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:

"It is hard to imagine someone who would not like this music, because it is the DNA in our music, like psalms, it is something that we all can relate to. It is incredibly composed, simple and yet very complex. It is recognizable, the melodies are so clear and lucid that you can hear the first three tones, like, this is the Fugue in F minor, or something like that. When I have played some of these pieces for myself, when I have played them twenty times, it is like I get into a deeper layer and, at the same time, I understand that there are thousands of layers. And then, when I get into another layer, it is also a sense of discovery, but, still, there is the understanding that there are another thousands of layers, so to me, it is written in a very enigmatic way. The more you learn, the more you realize that there are so many layers that you will never get to the bottom of it all."

When asked whether the idea of multilayered music is also an ideal in his own music, Toldam answers:

"It is not something I have thought about, but I think that it is enormously exciting that things are ambiguous and not one-dimensional. You should be allowed to be left in a state of wonder and be surprised. It challenges you. So it is not an ideal as such, but it is definitely something that I think is important. Art should push us, it should make us see the world in a way that is a little different or inspire us to enter the world in a new way. Therefore, it is necessary that art pushes boundaries and, of course, boundaries are individual. It is enormously exciting to be able to reach as wide an audience as possible. It has some kind of strength. I am touched by art that reaches out widely. John Cage was not mainstream, but everyone can get something out of a work like "4'33" and some people think it is horrible and a fraud and some people think it is genius, but it makes people think and in that way, it moves all people in a little way."

"Without comparing directly with Cage, my wife (Quarin Wikström) played in a dance act during the fall. It was choreographed by a Swedish dance choreographer named Martin Forsberg and it was a fantastic show. I remember she said that they had received so many different reactions, ranging from someone saying that it was a deeply political criticism of society to someone saying that it was the most funny thing and someone saying it was shit, weird and without meaning. The reactions were so wide and everyone was affected."

"If you can provoke so different reactions, I think you are on to something. Art does not need to be mainstream to get a wide reaction. It can be very exclusive and still have a wide effect. I also think it is interesting when someone leaves when we play, as long as it is not everyone. They have made a decision, they have been touched in some way, perhaps thinking this is too forceful, too boring or too much. No matter what, the music has provoked an active decision. In that way, something has happened, and perhaps, it is even more influential than those people who just stay because they have paid for the concert. The other thing is more interesting."

Toldam believes that the dialog with the audience is important and the size of the audience has an effect, but it is not a matter of quality. There is just a difference between a large and small audience. In general, he tries to embrace the specific situation without trying to change it. As he points out, speaking of himself and the trio:

"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. Now we are in this situation and, perhaps, the situation is not like we imagined it to be. For instance, one moment there is a beat-up bar piano and the next you have a pristine concert piano. That is just the way it is. You don't achieve something by being irritated. You just have to accept the circumstances. The philosophy is that no matter the circumstances, there are always new things to discover in the present moment."

Toldam has played many types of music with many people. The idea of embracing the situation also affects his aesthetic. Indeed, it would be wrong to speak of one musical aesthetic. Instead, it makes more sense to speak of relational aesthetics:

"Definitely. When it comes down to it, music is just sound. No matter the genre, if you bring that word on the table, or the type of sounds. In essence, It is just sound and you react on impulses. The more you are capable of being in the moment, the more you will be able to let the music speak its own language. If you get to the essence of it all, there is no difference to me between playing a song with a singer and playing abstract music with Stork. In essence, it is the same. Some sounds are created and they inspire you to do something or you throw some sounds out that provoke a reaction. It is about being faithful towards the music without thinking too much. Just let it play."

"I had a masterclass with the pianist Butch Lacy and he said that the music is there all the time. It is a river that flows all the time -this is also true when we don't play. When we play, we just jump into the river and let ourselves be carried away. It is a great metaphor that explains what goes on when you play, at least for me. You don't have to control the music, you can just float away. You can do this no matter if it is a song with simple chords or advanced music. The more you do this, the less work, because then it is dictated from somewhere."

The idea of the music coming from somewhere else points towards something metaphysical and spiritual. Toldam elaborates on the spiritual dimension in music that can also be recognized in a pianist like Keith Jarrett:

"I definitely believe that you need to have some kind of spirit, but it does not have to be religious, I don't think it should be that, but there is a spiritual layer. It is not because I feel that when I play that things come from above, I don't know where they come from -and sometimes there is just emptiness. When you play, there are certain sounds, surroundings, and you have the people you are playing with on the stage. It gives some impulses that provoke a conscious or unconscious reaction. That's the practical way of looking at it, but there is definitely also a spiritual layer. It has something to do with the fact that everyone can hit a cymbal with a drumstick, but sometimes it sounds so beautiful that it can make you cry. Why is it that way?"

