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Susanna Risberg: Bold As Love

Ian Patterson By

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I never thought about female jazz role models until I was working with female students because I related so much to Jimi Hendrix from a young age. I wanted to be him, but I never thought ‘He’s a guy… and I’m not’. But I think about it a lot more nowadays. I listen a lot to Emily Remler. —Susanna Risberg
Listen to Susanna Risberg playing and it doesn't take long to realize that the twenty-eight-year-old Swedish guitarist is a bit special. Despite her relatively young years Risberg has been gigging for fifteen years already, turning more than a few heads along the way with a style that is unflashy yet exciting, technically impressive yet emotionally keen.

Respected BBC/Jazzwise journalist Kevin Le Gendre describes Risberg as "a brilliantly expansive soloist" and, in a review of her trio's performance at Umea Jazz 2016, staked the claim for Risberg as "a potentially significant new arrival in contemporary jazz." Le Gendre picked Risberg as his name to watch out for in 2017, adding that "the Berklee graduate could make a real impact if she translates her live shows into a coherent studio recording."

The latter comment perhaps alluded to the fact that neither of Risberg's first two recordings made much of a splash, despite her obvious command of the electric guitar. Still, the coherency that Le Gendre hankered after is there in spades on Risberg's notable third album, Vilddjur (EhMM Music, 2018). Risberg is the first to acknowledge that Vilddjur marks a before and after in her discography and in her trajectory as an artist. "Before, with the first albums, I felt 'Oh no! Should I really release these?' Risberg laughs. "This album is different to the other albums. I like it myself," she laughs again. "I didn't really care what anybody else thought when I released it."

Risberg's confidence in Vilddjur is well placed. The album is impressive on multiple levels, with Risberg's scintillating playing matched by the performances of the other musicians, which includes three bassists, Arvid Jullander, Palle Sollinger and Niklas Fernqvist, on different tracks.

"On the earlier albums I was playing with the same people for a long time but in the two years before Vilddjur I played with so many different people and I kind of wanted to capture that on the album," explains Risberg. "I've played with nine different bass players and three different drummers in the last two and a half years. They're all freelance musicians so they're not available all the time. So, nine different bass players know all my tunes," Risberg laughs.

Although the compositions are predominantly her own, Risberg was happy to allow the musicians the freedom to express themselves, which hadn't necessarily been the case on her previous recordings. "The people I played with before were more like fusion musicians" says the guitarist "and they liked that I came with an idea of how everything should sound. They asked for references. With the musicians on this album they wanted to interpret the music on their own, which was great. I relied more on what these musicians would do."

Risberg's co-musicians had to have their wits about them. For some of the tunes, Risberg explains, the musicians had surprisingly little time to acquaint themselves with the music before the recording session began. "Some of the tunes I wrote the same day as the recording and it worked out. "Häst(era) and "Jubal's Jug" existed in some part but I put them together in the studio. And "Hasse and Gnutta" I wrote the night before. It's the worst thing for a bassist to sight read but it worked out," she says laughing.

Bassists apart, the rest of the line-up on Vilddjur is constant, with pianist Oskar Lindström and drummer Rasmus Svensson-Blixt forming two sides of a solid rhythmic axis. Risberg habitually gigs in either a trio or quartet format, but she is also a compelling solo performer, as evidenced by her playing on Vilddjur's only unaccompanied track, a bewitching interpretation of Dimitri Shostakovich's 1944 "Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor." Here, Risberg's tremendous harmonic sensibilities are to the fore.

Vilddjur's other cover is a delightfully laid-back, blues take on Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom." But whether caressing a lyrical phrase, stretching out in seductively fluid style on her Gibson 350, or whether working the whammy on her Fender Stratocaster as she veers into gnarly fusion territory on the title track, influences in Risberg's playing are not obvious.

A glance at Risberg's gigs listing provides a clue, as in December 2018 the guitarist played a quartet tribute to Pat Metheny in Stockholm. "He was the first jazz guitarist I started listening to," confirms Risberg. "He has influenced me very much." That said, Risberg has developed her own voice as a guitarist, as so stylishly demonstrated on Vilddjur. "It will be harder after this concert in December" says Risberg, "because I listened only to Pat Metheny for two months or so. So, I'm asking people who I play with now, 'Am I sounding too much like Pat Metheny? I'm not doing any Pat Metheny licks, am I?" she laughs.

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