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Stockholm Jazz Festival 2015

John Ephland By

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Stockholm Jazz Festival
Stockholm, Sweden
October 9-18, 2015

The sleeper at this year's Stockholm Jazz Festival, and one this reviewer initially found more a curiosity than anything else, oddly enough was downright riveting, not to mention the first evening's headliner. More in the category of being a name crossover artist along the lines of a Dr. John, Buddy Guy or, dare I say, James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones put on a show that presented her talents as not only a singer/songwriter who plays guitar, but as a fully developed song stylist at home in the setting of a large ensemble. It wasn't jazz, but at times it was jazzy, her renderings of the standards "The Second Time Around" and "Bye, Bye Blackbird" both personal and professionally delivered, featuring tasteful accompaniment from her core band of second voice/violin/mandolin, electric and acoustic guitars and bass, drums and keyboards along with vibes and, later on, extra pianos, a three-member woodwind and string quartet ensembles, the latter group coming from the Stockholm Art Orchestra. The accent was on the subdued as the languorous and occasionally animated Jones moved about the stage, many times listening to others as well as performing, dancing and prancing as she left her red-slipper high heels, black hat and eventually black wrap to reveal a black dress before a sold-out house at Stockholm's 700-seat Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. Most of the material was her's, including her major hit "Chuck E.'s In Love," delivered in a highly intimate way. With many songs ending as if suddenly unexpected, Jones was clearly at home with this crowd, and fully invested. 

While veteran Swedish trumpeter Peter Asplund and his quartet were performing an intimate set of standards featuring singer Melanie Scholtz at Plugged Records the next day, there was another showcase that offered a different kind of the variety, this one involving an enjoyable excursion with kids during the festival's first weekend. Dedicated to finding the obvious connections between playfulness and jazz, Stockholm's own singer/songwriter/instrumentalists Emma Nordenstams and Lina Nyberg took on the handful of families present, complemented with nap blankets down front for Saturday and Sunday afternoon concerts, respectively, in the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. Nyberg's performance included her own grade-school daughter for some of the sing-a-longs with music that was both easy to like and very musical, the band in support including musicians playing percussion, acoustic bass, saxophone, violin and a combination of acoustic guitar and lap-steel guitar. A bit rowdy toward the end, Nyberg still managed to involve multi-generations with her spritely, engaging voice, leading the band with catchy tunes one could only imagine sung with lyrics that would make Mr. Rogers proud. Clearly an all-ages show. 

Later that night, singer Isabella Lundgren performed before a packed house at the Mornington Hotel in the first of their "Day of" series of concerts, featuring different instruments, this one titled Day of the Voice. The L-shaped layout to the first floor, with her band of Carl Bagge on piano, Niklas Fernqvist on bass and drummer Daniel Fredriksson placed at the intersection, proved no obstacle as avid listeners stayed for two sets of mostly original music, composed and arranged by Lundgren and Bagge (of the Stockholm Art Orchestra). Beginning with Johnny Mercer's "Accentuate The Positive," the music veered off-course to include other themes somewhat murkier and/or complex in nature. It may have been the diminutive singer's way of drawing the customers in before unleashing what were clearly more involved arrangements that deftly managed to sidestep your typical "swing's-the-thing" singer- and-band routines, sometimes to the point where, despite the instrumentation, one could forget this was even jazz, the music laced with arrangements more akin to Broadway, many songs ending with unconventional abruptness. That said, Lundgren's ofttimes thin voice was still hearty when the tune called for it, her affinities with the jazz tradition obvious, at points even recalling a full-throated Judy Garland. 

