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Pernille Bévort: Roundabouts And Novellas


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To me, music is communicating stories. It carries meaning and creates pictures. It’s up to the audience to interpret the exact meaning.
—Pernille Bévort
It's been over three years since multi-reedist, singer composer and arranger Pernille Bévort released Perfect Organisation (Gateway, 2011), her outstanding bringing together of jazz and tango nuevo that featured bandoneon player Marcelo Nisinman. Bévort, however, hasn't been slacking off in any way in the intervening years, oh no. She's simply been occupied in the execution of jury duty.

Sitting on a jury casting judgment on thousands of hopeful artists sounds like the typical talent-spotting shows that clog the TV schedules of countries the world over. But for Bévort, there were no TV cameras and no audience. Until January 2014, when her three-year stint on the jury of Denmark's Arts Council ended, Bévort helped decide which rhythmic musicians—as they refer to them in Denmark—should and which shouldn't receive financial assistance to compose, record or tour.

Bévort acknowledges that the position gave her a unique insight into the business and state of the arts in Denmark, but her tenure is over and she's equally delighted to be back doing what she does best—making jazz records. Trio Temptations is Bévort's ninth as leader and it's the most stripped-down, straight-ahead jazz recording she's made for some years. It's also one of her best. The saxophonist/reeds player is in sparkling form and she's joined by two of Denmark's most respected jazz musicians, bassist Peter Hansen and drummer Espen Laub von Lillienskjold in this exciting new adventure.

All About Jazz:This record is perhaps the most straight ahead recording you've done for a while; was this sort of stripped down, pure jazz format one that you've been wanting to record for a while?

Pernille Bévort: Yeah. Actually, I've been working with this trio set-up for a while, jamming and experimenting with different tunes. We performed several concerts and we felt like we wanted to make a recording of this line-up.

After my work with Radio Bévort and the project with Marcelo [Nisinman], which was a really big set-up and difficult to book concerts. I thought I would like to do something completely different and scale down, just focus on the saxophone and the jazz language.

AAJ: It's just saxophone, bass and drums; what are the challenges of playing as a trio without a chordal instrument?

PB: When you communicate to your audience you need to make your story interesting though you don't have all these chords to guide your ears. So, you have to somehow make them follow your lines and pronounce some kind of chord texture—not so clearly defined but within the lines you play and the way you play together. But you have the possibilities to make some excursions because you're not caught in those very well defined chords. You can take more chances and maybe play more out and then back again. It's challenging and a lot of fun.

AAJ: What was your approach to writing in this instance? Do chord structures have less importance in the writing process too?

PB: It depends on what kind of tune it is. Some of the tunes were pretty much written on the piano, with chords and some of them the melodic lines have been more in focus and sometimes it's on the two lines between the bass and the tenor saxophone and how they move around. So, my starting point has been different from tune to tune.

AAJ: This is the first recording of this particular trio though you've played with both these musicians before; could you talk a little about your working history with bassist Peter Hansen and Espen Laub von Lillienskjold?

PB: Peter Hansen was educated at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory as I was when it was a little institution. He's been playing with a lot great people on the Danish jazz scene like the tenor [saxophone] player Tomas Franck and a pianist called Jorgen Emborg, he played with the singer Cecilie Norby when she was younger. I also played with Jørgen in a quintet with a singer and that's how we met. Espen's a little younger than the two of us. He played with this big band called The Aarhus Jazz Orchestra [formerly known as the Klüver's Big Band] for six or seven years before moving to Copenhagen. He's been here for quite a while now, playing in a lot of different settings.

I play with him in another project with the Hammond organ player, Kjeld Lauritsen—known for his band The Organizers—so I've known him through all these different settings.

AAJ: Peter Hansen played on the Radio Bévort recording Perfect Organisation on which bandoneon player Marcelo Nisinman played; do you regard that as a special project with a limited life or is this music something you wish to perform with Nisinman again in the future?

PB: I don't know if it will be possible to do something but we have actually been playing several concerts in Denmark, not with Marcelo Nisinman in that role but with a guy called Francesco Calì who plays the accordion and the piano. Instead of the bandoneon I switched between accordion and piano. We've played several times but we're seven people and it's kind of difficult. I've also contacted places in Sweden but it's hard work because you need to apply for support for transportation and you need this and that.

I love that music and I love the project and I've written quite a few new songs for that context. I love the sound of all the reeds. So, it's not that I quit that project. Not at all. We are still a band and still working.

AAJ: On the subject of getting gigs it seems in Europe, in America, most musicians complain about the difficulty of getting gigs; how important is it in Denmark for booking agents and venues to have the musicians present special projects as opposed to your regular working band?

