Valby Summer Jazz: Copenhagen, Denmark, July 6-13, 2013

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Valby Summer Jazz
Prøvehallen in Valby and The Betty Nansen Theatre
Copenhagen, Denmark
July 6-13, 2013

In a time of financial crisis, the solution to many festivals seems to be to cut down on the experimental budget and ambitions and focus on familiar names that are sure to attract a sizeable audience. While Valby Summer Jazz, which takes place in Copenhagen and the suburb of Valby, certainly is able to list some of the finest names in modern jazz, the goal of the festival isn't to present the audience with something they already know. Instead, what you get at the festival are familiar artists in new contexts and a cross-fertilization of genres whose common denominator is the joy and love of music.

Context is a keyword. While some experiments have an air of unapproachable intellectuality and exclusion, the festival makes sure that the audience isn't left behind. Amidst the many challenging sounds, there is always a tune, a melody or a rhythm to hang on to. If anything, the festival has proven that experiments are possible within a mainstream context and you don't need to belong to a closed community to understand what's going on.

Another way of providing context was the fine artist talks that took place before many of the concerts. This was a new and welcome feature that allowed the audience to familiarize itself with the artists in an informal setting where a music journalist interviewed many of the participating musicians. Particularly enlightening was the meeting between the Danish and American composers Anders Koppel and John Blake Jr., who touched upon the similarities in their works. Both emphasized the inherent spirituality in music and the merging of folklore and classical music.

The theme of the festival was "Big Band and Choir," and while the festival included both big bands and choirs in spectacular settings, there wasn't really a headline that could cover everything. Here was everything from intimate duo interplay to cooking quintets and chamber music and jazz-pop extravaganza.

Chapter Index
    Fathers and Sons and Kindred Spirits

    Old and New Cooking

    Avant-garde and Pop á la Carte

    Sound in Technicolor

Fathers and Sons and Kindred Spirits

The festival began with an ambitious concert where organist Anders Koppel and violinist John Blake Jr. performed two suites for choir. The two artists were joined by bassist Morten Ramsbøll and their sons, drummer Johnathan Blake and saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, and it was actually the younger Koppel who originally conceived the idea of getting the two together. On stage they were joined by the choir, Ars Nova Copenhagen.

Koppel's work Gemmer hvert et ord, which was inspired by letters from Danish soldiers during The Battle of Fredericia in 1849, began the concert. While the words in the letters were sometimes imbued with melancholy and anxiety, the music corresponded with a search for light in the middle of darkness. Koppel's bubbling Hammond organ was coupled with Blake's soaring violin that added extra poignancy to the music, and the choir interpreted the words of the letters with skill. In general, Koppel must be applauded for his will to combine history and music, and unlike some modern composers, his work was carried by a refreshingly clear sense of melody and harmony.

John Blake Jr. also reached back in history, but this time it was the Afro-American tradition of gospel and spirituals. His re-imagined and rearranged versions of songs like "A Balm in Gilead" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," formed a strong narrative of the quest for spiritual freedom. The Danish choir rose to the occasion and sang the words deep from their hearts and Koppel's spirited organ brought the songs back into the church.

It was clear that both artists respected each other. Blake Jr. also found time to honor Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, who introduced him to solo violin playing. It was an evening of respect and sense of tradition, but also a life-affirming experience of hearing the past turned into new music.

Respect is also a word that can be used about the relationship between the two artistic directors of the festival, Benjamin Koppel and pianist Kenny Werner. Through the years, they have refined the festival, but also their own musical language, and an unexpected duo session provided the opportunity of hearing them unfold their deeply musical connection. Originally the concert was planned as a duo between Werner and Anders Koppel, but when he became ill, his son stepped in.

The setting was a new concept of jazz and brunch, but once the music started, there was no rattling of cutlery. The audience became transfixed by the sensitive touch of Werner's crystalline piano and Koppel's empathic response and finely shaped melodic lines. Both artists understood how to vary the music that unfolded like one long suite without any introductions. Werner especially showed his encyclopedic skills on the piano and incorporated everything from stride piano to bop lines and classical flourishes, but at the heart of the sound was a tranquil lyricism. A member of the audience remarked that she wished that the music had been recorded, but in a way it has been. Werner and Koppel recreated the magic feeling of their duo session Walden (Cowbell, 2009). The question now remains when they will record new music together. Their concert certainly whetted the appetite for more.

Like the other incarnations of the festival, Koppel and Warner were involved in most of the concerts, but they proved to be sympathetic sidemen who brought out the best in their fellow musicians. This was also the case when bassist Scott Colley visited with his quintet and guest star, saxophonist David Sanchez.

During the concert, Sanchez played several epic solos in the tradition of John Coltrane and, naturally, Koppel was inspired by the competition and delivered heated playing himself, twisting every tone on his instrument.

