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Nordic Sounds: Jazz (and Beyond) in the Nordic Countries

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Finland, Denmark and Norway
America’s popular culture - be it movies, popular music or jazz - has exerted on 20th century European culture a profound influence. In music critic Simon Frith’s book, Sound Effects , German film director Wim Wenders says, ”The Americans colonized our sub-conscious.” But ironically it was not in America, but in Europe that jazz, labeled by many Stateside critics as ”America’s Classical Music”, was first appreciated intellectually. Many of the first journals and magazines devoted to jazz appeared in France and Sweden. The other Nordic countries - Finland, Denmark and Norway – also latched onto jazz as an important new form of music, and their love for it has led musicians in those countries to develop their own interpretation of the form. Over the past 80 years these musicians, in these relatively small countries, have nurtured thriving jazz scenes

At first the Nordic countries, like most of Europe, modeled their playing on American records. Lars Westin, in his online overview of Swedish jazz history “Jazz in Sweden”, describes the influence of American recordings: “Isolated records which found their way over the Atlantic with convoys, or which were circulated in other ways, worked like a vitamin injection [to the Swedish jazz scene].”

In an English summary of the book Jazz, Hot and Swing: Jazz in Norway 1920-1940 , Norwegian author Bjørn Stendahl attributes to recordings an even more important contribution: “...Improvisation had become a common term. The reason for this is to be found in the new American records of the time...” Stendhal later tells an illustrative story of Norwegian saxophonist Mikkel Flagstad, who came to bebop early. He recounts how Flagstad listened to The Voice of America for many weeks, waiting for Parker and Gillespie’s “Shaw ‘Nuff” another time, just so he could he copy snatches of the theme.

Europeans may have learned the language of jazz through the record, copying the innovations of American musicians, but starting in the late 1960s, the Nordic countries began producing their own professional class of jazz musicians, musicians that dialogued with the musical traditions of their own countries just as much as they dialogued with the American one. That first generation – Jan Garbarek, Edward Vesala, Anders Jormin, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – has helped educate the new voices – Hakon Kornstad, Kari Ikonen, Esbjorn Svesson, Kasper Tranberg – and created a spirit of adventure and a desire to keep expanding jazz’s language. Those musicians mentioned here are only a sampling how the Nordic countries have developed mature scenes.

In 2001, the Norwegian pianist and the founder of Jazzland records Bugge Wesseltoft claimed with confidence in the New York Times, “To me it seems European musicians are more progressive now than jazz players in America.” While his statement may strike some as extreme, he is right that many Europeans musicians, Nordic ones included, quite readily subsume diverse influences into their music. From the improvised electronica of Norway’s Supersilent and the radiophonic explorations of Finland’s Gnomus to the microtonal excursions of Sweden’s Mats Gustafsson and the all-acoustic experiments of the pan-Nordic quartet The Electrics, Nordic musicians have consistently searched out their own dialect of the jazz language.

All of these developments will be featured in coming installments of Nordic Sounds. My tour will begin in Finland, my current location, and future installments will spread out to the other countries. Concert reviews, artist interviews and profiles, record label profiles and historical essays – expect all these and more.

Start here with a review of two stunning duo albums from Finland, or read about the Finnish-Danish quartet Delirum’s latest tour. Also check out the side menu for past articles and reviews about the Finnish scene.

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