PB: There is a tendency that everything should be a very special occasion. It's like you should set up a totally new project every time, just this one time. When you see the fee that you get for it it's really nothing compared to all the work you put into putting together a new project.

I like to be creative and set up projects and do my stuff but if I have to compete with the booking agents who also want to be creative and set up different, interesting stuff...if they do it on my behalf okay but if I am supposed to be part of their creativity and there is no respect for my own project then it becomes a problem as I see it. I guess it's the same all over, this focus on special events.

AAJ: It must become quite exhausting...

PB: It is exhausting. Who could work that way all the time? It reminds me that just this autumn I played with [pianist] David Braid from Toronto, Canada. He was here as a visiting artists and I was chosen to play with him in a quintet setting. I've been communicating with him a little because he said it would be nice for me to go to Canada to play.

But you know when it comes to realities I received this mail with all these explanations of what I should do and so on and I get the picture that I need to do everything myself and I cannot be sure I will get paid. I would need to apply for a lot of support here, there and everywhere to make it possible and I guess that's the situation for a lot of people. But nevertheless, hopefully I will succeed and make this Canada thing come true sometime in the future but right now I have no specific schedule for this.

AAJ: It seems artists have to jump through a lot of hoops to perform in North America.

PB: Yeah, it's actually quite complicated and it's a lot of work to do and it's individual band leader who has to do all this because its difficult to get a booking agent.

AAJ: Von Lillienskjold plays in, what is for me, one of the most dynamic and interesting of contemporary big bands,Blood, Sweat, Drum + Bass—you've played a lot in big bands over the past 15 years, would Blood, Sweat, Drum + Bass be a band that you'd like to play in?

PB: Yeah, definitely. I played with them once, but just as a sub. I know them, the music and the bandleader [Jens Christian "Chappe" Jensen].

AAJ: It must be very difficult for them to get gigs because there are something like 27 musicians; how on earth can they tour?

PB: The band leader was connected with the Conservatory in Aarhus for many years and in some way that gave him the position where it was possible to build up this band, otherwise it wouldn't have been possible, I think. They do get some band support from the Danish State but when you are one of these freelance orchestras it's not that much money compared to how much work it is and how many expenses you have traveling with such a big ensemble. So, I don't know how he {Jensen] manages that. It must be...exhausting [laughs].

AAJ: A lot of your career has been spent playing in big bands and on a lot of your own ensembles' albums you use a second horn, even on this trio album you can't quite stay away from a second or even third horn; I'm thinking of the layered horns on tracks like "Almost Gone," where you intertwine bass clarinet and soprano, "Power" Peach" , "Minor Clues" and "Vuggevise..."

PB: I can't stay away [laughs].

AAJ: Do you always hear harmonic lines or counterpoint when you compose?

PB: Well, again it depends. I guess I pretty much think in lines. I guess if you listen to all the tunes I did on the Radio Bévort albums I do have different lines. I have a flute on top and I have a bass line double with the bass clarinet. I like all these things. Once another musician said to me that she felt I make music like an architect. I hear those lines and then I add them. You know I played a lot with Erling Kroner, the trombone player, until he unfortunately died, and he taught me different kind of principles for arranging for horns and the track "Almost Gone" was something I wrote when I started out studying this. It is a conversation between these two lines definitely, and combined with chords.

AAJ:, "Minor Clues" reminded me of a Quincy Jones-style arrangement; can you talk a little about how this track came together?

PB: It's the second time I've recorded it so I considered shall I do it? Then I thought, okay, I might as well do it if I like it. We've been playing it in the trio setting as well and had great fun with it. In my basement we tried out how it would sound with a rhythm track and we found that it was quite fun and we brought that rhythm track to the studio and played along with it. It wasn't that easy to play with that rhythm track and Espen on the drums does a great job [laughs].

So I made this arrangement for this specific tune. I like all the spooky sounds at the end when all these bass clarinets and saxophones are together. I would have missed them if they weren't there.

AAJ: The arrangement works very well. You mentioned studying big band arrangements with Erling Kroner and you've written tunes for the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band, which has nine horn players, when are we going to hear a Pernille Bévort Big Band recording?

PB: You asked me that before [laughs] and you will do so again and again. Oh yeah, when you think of all the complications, gathering all the good people and asking them to work for free [laughs] and all these rehearsals. I don't know if you'll ever see a big band CD of my music, but you never know.

AAJ: Let's assume the hypothetical scenario where you lucked out and won a huge grant, what would your ideal big band be composed of?