Speaking of people who are capable of hitting a cymbal with a drumstick in a special way, Toldam plays in a trio with Dutch avant-garde drummer Han Bennink and comments on his relationship with the drummer:

"I'm really grateful because I have been allowed to play with him and still do. Not just playing with him, but also being with him. As a human, he is really exciting to be around and he is totally present when you are with him. Life and art coalesce all the time. And I have learned a lot from playing with him. The first couple of times I played with him I felt as if he could not hear what I was playing. The very first time was like a freight train that started when we played. If I had to do anything at all, I had to create my own freight train and hope that perhaps we would meet at some point. Because I could not hear that we played together."

"But after we played together for some time, I realized that he reacts on everything, but oftentimes with tiny details and he hears something in the music I play that I don't hear myself. He has an incredibly sense of rhythm -when I play something he finds some kind of rhythm or tempo in it that I cannot hear myself, in that way he is able to transform my playing so it becomes something entirely new because he hears a layer that I cannot identify myself. Therefore, it is educational to play with someone like him and, besides, he has this otherworldly swing that grabs you. He has old school jazz mixed with the Fluxus-movement and the avant-garde approach where everything can become art if you want it to be. He can both enjoy playing a good song without doing anything about it and he can freak out and become abstract."

The idea of moving in different musical areas that Toldam has experienced with Bennink is also something that he brings to his own trio:

"It is exciting to be able to move between these outer reaches. To be able to move in such a big area where you can play a beautiful song and a swinging tune and suddenly a new door opens and you are doing something different. This is also something I bring to the trio, the joy of doing both things without being limited by any band rules or restrictions. There is a more clear direction in my other project Stork and that adds something else."

While Toldam's two main projects, the trio and Stork, could be seen to represent two opposites, a free and more through-composed approach, Toldam himself is sensing a growing affinity between them:

"I can sense that they are getting closer. The latest record from Stork, Bells of Sunday (ILK, 2014) was inspired by the sound of church bells. If you listen for a long time, you discover all kinds of overtones going anywhere. In the beginning, you hear the beats, but at some point, they disappear and the pure sound of overtones emerge (at this point in the interview, the sound of bells are suddenly chiming in the park). Wow. Good timing. You are allowed to get behind the sound and when you have entered this place. It is like another world. It is a microcosm that starts to open up. In that way, the two projects are approaching each other, with both records being inspired by a state of mind that goes beyond music itself."

"It is about slowing down. Almost like pressing pause and still be able to be present. It is like looking up in the sky where you see the tracks of a jet plane and suddenly you forget where you are, that you should pick up the kids, that you are hungry, that the tea is cold, all because you become immersed in something. Those moments are like playing music or like when you were playing as a kid and forgot everything around you. Those moments are important to have and give us some special experiences. They are an important part of our life, the moments when you forget everything about time."

"If you draw a parallel to music. In this place, the boundary between good and bad doesn't exist. It is not exciting. You are. And when you are, there are no questions. I am me. You are you. There are people you communicate with easily and some you can't talk to, but it doesn't make you a better or worse person and that's the same thing about playing. Perhaps someone leaves, and perhaps someone is really excited, but I am still just me. That is exciting to reach that point where it is not about good or bad music."

Toldam sums up his experience of playing music and his relationship with the trio:

"I look at it this way; in the trio we go into a room we explore together and suddenly a door opens and there is a new room. And you never know when the doors open, but you need to be susceptible any moment. We can play a traditional piece with an intro and bridge, but perhaps we only play three measures before a new door opens up where everyone feels there is something and then you enter this room, and perhaps you return to the previous room, or perhaps there is a new door. That is the image, I'm trying to give, to show how the music plays itself without form as a limitation. We do not say: 'we can only be free when we have played the bridge,' perhaps the music wants something else, and then we'll do that. It's not a provocative statement about the jazz tradition, but rather a wish for development, saying it could also be something different."


Simon Toldam Trio: Kig Op 15 (ILK, 2015)

Simon Toldam Trio: Kig Op 14 (ILK, 2014)

Stork: Bells of Sunday (ILK, 2014)

Han Bennink Trio: Bennink & Co (ILK, 2012)

Simon Toldam Trio: Sunshine Sunshine or Green as Grass (ILK, 2012)

Sekten: Klubbhus (ILK, 2012)

Stork: Stork (ILK, 2011)

Pet: Pet (ILK, 2009)

Han Bennink Trio: Parken (ILK, 2009)

Sekten: Mäktiga Vingar (ILK, 2008)

Simon Toldam & Prügelknabe: Simon Toldam & Prügelknabe (ILK, 2008)

Sekten: Annars Är Det Tyst (ILK, 2005)

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