While the lion's share of the concerts featured Scandinavian artists, the Stockholm Jazz Festival has always prided itself on bringing in other world-renowned talent. This year was no exception, starting with trumpeter Dave Douglas' quintet playing a Monday night show at one of jazz's most prized venues (and this year again one of DownBeat Magazine's top jazz haunts), Fasching. Famous for its weekend late-night jams that many times include scheduled performers, both headliners and their colleagues, Fasching's recently remodeled club has improved sightlines, a longer bar, continued excellent food and drink service, and a dance floor for partygoers into the wee small hours. Douglas' quintet filled the room with a sound that seemed larger than its five members. Their first stop on a European tour and playing off their current
Brazen Heart
album, these were five equal voices in a fascinating mix of the arranged and improvised, where, like early Weather Report, there were no real solos but soloing nonetheless. The music and forms changed constantly, and encompassed everything from Dixieland to free-jazz, Douglas' parched horn heard echoing Miles Davis one moment, a gospelly slow funk the next. "Ever Had A Heart" played like a ballad, the unison lines coming from Douglas and saxophonist Jon Irabagon mirrored by Linda Oh's ever-present bass, with Matt Mitchell's piano lines approaching solo territory, his throbbing pulse making his piano sound like another instrument. Oh, positioned toward the back but centrally on stage, was like the fulcrum of this band, her change of rhythms and tempos along with note choices indicators of what was to come next. A gospel vibe permeated the music, Fasching's rapt audience witnessing a performance that persistently came to a near- boil.

Daytime shows ran throughout the workweek, including a sonically soothing show with the Soundscape Orchestra at the Gallerian shopping mall. Combining old and new perspectives, keyboards and laptop joined with drums, a slightly altered set of vibes and reeds for a half-hour series of musical selections that were minimalist, funky and quietly subversive, the mind-meld of modes held together by danceable grooves. Perfect for the lunch crowd who bother to stop, look and listen, if not dance. 

There was more incredible music at Fasching the following night as a string of bands and a singer performed for radio and awards with the P2 Jazzkatten, the Swedish National Radio Jazz Awards program. As another packed house eagerly awaited what has become an annual rite of passage for Swedish jazz musicians, the radio crew was getting set up for broadcast. Having revved up a half hour beforehand, the evening officially blasted off with the free-jazz sounds of the Elsa Bergman Festen quartet, made up of piano, reeds, bass and drums. This was real energy music and a novel way to start an early evening broadcast. Their outward-bound sounds were in dramatic contrast to the duo performance of Isabella Lundgren and pianist Daniel Karlsson. Singing light but with much feeling, she sang covers of gospel "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" and "Eudaemonia." It was a testament to and a reminder of the big tent of jazz, which has a place for any manner of expression. The evening's highlight was the incredible performance of pianist Cecilia Persson's music, performed with alto saxophonist Anna Högberg and a string trio of violinist Malin-My Wall, violist Nora Roll and cellist Johanna Dahl. With the nominal focus on Högberg's playing, Persson and the trio moved in and out of Högberg's expansive and expressive range of emotions with a technique that mirrored John Zorn one moment, Eric Dolphy the next, but with a delivery that also included tender moments of pure stillness. As if on cue (maybe they were), the string players seemed to know just when to enter in support of the soloists, which also included Persson at pregnant moments opposite Högberg, her piano going beyond its usual tonal reach in ways that suggested harmony and melody in a sea of free improvisation that somehow maintained an aural center of gravity. This was intuitive music to an extreme, played, frankly, as only a group of exceptional women players could, creatively reaching for and discovering emotional cores time and time again. The closer to this night of widely divergent sounds came from Oddjob, which, unlike their more rhapsodic recent release Folk (on Caprice), managed, in two sets, to bridge the gap between Miles Davis Bitches Brew jamming and a kind of edgy dance music. The improvising, the collective outreach and, above all, the various funk grooves at various velocities were on trajectories that seemed impossible to rein in, but somehow were. 

The following night of the festival featured the all-women big band Jazz Baltica All Star Big Band, directed by Ann-Sofie Soderqvist at the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. A sold-out performance, the enthusiastic crowd seemed almost a part of the show, the music heard almost like a sporting event. Some incendiary solo playing lit a fire under an initial mood heard that tended towards the serene, an elegance permeating smart charts and impressive section work. This mood was hijacked with a rousing, funky take on Aretha Franklin's "Think." Alternately, at Fasching the mood continued to be experimental, with two sets delivered by Maria Faust's Sacrum Facere and her unique aggregate of multiple horns, including tuba, and a little prepared piano followed by the modern Swedish jazz saxophonist Per Texas Johansson. Almost folkish in execution, Faust's chamber jazz was both boisterous and delicate, this bass-less, drummer-less group managing to remind us that jazz has no cardinal rules to follow. Per Texas Johansson's band was equally bipolar in its on- again, off-again approaches to original music, players making the biggest impression being vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl (heard in a more straightforward setting with singer Rickie Lee Jones earlier in the festival), who made use of his instrument in ways previously unheard, and drum wizard Konrad Agnes (heard the previous week with his brother bassist Mauritz playing with guitarist Pat Metheny in neighboring Uppsala at their reputable international guitar festival), whose drum explorations defied any definition of conventional jazz drumming. And, once again, Fasching sported a packed, eager, standing-room-only crowd.

