Valby Summer Jazz 2012: Copenhagen, Denmark, July 6-15, 2012

Valby Summer Jazz 2012: Copenhagen, Denmark, July 6-15, 2012
Jakob Baekgaard By

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Valby Summer Jazz
Prøvehallen in Valby and The Betty Nansen Theatre
Copenhagen, Denmark
July 6-15, 2012

Good things tend to grow, at least when there's passion and dedication involved, and Valby Summer Jazz, which primarily takes place at the outskirts of Copenhagen in the suburb of Valby, is indeed a labor of love that has become so prominent that it almost outshines its big brother, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

The first edition of Valby Summer Jazz took place in 2010, and from the beginning the ambitions were high. At that time, names like guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Scott Colley and saxophonists Bobby Watson and Chris Potter stopped by the festival, while the next year saw visits from the likes of guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeters Dave Douglas and Alex Sipiagin.

2012 found the festival in its boldest incarnation yet. Besides the usual venue, Prøvehallen in Valby, another stage was added: the Betty Nansen Theatre, which was located in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen. Here, performances with saxophonist Lee Konitz and drummer Brian Blade took place.

While the festival branched out to include the inner city of Copenhagen, the heart of the festival still lay in the suburb of Valby where artists like bassist Miroslav Vitous and guitarist Jim Hall worked in constellations with pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, who are both musical directors and the creative forces behind the festival. In the program, the aim of the festival was described as a place where: "Musicians meet in unique and completely new ensembles with the aim to reinvent jazz and the way jazz emerges with other artistic genres." Indeed, the festival could also be seen as a manifestation of the musical friendship between Koppel and Werner. By now, the two have worked together for many years and play with telepathic understanding and prowess.

Metaphorically speaking, a festival can be seen as disparate collection of musical stories. Sometimes, there may be an overriding idea in the shape of a theme, but a narrative as such is often missing. Valby Summer Jazz was interesting because it offered a unique sense of continuity. Koppel and Werner participated in all the concerts played at the festival—except the one played by Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band. They could be seen as the main characters in a musical novel where the lineup was constantly changing, but the narrative core remained the same. Of course, this much spotlight on two musicians required a lot of stamina, but Koppel and Werner were up for the task and thankfully knew how to vary both constellations and their own playing. Listening to them, there was constantly a fountain of fresh ideas on display and they were often caught smiling or nodding at each other as the musical stories unfolded.

Chapter Index
    Hammond Delight in Poetic Landscapes

    Different Shades of Blade

    Songs for Saxophone, Voice and Guitar

Hammond Delight in Poetic Landscapes

The first two days of the festival presented Koppel and Werner in different settings with Hammond organ, an instrument played by no other than Koppel's own dad, Anders Koppel. Anders Koppel recently released Everything is Subject to Change (Cowbell Music, 2012)—with a quartet consisting of himself, Benjamin Koppel, Kenny Werner and percussionist Jacob Andersen—which formed the basis of a concert that found the group stretching out on epic explorations of great depth and beauty, only occasionally disturbed by a ringing mobile phone, which a careless member of the audience forgot to turn off—twice.

A superb interpretation of the title track was the blueprint for the group's sound, mixing the delicate textures of piano and organ in a free-flowing stream of notes. As an organist, Anders Koppel was almost like a painter and far from the pumping grooves of some of his predecessors. Instead, he brought out every nuance of his instrument with ethereal poetry, making the notes sing in the air. It was characteristic that every member of the group was interested in exploring the sounds of their instrument. Thus, Werner occasionally played the strings of the piano like a harp and, during the concert, Benjamin Koppel changed effortlessly between the deep growls of the baritone saxophone and the silky sounds of the soprano.

The music was informed by both the classical music of Olivier Messiaen and Dmitri Shostakovich, and a modern chamber-jazz in the vein of the German ECM label, but percussionist Jacob Andersen added a warm touch of rhythmical magic that lent an exotic flavor to a sound otherwise informed by Nordic melancholy.

One composition was called "The Philosophy of Furniture" and, in a way, it pretty much summed up the music of the group: it was both intellectual and relaxed, abstract and concrete, melodic and brooding. It was the kind of music that required contemplation—inviting deep, rather than easy, listening.

When the group announced its extra, "Poor Shostakovich," an older woman in the audience quietly remarked that she wondered if the group could play anything that would be less than fifteen minutes in length. This was said with a warm smile and not as a dismissal of the music. Instead, it was a concert where the audience clearly accepted the premises of the compositions and immersed itself in the poetic landscapes of sound.

Miroslav Vitous is another prominent painter of sound, who also has a release on Koppel's imprint, Cowbell Music, The Poetic Principle (2008), which formed the basis of the bassist's concert. The team of Kenny Werner, Jacob Andersen and Benjamin and Anders Koppel turned up again and was supplemented by Swedish drummer Peter Nilsson, and of course Vitous himself, who showed himself to be in a humorous mood during the concert, providing samples of his ability to speak Japanese.

As its title revealed, the album was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and every song title is a reference to the American writer's works. On some of the compositions, there were even congenial interpretations of the moods found in his stories. For instance, "The Man of the Crowd"—Poe's short story of a man disappearing into the hectic maelstrom of modernity—was given a musical treatment that highlighted the chaotic feeling of the city with a restless rhythm section and a feverish saxophone solo from Koppel.

The opener of the concert was "The City in the Sea," an epic composition with Koppel's fragile lines establishing a mystical mood around the slowly breathing chords of Werner's piano and Koppel's organ, while Vitous extracted all kinds of sound from his instrument, using his bass as a violin that was bowed, plucked and strummed.

The group benefitted immensely from the dual attack of Hammond organ and piano and Werner, in particular, delivered some glistening solos, carving little compositions out of the material. The two also engaged in contrapuntal playfulness and answered and enhanced each other's lines. Another successful partnership was the rhythmical team of percussionist Jacob Andersen and drummer Peter Nilsson; together, they changed easily between pulsating, funky grooves and abstract colorations.

Vitous was the one who somehow tied all the knots together. His control of his instrument was impressive, as he made his bass sigh and sing with an uncanny profundity that fit the moods of Poe's stories well. What emerged were mystical sound paintings that managed to stay vital in a constant balance between rhythmical drive and exploration of texture.


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