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Simon Toldam: A New Perspective in Jazz

Jakob Baekgaard By

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We are improvising people who attempt to be in the moment as much as we can. This is true when we play, but also in general. If you have this mindset, this philosophy, it is something that affects your whole behavior and life in general. —Simon Toldam
Danish pianist and composer Simon Toldam is a man who is used to getting involved in many different musical situations. Toldam thrives on diversity and he has played all kinds of music, from folk music to modern jazz and avant-garde. No matter what he is playing, he invests himself in the different musical contexts and brings his own sounds to each musical universe. It might be the lyrical sounds of Danish trumpeter Jakob Buchanan or the playful avant-garde music of iconic Dutch drummer Han Bennink.

For some time, Toldam has been involved with conservatories in Denmark where he teaches regularly and he is also a member of the prominent Copenhagen collective and label, ILK, where he has released no less than twelve albums. So far, the response from the public has been positive, with four Danish jazz awards and, recently, Toldam was rewarded with a three-year working grant from the Danish Agency for Culture.

However, while Toldam appreciates the positive response he is getting, he has also come to a time in his life where he has become more interested in the things that lie outside a narrow musical universe. This is reflected in the way he speaks about things in a philosophical way as he tries to find a connection between music and life in general.

Toldam has just arrived with the train when I meet him in the city of Aarhus. There is a jazz festival in the city and later in the evening, he is going to play a concert with his good friend, trumpeter Jakob Buchanan, and saxophonist Chris Speed. Buchanan has written new music that he refers to as "sketches" and he wants to hear what kind of direction the music will take in the hands of these accomplished musicians.

However, right now, it is not about the music. It is about coffee and not just any kind of coffee, but good coffee. Toldam knows a place where they sell good coffee and we buy two cups and look for a place where we can talk. I mention the venue where he is going to play later, but the sun is shining and he suggests that we find a place in a park nearby. There are no benches available, so we end up sitting in the green grass while we talk. It is almost like an echo of the title of Toldam's first album with his trio: Sunshine Sunshine or Green as Grass (ILK, 2012). The trio is the tightknit constellation with bassist Nils Davidsen and drummer Knut Finsrud and they have just finished an ambitious duology, consisting of two albums, Kig Op 14 (ILK, 2014) and Kig Op 15 (ILK, 2015). The theme of both of these albums is to try to look up to see things in a new perspective. As Toldam explains about the title:

"For me, the music on those two records is about what I see when I look up, and as such there is no particular message, other than it is something that has given me great delight, and it still does. It is the key to different experiences, calm and some surprises because we often look down. So it can be interpreted in different ways, but it is also clear that it could be seen as a comment, I'm reluctant to say encouragement because I would like to keep it open for individual interpretation, but again, it could be seen as an encouragement to put our screens away. But to me that is not what it is about. I like the inclusiveness of those two words (kig = look and op = up) and most of all, it is about my own experience of looking up."

Openness and inclusiveness are keywords to Toldam and when confronted with the idea that perhaps he is a conceptual artist, an idea that potentially goes against the idea of openness, he points out the difference between himself and a conceptual artist:

"I don't look at myself as a conceptual artist, but there are certain themes that catch my interest, for instance this whole idea of looking up as a theme on these two records, and perhaps you could call it a concept, but to me, it is more like a trip than a concept. Conceptual to me connotes something that is locked. You have a certain framework or a set of rules that you need to follow and I can't work that way. There has to be space for all the things you cannot include if you have set up a particular frame. So I don't see myself as a conceptual artist, but in recent years I have taken an interest in other things than just my own idea of a good sound, as opposed to my young days where it was primarily about finding the right tones, the right chord, a rhythm, a landscape of sound that I really liked."

Toldam has identified a change in the way he sees things and it points in a holistic direction where life and music reflect each other:

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