At one moment during the concert, Scott Colley, while tuning his bass, called his instrument: "this old ship" and Colley was indeed a captain who guided the group in the murky waters of his complex compositions that nevertheless showed accessibility through recognizable themes and motifs. Among the highlights were "January" and the ballad "For Sophia," both taken from his album Empire (Cam Jazz, 2010). Without guitarist Bill Frisell, who played on that record, the bluegrass-shades of the compositions were toned down in favor of a more straight hard-bop approach.

While all musicians proved to be incredibly gifted, the danger of too much soloing was also present. This was the case on a reading of the standard "If I Should Lose You," where Werner introduced the song beautifully, but the band hardly settled into the song before the first solo was delivered, and the standard was quickly turned into a formulaic solo vehicle where every musician had to have his due. Fortunately, this was the only misstep in an otherwise inspired performance where the friendship, virtuosity and originality of the musicians shone through.

Old and New Cooking

Part of the success of Valby Summer Jazz has been that Koppel and Werner have consistently been able to deliver great names and living legends and place them in new and often successful constellations, but the festival has also invited groups that have been together for a long time. This was the case at last year's festival where Brian Blade Fellowship played a formidable concert, and this year saw the invitation of the all-star group the Cookers.

It wasn't mentioned in the program, but it was actually a trimmed version of the group and unfortunately, this proved to have a negative impact on the sound. With their brass-heavy lineup that almost resembled a mini big band, the Cookers were a perfect match for this year's theme of "Big Band and Choir," but there was a missing ingredient: Saxophonist Craig Handy, who is an important part of the group's sound, wasn't present, which left Billy Harper as the sole saxophonist.

Normally there is a balance in the horn section between trumpeters David Weiss and Eddie Henderson and saxophonists Handy and Harper, but with Handy left out, there was a fundamental imbalance in the set-up, and the late arrival of the group must have resulted in a less-than-satisfying sound check, because the sound came across as muddy and bombastic. While Harper was buried in the brass, his playing nevertheless stood out, and he provided the compositional highlights in the shape of "Croquet Ballet" and "Priestess" with soulful playing and infectious themes.

With players like pianist George Cables and bassist Cecil McBee, there is certainly no shortage of great players in a group that truly qualifies as an all-star line-up. Unfortunately, bad sound and balance ruined the first set of a concert that felt like a routine performance from a group that didn't live up to expectations. One was inevitably reminded of the proverb that "too many cooks spoil the broth." Nevertheless, the group's records show that it definitely has something to offer together, and this was just a bad day at the office.

While the concert with the Cookers proved to be a disappointment, one of the festival's absolute highlights was the meeting between saxophonists Benjamin Koppel and Joe Lovano playing an entire concert on their mezzo-soprano saxophones made by Peter Jessen, who was also present at the concert.

In a talk before the concert, Koppel emphasized the instrument's connection to the sound of the clarinet and Lovano talked about the air flow and the fact that the instrument takes more air and cannot be played as fast as a soprano saxophone. Both of the artists were clearly in love with the instrument and had engaged in a lifelong journey of finding their own identity on the instrument, and the concert proved that they had come very far.

It might be that the instrument doesn't allow playing as fast as a soprano saxophone, but tempo certainly wasn't the issue at the concert where Koppel and Lovano could play at high speed, but always retain a transparent exquisiteness in the way their melodic lines intertwined. Both of the saxophonists have a deep knowledge of classical music and jazz tradition, and in a chamber setting with Werner and the rhythm section of bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Audun Kleive, they delivered third stream music of the highest order. A perfect example of the merging of the two worlds was Koppel's composition "One, Two, Three, Four" that combined an infectious rhythmical motif introduced on the bass by Danielsson and complex breaks and baroque lines.

Lovano contributed two excellent compositions, "Journey Within" and "Blessings in May," both taken from his recent album Cross Culture (Blue Note, 2013), but there was also room for the advanced "Boss Town" from Flying Colors. However, it was pianist Kenny Werner who provided the highlights with two sublime ballads. On the brooding "Go There and Roam," Danielsson played with bow and Werner raised his hand and chanted wordlessly while pouring out breathtaking harmonies and melodies.

As an encore, the group played the beautiful "Ballad for Trane" with Werner echoing the harmonies of the great saxophonist and, of course, it couldn't have been more fitting that Lovano, one of the best post- Coltrane saxophonists, played on a tribute to the master, but Koppel was certainly also up for the task and engaged in his trademark symbiotic playing with Werner.

On "Ballad for Trane," Lovano switched to his characteristic tenor saxophone. It would have been odd if the tribute to tenor-player Coltrane hadn't been played on that instrument, but overall, Lovano's signature instrument wasn't missed at all. Instead, the warm, woody texture of the mezzo-soprano added new colors to Lovano's musical vocabulary and together with Koppel and the rest of the group, he reached perfection. This was a meeting that deserved to be remembered and hopefully also committed to record.



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