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Helle Henning: Nordic Sounds

Helle Henning: Nordic Sounds
Suzanne Lorge By

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Danish singer Helle Henning only recently started performing in the U.S. But as Americans become more familiar with this vibrant and innovative musician—and as Helle sings more in English—her presence in the U.S. will likely grow.
If you're watching the latest Disney film in Copenhagen, you're most likely listening to singer Helle Henning. Helle not only sings the character overdubs for big animated film imports in her native Denmark, but she conducts the ensemble singers on these sessions. She also teaches jazz at one of Denmark's foremost music conservatories and recently released a pedagogical big band recording in Danish to teach American jazz to primary school children. In addition to her studio singing and teaching, Helle has an active gig schedule—but she only recently started performing in the U.S. As Americans become more familiar with this vibrant and innovative singer—and as Helle sings more in English—her presence in the U.S. will likely grow. Tunes like the touching "Loudness of Loneliness" and the steadily grooving "Happily Heading for Home" transcend musical divides and speak to the universality of Helle's appeal as a vocal musician. Helle recently sat down with All About Jazz and singer/composer and ENNA Records founder Maryanne de Prophetis to discuss Helle's work in U.S. and her upcoming collaboration with this new label.

All About Jazz: Helle, in your native Denmark you've been successful as a singer in many different arenas. You're an educator, a composer, and a performer in both live and studio performance. Can you tell us how you got started in music?

Helle Henning: My father was a jazz drummer, and [as a child] I made a lot of music with him. I started to play guitar, and after high school it became obvious that I would do something with music. I went first to university, because at the time there was no music conservatory in Denmark. But a year later the conservatory started, and I was the first student and the first singer educated there.

AAJ: When did you first start performing in the U.S.?

HH: I recorded my third CD here in New York in 2014, with [Danish pianist] Nikolaj Hess, [American bassist] Jay Anderson and [American drummer] Gregory Hutchinson. And I played my first gigs here in spring 2017.

AAJ: I would imagine that launching an international career from Denmark involves lots of thought about how to appeal to both your native fans and an outside audience. How have you managed that?

HH: In Denmark, your typical career in jazz is that you don't sing in your native language, you sing in English. That automatically brings you abroad, to other countries. For me, all of my jazz tunes are in Danish, which means that I only play these tunes in Denmark and Sweden, in Scandinavian countries. But that's why now I've decided to perform my songs with English lyrics.

AAJ: My sense is that jazz audiences the world over are becoming more open to vocalists who sing languages other than English. Are you finding this to be so?

HH: Yes, maybe. The American language for so many years has ruled in jazz, and maybe people find it refreshing to listen to lyrics that are not just in English, even if they don't understand the words. [Hearing music in other languages] can bring you into another level, into another vibe.

AAJ: How does that work do you think?

HH: People are seeking new stuff—so [touring musicians] bring a new vibe to a place because they're not from there. When you come from abroad [your home] is in your blood and it just affects the [music].

Maryanne de Prophetis: When Helle sings in English I think it has such a beautiful quality and warmth. She's said to me in the past, "oh, but my accent..." But her particular accent colors and gives a new environment to the lyrics. And I don't think that's true of every [non-native] singer singing in English. In her case it's very true.

AAJ: Is Danish a language that lends itself easily to singing?

HH: No. In Danish we have a lot of back-tongue vowels, so many Danish singers have trouble singing high notes. Because when you sing a high note the larynx goes up and when you make a back-tongue vowel it fights with that. In English you have fewer problems with high tones.

MdP: But when you're connected to the music and it's something personal it doesn't matter. You make the words work and you make your sound work.

AAJ: What other cultural differences affect the way that you create music in Denmark do you think?

HH: [In Scandinavia] we have more small countries, more languages, and a lot of space. In the country the space really does something to you, with the big mountains and the forests.

AAJ: I've noticed that a lot of Scandinavian jazz draws elements from folk music—melodies or rhythms or lyrics.

HH: I was going to mention that. Musicians in Scandinavia want to bring that folk tradition into the music, and my music is totally a mix of straight American jazz standards and a lot of Danish folk music. But there's also a difference between jazz singers from the south and the north of Europe. I'm frequently with singers from Spain and Italy, and they sing in a much more traditional American style, the way they scat. Not many singers are doing that in Denmark anymore.

MdP: What attracted me to Helle's music right away was that it was not traditional. But it was soulful and clearly grounded in something very real. Not imitating the old school, traditional kind of [vocal jazz]. That's where I'm coming from as [a singer and producer] as well.

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