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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:

"There is an interest in finding inspiration outside music: in everyday life, people and nature. In that way, it is like a record that is allowed to be a unity and not just a stream of hits, just like life can't be upbeat all the time. Many aspects need to be present before you can be whole as a human and part of this is also the dark aspects or melancholy, it can add light in the way it puts the joyful feeling into perspective. I would like the records to reflect this, not in the sense that we try to play bad music, if you can use that word, but in the sense that everything comes in waves -just like life comes in waves. It is also a way to get energy. We work and then we take a break. That is also a wave. We get into another mode where other things become interesting."

The waves that Toldam finds in life, up and down, are also present in the music that develops in many different sound waves:

"It is the same with the records, at least these two trio records. There is a lot of diversity. You can find classic trio jazz and there is a minimalistic kind of stubbornness reminiscent of John Cage, expressionistic avant-garde and folk-like melodies and psalms, so it is very diverse. That is the strong thing about the trio. We play and there is no taboo. There is no clear musical profile. Instead, it is about unchaining the music, releasing it, make it live, so it can do what it wants. We try to have as little control as possible -we give the music a platform and a starting point and then it can develop in any possible direction, depending on time, space, people and moods."

Toldam's approach in the trio is a process of creation that is completely free and devoid of any musical restrictions:

"Things are popping up and I say yes to it all. It is a completely uncritical process of creation, in fact. The things I write for the trio are mostly things where it is like a cup that is filled until it is overflowing and the result is an idea, a sketch or something. All the music in the trio is not compositional work as such. I do not sit for days to immerse myself in writing. Suddenly, during a sound-check, an idea comes up; a phrase, a chord or just a sound, and that idea becomes the material I use to develop a certain piece. The process is unlike my orchestra Stork where the approach is more compositional. It is a different process of creation."

When it comes to the art of letting go, Toldam is aware that it has been a process of maturation:

"I think I have become more mature musically -and it is not necessarily a good thing to be mature. When you are young, the world tends to be black and white and you are highly aware of your choices, like 'I'll do THIS, but DEFINITELY NOT THIS AND THIS.' You are stubborn in a different way and perhaps force things through, but still there is a lot of expression and energy in it, but now I think I'm changing and have different approach where it is no longer about me. I'm not interesting. It is not exciting that I have written something. The exciting thing is what it can develop into and the process is most exciting when you are more than one. The sum of different people, whether it is the trio or Stork. You enter a room together and create something that you haven't created before. And that kind of maturity, for a lack of a better word, was something I didn't have as a young man. I was definitely more stubborn -it was supposed to sound like me. So when I look back, I realize that I was stubborn. I insisted on turning the music in my direction instead of letting it be itself and letting it go wherever it wanted to go."

As young man, Toldam's strategy was to sabotage the sound whenever it got too sweet and pretty. Today, he feels that he has moved beyond that stage, but he has also learned something from that approach. His touch on the piano has sometimes been compared to Thelonious Monk, who tellingly wrote a composition called "Ugly Beauty," but when it comes to the dichotomy between the soft touch of Bill Evans and the hard touch of Monk, Toldam is more sceptical:

"Monk has meant a lot to me, but in reality, I haven't listened so much to his records, but I have played his music, but of course I know him and his records, but I haven't obsessed about him. Still, he has left enormous footprints. I don't think that he has a hard touch, to me that connotes something irritating, but he has an angular touch, definitely. When it comes to my own sound, I hope that it is both things. In the same way that music is diverse, I hope that the touch is diverse. At the moment, I try to play as quietly as I can and try to examine the little nuances in playing quietly."

A composer who is a master in bringing out little musical nuances is Johann Sebastian Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier belongs among Toldam's favorite works of music:

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