeeting two diametrically different individuals currently active on the fusion scene in Denmark only drives home the fact that a variety of paths can lead to the contemporary stage. How different are they? One adorned in biker boots and pulling on a well chewed briar pipe, the other dapper in black jacket and slacks, flitting between chair and kitchen to cater for his hosts. One a self-taught musician, veteran of countless rock bands over the years and still a mean axe-man, the other a survivor of the late 1960s Copenhagen psychedelic scene that rivaled the West coast in its commitment to experimentation and the emergent radical youth culture.

Robin Taylor is a composer and multi-instrumentalist known mainly outside his home country. He has built up a considerable level of respect through his extensive work with many major names on the Scandinavian fusion scene. One of the most significant of these is his recording with Danish bassist Peter Friis Nielsen, On-plugged in Elsinore (MOBCD, 2003)—a recording of a lively session in Hamlet's hometown, just two miles across the water from Sweden. This album is just one of many bringing Taylor together with saxophonist Karsten Vogel, a prominent figure on the Danish jazz and fusion scenes for the last forty years; and with whom he now performs live under the name Taylor's Free Universe.

The album is a collection of six extended tracks composed by various selections of members, showing to the full Taylor's processor-orientated guitar skills, Friis Nielsen's relentlessly probing bass, and Vogel's decorative runs and solos on alto sax. Over the last decade Taylor has produced eight experimental and explorative albums under this rubric, all based around live recordings. In addition there are six studio albums with many of the same musicians, but as Taylor's Universe, and then a clutch more with Taylor working solo under his own name.

Robin Taylor / Taylor's Universe

Manipulated by Taylor (MOBCD, 2006), released as well on Taylor's Marvel of Beauty label is just one of those eight, a selection of atmospheric and argumentative pieces primarily written by the leader. Originally recorded live at the Copenhagen JazzHouse in autumn 2006, as the name suggests Taylor worked them up back home with the very able assistance of his engineer Louise Nipper. Some pieces start from just a riff, or a line, which is then processed. There are clear echoes of King Crimson's THRAK (Virgin, 1995), though with Vogel working his weaving solo lines on soprano and alto saxophones, and with local resident Frenchman Pierre Tassone contributing a wealth of processed violin. It shows where Fripp might have taken Crimson without the vocal focus of Adrian Belew, the back line of drummer Lars Juul and bassist Klaus Hovman being only slightly less prominent than Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin.

2008 sees the release of albums by both Taylor and Vogel, each working their respective ends of the fusion spectrum, but finding ground on Taylor's latest studio creation, Soundwall (MOBCD, 2008). With Taylor taking full compositional credit it's assumed that this represents the current kernel of his music, where he invites four representatives of diverse genres to meet at the intersection of art rock, jazz, pop and heavy metal. Michael Denner plays the most prominent individual role as lead guitarist, responsible for numerous full-bodied melodic solos; Vogel represents the jazz, and Rasmus Grosell is presumably something of a pop drummer.

As ever with Taylor's music, it is often evolutional and contemplative, working best when Vogel steps up to the plate with his characteristically soft angular solos, contrasting Denner's powerful lead guitar and Taylor's thrash solos, bass, washes and multiple treatments. Titles such as "Out of Season" and "Totally Greek" suggest Taylor's affinity with the marginal, and the feel of this album is that of a man at home on the periphery, wending his way between his rock heritage and closer regions of the avant-garde. His own admission of similarity to David Torn is very apposite for this album, with the Dane taking the laurels for being meditative.

Karsten Vogel / Birds of Beauty

Vogel's most recent offering is a live recording of his concert at the NearFest Festival in June, 2007 with his luminary 1970s jazz-rock ensemble, Secret Oyster. Four of the band's original CDs have been reissued on Laser's Edge Records, and the group played a short but well-acclaimed US tour in the summer of 2007 with four of the original five members.

Vogel's most recent activities can be found in his collaboration with keyboardist Kenneth Knudsen from Secret Oyster, and Burnin Red Ivanhoe's guitarist Ole Fick and drummer Klaus Menzer. The assemblage, going under the intriguing name Birds of Beauty, has released Mean Old Men—recorded between 2004 and 2006—on Denmark's Calibrated Records in 2008.

It is possible that some of Taylor's grooving has rubbed off on his former mentor—one of his earlier albums was entitled Oyster's Apprentice (MOBCD, 2005)—since Mean Old Men features long, looser jams like "Megalomania" and "Acid Jungle," where the band riffs over Menzer's strong rim-shot, while Vogel's solo weaves in and out of a spacey groove. Boosted by Fick's ever sparse but tasteful guitar, the music often sounds very much like vintage Ivanhoe (Vogel's first major ensemble in the 1970s), but with a modern, more meditative feel and without Kim Menzer's lambasting mouth harp or trombone. Neither of Vogel's bands' vocals were particularly prominent, and here again the English lyrics sound rather weak, not balancing the strength of the music. Using clips of street dialogue or spoken text is one ruse to circumvent this, and in any case the power of the compositions carries the day.

