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.

Risberg's love affair with the guitar began at an early age. "I tried flute with my mother's flute teacher when I was seven and she took me to this place where you could try a bunch of instruments. I tried a lot of instruments and with the guitar it was like, 'Oh, I get this.' It made sense to me," Risberg explains. "My parents wanted me to play an orchestral instrument, so I had to wait for the guitar for three years. Before that I played the tuba."

The tuba years, however, were not wasted on the young, would-be guitarist. "I really liked to work with the sound when I played the tuba. I tried to make the tone as beautiful as possible. I tried to do this, too, to find a really nice sound on the guitar, when I was a teenager, so maybe I got that from the tuba."

Risberg's parents—both classical musicians—may have harbored hopes that their daughter would follow in their musical footsteps but Risberg had other ideas, seduced as she then was by Jimi Hendrix."I was introduced to Jimi Hendrix when I was ten and he was my favorite musician," recalls Risberg. Hendrix inspired Risberg's first band, which would tour blues festivals in Sweden. "That was when I was twelve or thirteen," says Risberg. "We played some Jimi Hendrix covers, some Janis Joplin and some original tunes. It was during the summer when there are a lot of blues festivals here, and at weekends."

Perhaps it's no surprise then, listening to "Lotass," one of the standout tracks from Vilddjur, that the blues are so infused in Risberg's jazz language. Risberg is in no doubt. "It was Hendrix. I got totally obsessed with Hendrix and I read biographies to find out who he listened to. I started to buy different blues albums, like B.B. King, Albert King and Robert Johnson. I got very deeply into the blues in those years."

It wasn't long either before Risberg discovered jazz. "It was a combination of things. I had a trumpeter player friend and he introduced me to Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane. Then my older brother also started to play the guitar. He was playing metal music, which I listened to a lot, but I thought 'I can't do this,' so I got focused on jazz and started exploring that. That was when I was thirteen."

Growing up in a musical household, Risberg was surrounded by music, not to mention a little qualitative scrutiny. "Both my parents are classical musicians. They are interested in music buy my fathered intervened a lot," Risberg recalls. "When my brother started to listen to heavy metal when he was twelve my Dad decided to understand this genre and to discover what was metal of the highest quality. So, my brother introduced him to Pantera, saying: 'This is high-quality metal. You should listen to that.' So, you were a little scared of what you would bring home and listen to because of this elitist approach."

Rivers, however, always reach the sea, and Risberg's musical awakening continued of its own accord. "My sister is not a musician and she had her own world. She was secretly listening to Tori Amos but I found out and I was like, 'Wow!' I had never heard anything like this before." The American singer-songwriter/pianist clearly impacted the young Risberg, as a decade or so later she would pay unequivocal tribute to Amos on her second album, Utfall (EhMM Music, 2015), with the track "Tori Amos."

"Tori Amos influenced me a lot when I was young," recognizes Risberg. "She was doing her own thing and has a unique sound. She was the first really good female musician to influence me."

It wasn't until Risberg started at Berklee College of Music some years later, however, that any female jazz musicians exerted an influence. "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,'" Risberg laughs. "But I think about it a lot more nowadays. I listen a lot to Emily Remler."

New Jersey guitarist Remler's light shone briefly but brightly from the late 1970s until her death from drug-related heart failure in 1990 at the age of thirty-two. A string of acclaimed recordings and a Downbeat Guitarist of the Year award in 1985 attest to Remler's talent, as did the praise of her peers, from Herb Ellis and Hank Jones to Larry Coryell, the latter with whom Risberg recorded the duo album Together (Concord Jazz, 1985).

Like Risberg, Remler picked up a guitar aged ten, and also studied at Berklee, in what was an even more heavily male-dominated jazz world than today. There were relatively few female jazz musicians in Remler's heyday, a lonely environment that may have been one of the triggers leading to her drug dependency. Likewise, for Risberg, there were few female peers when she was starting out on a career in jazz, although the situation has greatly improved.

"I realize how lonely I was when I started playing, although I didn't think about it like that back then," says Risberg. "In Sweden there are a lot of young, female jazz players now. It's fun to hang out with them. It's like, 'Ah, you're like I was years ago,' Risberg laughs.