PB: I think I would love to do not a full big band because the sounds I like, the textures I like are more about having a lot of reed players. I would like to have five reed players, with doubling on flutes, clarinet and bass clarinets. Then three trombones and two trumpets; something like that to down size the brass section I'm sorry to say [laughs]. I wouldn't go for the traditional big band sound.

AAJ: I'm sure it would work very well. Coming back to Trio Temptations, I remember you describing the songs on the CD Playground +1 as "like a gathering of novellas"—is that a good description of the tunes on Trio Temptations?

PB: Yeah, I guess so. Maybe some of my audience will think I'm going too much from one kind of a tune to another but I like that every tune has its very specific sound and mood and the next one has something else, like novellas. It brings some dynamics into the story. To me, music is communicating stories. Music is another kind of language, it's of course not like words in that kind of understanding, but it carries meaning and creates pictures. It's up to the audience to interpret the exact meaning.

AAJ: The one track you didn't write was "Ballad to You," by Espen; how difficult is it to inhabit someone else's composition, particularly a ballad that has no words?

PB: Well, I'm pretty used to that because I play a lot of different stuff and I always try to listen and to be open towards that mood or sound and to be true to it when I play. I don't find it that complicated when I play that particular ballad and that's why we decided to put it on the CD because all three of us felt it was nice. It's great to play.

AAJ: Am I right in thinking there aren't any words for that song?

PB: I don't think so. I'll ask Espen. Maybe I'll write some words for it [laughs].

AAJ: Why not? It could work very nicely. Another track on Trio Temptations is "Life is a Roundabout," which struck me as a nice metaphor, but do you mean roundabout as in carousel/merry-go-round or as in a road feature—they'd both work, wouldn't they?

PB: This tune was one that I wrote with text, and I've been playing it with my big group, the Radio Bévort project. "Life is a Roundabout" is about the stages in life when you need to make some decisions and you cannot really decide and you drive round and round this roundabout and you cannot decide which direction to take. Something like that [laughs].

AAJ: There's a pointless statistic that supposedly half of the world's roundabouts are in France. I wonder what Freud would say about that.

PB: They have also built a lot of new ones in Denmark but sometimes they are so tiny that it's almost impossible to drive around them.

AAJ: They'll give people time to decide what to do with their lives, no? Getting away from roundabouts, it says on the CD cover that it was supported by the Danish Musicians' Union and the Arts Council; Arts Council funding is not unheard of in many countries but the Musicians' Union? How does that work?

PB: It's the Musicians Union but they just administrate money coming from something called Gramex. I would need to investigate because I'm not quite sure if it's the Musicians Union's own money or if they administer money coming from somewhere else in the system.

The other thing is the Arts Council. For the past three years I was actually a member of the Jury in the Arts Council in Denmark and I stopped in this New Year. I was a member of the Jury for rhythmic music where we decided who should get composer grants. I was chosen by my composer society DJBFA to sit there for three years.

AAJ: I can imagine that position might have been occasionally confrontational, frustrating and with vested interests operating...

PB: Yeah, yeah, but I think we have the best system you can have in Denmark. I think it's a good idea that the composers and musicians themselves choose who sits on the jury because these are people who know about music. Of course, there can be a lot of different interests and when you sit on the jury you cannot get support from the Arts Council so I couldn't apply for those three years. I got a fee for doing the work, not big money, and it was lots of work because there were I think a thousand applications a year, approximately.

AAJ: That's a lot.

PB: Yeah. In the springtime there are a large number of applications for those grants, mostly for composer grants and some for traveling. When you sit on the jury you get a picture of the whole situation in Denmark and the whole music business and you can see how hard it is. But it's interesting, definitely, and very important work.

AAJ: Can you give us an idea of how many artists the Arts Council is able to support in one year?

PB: If I remember rightly in the springtime there were around 500 or 600 applications for composer's grants just within the rhythmic area. Maybe 120 of them got support. So around 20 or 25% get some support and 75% don't get anything.

AAJ: Do you know how these figures compare with other countries?

PB: No, not really. What we saw was that we were not able to give such high grants as we would have liked. There is a lot of music talent in Denmark and a lot of things happening on the jazz scene but we don't have the money to support these talented young people.

They maybe get 30,000 Danish kroner [$5,400] for a composer's grant and it's not that much if you compare it to average salaries. In Denmark that's a month's pay or something. It's not much for people to take time to compose. If you compare that with the literature grants for example they start I believe at 50,000 Danish kroner so we felt like, especially in the rhythmic section that we were working in the monkey class [working for peanuts] and we said so [laughs].

AAJ: The CD was recorded on Gateway; what's this record company like to be on?