Another highlight, and a close second to Rickie Lee Jones for festival sleeper was Stockholm's MusicMusicMusic's performance of original music at Cinemateket. Providing the soundtrack to the 1927 silent movie It, the piano trio of pianist Fabian Kallerdahl, bassist Josef Kallerdahl (they are brothers) and drummer Michael Edlund, this first-time festival combination of new music with silent film is bound to become a regular feature of future Stockholm Jazz Festival programs. Later that night back at Fasching, the double bill of Pixel and Broen showcased two Norwegian bands that put accents on innovation, providing certain jazz instrumentation, but with a serious overlay of intricate charts, much singing and music that was, in different ways, both very danceable and listenable. The vibe more pop than jazz, Pixel's more refined, ear-and eye-catching music with irresistible grooves was augmented by Broen's more heavy-handed pop-becoming-jazz, both groups utilizing horns and complex grooves to get their messages across. 

Another American artist to perform this year was singer Lizz Wright, at the historic 1776-seat Konserthuset. Playing to a full and enthusiastic house, Wright's quartet provided adequate support in a Friday night show that was a curious mix of the soulful (e.g., singing Neil Young's "Old Man," Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Amazing Grace") with a definite showbiz flavor that seemed strangely out of place at this festival. Later, back at Fasching, Goran Kajfes' Subtropic Arkestra kept the eclectic and the unpredictable more than alive, as world-music melodies, much fanfare and a limitless supply of grooves had this packed house dancing and cheering. It was a reminder of how the Stockholm Jazz Festival seems to always allow room for out-and-out ribald fun as well as great music. And, as with Fasching's last-weekend-of-the-festival Saturday night Brooklyn Late Night Jam, this Friday night version seemed to build on that party vibe that began hours earlier with the Subtropic Arkestra, the open jam (and jammed dance floor) running until 4am. 

Saturday's event in the 400-seat Grunewaldsalen room of the Konserthuset featured guitarist Bill Frisell's Music for Strings show, featuring cellist Hank Roberts, violist Evyind Kang and violinist Jenny Scheinman. This American quartet, with a longstanding history of playing together, showed their seemingly effortless way with a song as they canvassed music from Frisell's soon-to- be-released (first week of February) When You Wish Upon A Star. Playing a mix of show and television music, the audience heard everything from "The Theme From 'Bonanza'" to the title tune to the 1952 movie The Bad And The Beautiful. In other words, the typically unpredictable was heard, this time with a more reserved, chamber-like attitude. Over at the cozy Glenn Miller Café, the robust free-jazz sounds of Graden, Zetterberg and Agnes were the perfect prelude to another night of Brooklyn Late Night jamming at Fasching, singers like Swedish singer Ellekari Sander bringing down the house with her heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." 

Closing out the 2015 Stockholm Jazz Festival at the Konserthuset, another American name played to a sold-out house as Chick Corea & The Vigil delighted their audience with music mostly from the band's most recent work. Featuring Marcus Gilmore on drums, Tim Garland on reeds, the quintet played a fairly packaged set. That said, Corea's congeniality pumped this house of obvious fans' enthusiasm, the band's closer, his popular "Spain," finding the keyboardist engaging his audience in what amounted to a singalong as Corea alternated lines with enthusiastic vocal support from practically everyone present. The New Orleans Brass Band the Soul Rebels was the official closer, playing at Fasching in what amounted to a party to end all parties, band members parading across the club's floor with eager and delighted audience members in tow. 

Not a bad way to finish a festival.     

Photo credit: Hasse Linden

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