Having recorded three albums and toured internationally as the leader of her own trios, Risberg recognizes that she has become something of a role model for young, female jazz musicians. "I have met some girls who are sixteen or eighteen now and they said they play guitar because of me, which is very flattering," admits Risberg. "Then I think I have to keep working always, to not be disappointing to them."

Work hard Risberg certainly does, with a busy touring schedule that takes her zig-zagging across Sweden and much of Europe. There was a showcase performance at Jazzahead! and in 2018 Risberg' trio was selected to perform at 12 Points in Dublin, the Improvised Music Company's award-winning showcase festival of some of the finest and most original groups/artists in Europe. A little further afield Risberg has also been invited to tour in China, which provided a different perspective.

"It was amazing to go there," enthuses Risberg. "Jazz is getting bigger in China, though it was a different standard on every gig. In some places they had never listened to jazz and in other places you had to play on a really crappy Marshal Rock amp and rock drums in a big hall," she recalls laughing.

"In some places there were jazz clubs. They were very mixed audiences. Here in Sweden if you go to a fusion concert it's 98% guys between twenty and sixty and for jazz concerts half the audience is old people and some are jazz students, but in China it was very random -all kinds of people. There weren't that many old people."

Perhaps the most unlikely destination in Risberg's touring schedule to date has been in Myanmar, where she spent a week in 2016. "There's a lady who works there at the UN in Myanmar who loves jazz and she decided they were going to celebrate International Jazz Day in Myanmar," Risberg explains. "I think she's good friends with the Swedish ambassadors there. I believe she asked someone working at the Monk Institute for a list of Swedish musicians and I was on that list for some weird reason, probably because I studied in America when I was younger. She contacted me and I went there and played."

Risberg traveled to Myanmar without her trio musicians but was not stuck for musical partners in the South East Asian country. "They could only bring me there because of the budget so the UN woman gathered all the jazz players she could find in Yangon. We were doing workshops all week and the night of the concert I played with some of the musicians. They were really good. They play at clubs every night, every week. They play standards," Risberg explains.

"It was very different playing with them compared to playing with people in other countries. I think it has a lot to do with Myanmar being a closed country for so long. They only had one Real Book and two jazz albums, so all the references were so different. Yet they were really good players. It was a really different experience."

An openness to different musical experiences and to different music is the cornerstone of Vilddjur's success, be it in the unaccompanied re-imaging of a Shostakovich piano piece or in the horns-augmented track "Lotass." On the latter, Risberg weaves the voices of soprano saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, trumpeter Erik Tergholm, trombonist Agnes Darelid, alto saxophonist David Bennet and tenor saxophonist Martin Wiren to compelling effect. The success of this mini big-band arrangement suggests that Risberg harbors compositional ambitions for larger ensembles than just her habitual trio.

"Yeah, I've been doing that a little bit," Risberg acknowledges. "I played with a big band last summer and we played a big band arrangement of "Lotass," which I wrote. I have arranged all the tunes for that setting, though it's time-consuming."

Risberg gained valuable insight into large-ensemble arranging when she spent a week in Switzerland in the ranks of the Generations Big Band, a multi-national ensemble led by composer/band-leader Maria Schneider. "It was very interesting," says Risberg. "It was like a course. We were students and we got to perform two concerts [playing Schneider's charts] with Maria conducting. We also made another concert with young Swiss composers' music, which she also conducted. We rehearsed all week in Switzerland and she also led seminars. She also had Donny McCaslin and his group there for the whole week and we played with them as well. It was a great experience."

Whether Risberg ventures further down the big-band road remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there are more concrete plans on the Swedish guitarist's near horizon. "I'm going to record a new album and I also have plans to move to New York. I have a lot of friends there. Sweden is not that big, there aren't that many people or jazz clubs."

Risberg's ambition to broaden her horizons and reach out to new audiences is fitting for a musician of her abilities. Although Risberg will be competing for exposure with a lot of other amazingly talented guitarists in New York she undoubtedly has the talent to succeed—whatever success means. If that means making more great music, inspiring more young women—or men—to take up the guitar, or simply introducing her music to half the bass players in New York, then Risberg will know she has arrived.

Photo credit: Taschka Turnquist

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