Robin Taylor / Karsten Vogel / Taylor's Universe

This brief interview with Taylor and Vogel took place, following the release of Mean Old Men, in the saxophonist's compact but elegant flat in Frederiksberg, the inner suburb of Copenhagen where he also has a small studio known as Oyster Songs Studio. The legacy of Secret Oyster is obvious in the name, and in the consequences of his return very early that morning from an Oyster gig far from the capital. A working musician's hours don't diminish in proportion to the length of his or her career.

All About Jazz: How did you two first get together?

Robin Taylor: It was when I phoned Karsten to ask his permission to use some words from a song, actually a Burnin Red Ivanhoe track. He put a note at the bottom of his letter saying "I'm not too hard to persuade into doing some studio work either!"

I was actually doing a project with a veteran Danish free-jazz trumpeter, Hugh Steinmetz, called Communio Musica. In fact he is a friend of Karsten's. I had produced four albums of my own by then. It was in 1998, about fourteen albums ago.

AAJ: So you do have a jazz connection?

RT: Well, my roots were very much in rock. I never had much contact with the jazzers, even though I was a hardcore Secret Oyster fan. I think, in those days, there was much more respect between different musicians—they were so much fewer, and the barriers between styles didn't seem so high.

Karsten Vogel: I suppose I have always been on the edge of the rock world, though when I met Robin I had more or less given up live work altogether. I was involved with some radio programs and other compositional work.

RT: And remember the studio is my main workplace. I have never been touring.

AAJ: So your basic methods of working are different?

KV: I have always been composing—that's how my bands got started, with material I wanted to perform and record.

Karsten Vogel / Secret OysterRT: Yes, we have that in common. I had a long break after my own initial efforts, which I sent up to Danish Radio for broadcast on an experimental music program in the early 1980s. But I picked it up again in the 1990s, working with a young Danish musician Jan Marsfeldt. We really started Taylor's Universe together.

AAJ: And you have slowly built up an audience?

RT: One of my main sales areas is Russia, not that I see any of the revenues though!

KV: I have been fortunate to find a younger audience to some extent lately. And one shouldn't underestimate the value of the female audience too. Quite a proportion of my audiences nowadays are women. Maybe it's just that women basically find the saxophone more appealing. I'm sure I get more contacts from the women audience members than you, Robin!

AAJ: And the Internet has been a major boost to your promotion?

RT: Definitely. I am hardly known at all here in Denmark despite the gigs. But there haven't been too many of them, and the business seems to be getting tighter all the time, besides.

KV: For Secret Oyster it has been the other side of the electronic revolution that has given us the boost. Laser's Edge (the US record company) were very keen to re-release the LPs, but only if they could produce the highest quality recordings. And that led to Ken Golden helping us arrange gigs in the USA in 2007.

AAJ: Do you have different inspirations nowadays?

KV: Well, I would say that biological changes in a person do affect your thoughts patterns. As a youngster there seemed to be so little music being produced that was really good. Now there is so much music to listen to, but so little of it seems to be good enough. I am nowadays far more selective in my listening.

My private life is easier too, now. In those days, in a band like Secret Oyster, I was playing for a living, but also playing for the future—to stay in the band! It was such a competitive group, and a competitive period of life. One was always wondering what to do just to be able to continue and survive in the business, always playing for the future.

Karsten Vogel

Nowadays I can play for the gig itself. I don't have to worry any more about the future. I suppose it's in that way more meditative. It's maybe a privilege of being older. On the last album I think I have actually managed to produce eight bars that I really feel proud of. For the first time I can say that since I started listening to Charlie Parker there is something on one of my discs I am really pleased with—eight bars of it!

RT: My role is different. I am not a solo instrumentalist, so actually contacting and working with other musicians is the last phase of the process. I see the whole album as a creation, and each one has been so different. I suppose that I hope my best bars extend over the whole of the last album, Soundwall. My career has been so different from Karsten's, but it's very rewarding to think of my work being considered on the same level as his. Maybe I should consider that I have actually "made it" now.

Selected Discography

Birds of Beauty, Mean Old Men (Calibrated Records, 2008)
Taylor's Universe, Soundwall (MOBCD, 2008)
Taylor's Free Universe, Manipulated by Taylor (MOBCD, 2006)

Taylor's Universe, Oyster's Apprentice (MOBCD, 2005)

Peter Friis Neilsen/Taylor's Free Universe, On-plugged in Elsinore (MOBCD, 2003)

Visit Robin Taylor and Karsten Vogel on the web.

Photo Credits
Karsten Vogel: Saul Panzer
Robin Taylor: Courtesy of Robin Taylor

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