PB: It's a little label under the Danish Musicians union. You remain an independent artist, you can say, which means that you are the producer of your music. They take very little royalties from the recording and they give you good distribution. They also see to it that the music comes up on iTunes and so on. You retain authority over your own music, the rights to your music. I am the boss of my own music but I have to do a lot of the work myself.

AAJ: It sounds like a very fair set-up.

PB: Definitely. It's fine, but you need to know that all PR and advertising and so on you need to do yourself. But then again no-one is fooling you [laughs].

AAJ: Not a bad thing at all. Pernille, you have several interesting projects I'd like to ask you about. Firstly, I believe you have another CD coming out in February 2014 with the Pierette Ensemble. What can you tell us about this group?

PB: It's interesting because it's a crossover project between classical music and jazz. We're an all-female group, actually. I'm not the leader or the composer but the music is very interesting. There are six musicians; me on a lot of bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, Lisbeth Diers, a wonderful percussionist we have here in Denmark—she's not as known as she should be—two string players from the experimental scene in London, Hannah Marshall on cello and Alison Blunt on violin. Then there's Julie Kjaer on alto saxophone and flute—she lives in London now—and Signe Bisgaard on piano. It's very interesting music and I'm looking forward to the CD coming out and I hope we'll be able to play some more concerts.

AAJ: I'm sure All About Jazz readers will be curious about this project. Another fascinating project you're involved in is the band Musik, eventyr og unoder, which I believe translates as Music, Adventure and Mischief. It sounds funky; could you tell us about this band and the intent behind the music?

PB: it's a specific project which we do in schools. In Denmark we have an organization that organizes school concerts so that children get to hear live music. It's a story telling project for children where we tell a crazy fairy tale. We have an actress in front of us, Marianne Frost, telling this story, but she also creates the story together with the children so they are also part of this story. They decide what the princess is saying and what the dragon is saying, so they have things to say in the story. They decide how the creature looks.

Nothing is wrong in this story and that's what the children like. Whatever the children say Marianne picks it up and puts it into the story and creates something with it. She's very good.

AAJ: That ties in with the often quoted line from trumpeter Miles Davis that there are no wrong notes in jazz. It's what comes after the note that matters.

PB: Yeah, yeah, it's something like that.

AAJ: And the music?

PB: We play the music in the trio—that's Espen [Laub Von Lillienskjold] on the drums and Kjeld Lauritsen on the Hammond organ and me on saxophone and bass clarinet. It's fun. We play jazz music so we also improvise, playing funny stuff. I think a lot of children never see live music and they always listen to mainstream pop music and they don't have this physical impression of what music can also be, so it's very important to give them these kinds of experiences.

AAJ: What kind of feedback or reaction do you get from the children?

PB: They are excited. They love it. We usually play it for children from around 6 years up to 10. They just love it. They want our autographs and everything [laughs].

AAJ: Fame at last. I didn't know children that young chased autographs.

PB: Yeah, but they do. We have also been playing for handicapped children and it's amazing. Music can communicate with everyone and it's great to see. It's a fun project.

AAJ: It sounds fantastic. There's another project you're involved in, a kind of workshop/lecture using jazz as a communication tool; how does this work?

PB: We work with different sorts of organizations. We talk about how we communicate and how we work together and actually it has to do with exactly this thing you said that whatever comes up we don't just throw our hands up we try to make it make sense. When we play together in the trio we are both acting and reacting at the same time. We really need to be conscious, to listen to make things work. When we play on stage we don't just leave the stage if someone plays something you don't like. We need to stay there because we are doing something together.

We are like an organism; the three of us can decide to move in a new direction altogether and we all need to be able to take the lead as well as being able to follow. You could say that flexibility is very important in the way we communicate and collaborate when playing music. And these are actually life skills that we can use in numerous situations day in day out.

AAJ:Who are your audiences usually?

PB: Usually it's organizations that are restructuring in some way where new people have to work together and make things work in a new way. We might be there for a couple of hours, do our thing and start this discussion. People's reactions have been very positive. They have experienced something because music works on another level. It's not only intellectual; it's also something you can feel in your body. We illustrate all this in the music. It gives another kind of understanding—a sensuous as well as an intellectual understanding.

AAJ: It's basically about refining communication.

PB: Yes, because jazz is about communication.

AAJ: Does your trio also demonstrate communication to music students?

PB: We hope to do so. With Peter on the bass and another drummer we're going to do some workshops here in the spring and I hope we'll talk about all these things as well. Communication is at the center of the music. It's at the center of life.

Photo Credit

Jan Lindegaard Hansen



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