Vinterjazz Copenhagen: Carsten Dahl Trio w/ Reuben Rogers and Greg Hutchinson at Jazzhus Montmartre

Vinterjazz Copenhagen: Carsten Dahl Trio w/ Reuben Rogers and Greg Hutchinson at Jazzhus Montmartre
Henning Bolte By

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Carsten Dahl Trio w/ Reuben Rogers
Vinterjazz 2014
Jazzhus Montmartre
Copenhagen, Denmark
February 20-21, 2014


Vinterjazz has the same setup as the Jazzfestival Copenhagen in the summer. It is spread over the whole city but on a smaller scale. During the ten days in February about 400 concerts take place, while the summer festival has more than 1,000. Vinterjazz has a couple of headliners and foreign guests but that is also on a smaller scale.

+ This year: Bobo Stenson Trio, Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline (US), Enrico Pieranunzi (ITAL) with the Danish Radio Big Band, The Aarhus Jazz Orchestra with Dennis Mackrel (US) en Jesper Thilo (DK), Fenika featuring Zea and Terrie Ex (ETH/NL), guitarist Mikkel Ploug featruing Loren Stillman and Tommy Crane (US), Jakob Bro Tentet w/ Chris Speed, Andrew D'Angelo, Thomas Morgan, Sinne Eeg with Martin Schack and Larry Koonse (US). This entails that the whole scene is busily involved in concert-related activities in various combinations at various venues in town which the visitor can navigate with an excellent app.
This report is confined to the series of concerts of the trio of pianist Carsten Dahl, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Greg Hutchinson at the world-famous venue Jazzhus Montmartre. Maybe by coincidence, this seems the place for piano trios. My first visit three months ago was a concert by the Bobo Stenson Trio, maybe the best (in the family of) current piano trios.

The Montmartre spirit

The Copenhagen jazz club Montmartre was at the center of exciting new things happening about 50 years ago in the music called jazz. It was a tumultuous period with complex interactions which have to be indicated briefly here to understand the Montmartre context.

Founded in 1959, the very beginning of the 1960s, it served as a permanent school for a young generation of Danish musicians playing with North American expats who came to live in Copenhagen. Among them were big names like the saxophonists Stan Getz (1956-1961), Sahib Shihab (1959- 1973), Dexter Gordon (1962-1975) and Ben Webster (from 1969), as well as bassist Oscar Pettiford (from 1958), violinist Stuff Smith (from 1966) and pianist Kenny Drew (from 1964)—who attracted more traveling American musicians to visit or even stay and settle in Copenhagen. Those (very) young Danish musicians were the likes of drummer Alex Riel, bassists Niels- Henning Ørsted Pedersen (NHØP), Bo Stief and Jesper Lundgaard, saxophonist Bent Jaedig and trumpet player Palle Mikkelborg. It was happy coincidence based on an even happier coincidence of drug-related problems, extraordinary young musical talent, curiosity and a remarkable proactive role of Danish women. This laid a solid foundation where the Danish jazz scene is thriving on to this day.

Radical innovators came in quite early like Cecil Taylor who played there in November 1962 for a whole month (!) with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, and somewhat later even had a concert appearance together with Albert Ayler elsewhere in Copenhagen. Also Paul Bley appeared quite early in the sixties on the Montmartre stage and established a long-term relationship with NHØP and Danish labels. The activities went on during the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s when the wave of radical musical innovators of North-American and Scandinavian origin gathered and played at the meanwhile famous small club (like Don Cherry, Aldo Romano, Gato Barbieri, George Russell or Steve Lacy).

Another migrational infusion of those days were the musicians who had fled the apartheid conflict in South Africa, like the pianists Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Chris McGregor, bassist Johnny Dyani and the drummers Louis Mohollo and Makaya Ntshko. Makaya Ntshko became the house drummer for a while and Johnny Dyani settled in Denmark and played in Pierre Dorge's Jungle Orchestra. Abdullah Ibrahim's influential 2001 album African Piano, re-released in 2014 on vinyl by ECM, was recorded at Montmartre. Also the1970s brought a lot of North American musicians as residents to Copenhagen, among them Horace Parlan (1973), Ed Thigpen (1974), Thad Jones (1977), Duke Jordan (1978) and Ernie Wilkins (1979). In 1976 the glorious period of the club came to an end but in 2010 Montmartre rose from the ashes as a jazz club on the original location.

One of the key-factors in having the ball rolling like this and its deeper effects on the scene was the duration of the engagements, varying from a few days to a whole month. Strong and highly profiled North American musicians living in town or in the outskirts were always around as fellow citizens acting musically in a common habitat, whether in the club(s), in big bands or (later) at the conservatory and in education which had its long term effects. Generations of Danish jazz musicians grew up in this company and with this natural connection. In this context a lot of musical things could be passed on, exchanged and developed in a practical and natural way. It was brought into existence when, for example, Webster tutored the youngster NHØP around the bandstand in the phrasing of balladeering or Thigpen let young Dahl experience and figure out the feel of certain music on a day-by-day basis.

The musicians

Carsten Dahl (b. 1967) is one of the great Scandinavian pianists of today and one of the towering figures (of the middle generation) on the Danish scene. He is an experienced piano trio musician—witness his recorded trio-work with Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, Jesper Bodilsen and Ed Thigpen, Mads Vinding and Alex Riel. He has recently released a Danish Grammy-nominated solo album Dreamchild (Storyville Records, 2013) and an album of his working quartet with saxophonist Jesper Zeuthen, bassist Nils Bo Davidsen and drummer Stefan Pasborg.

Starting out as a drummer, Dahl switched during his studies at the Conservatory of Rhythmic Music in Copenhagen with the two legendary drummers Ed Thigpen and Alex Riel, to the piano. Since 2011, he himself has been a professor at the same Conservatory. Dahl is exceptionally prolific and versatile but not an artist who easily flexes. There is a long list of big names he has played with, including the quartet with his old teacher Ed Thigpen, Jesper Bodilsen and Joe Lovano. He works freely improvising with the classical Midwest Ensemble and has a preoccupation with Glenn Gould. In 2014 Deutsche Grammophon will release Dahl's rendition of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," together with his own "Chromatic Inventions."

Reuben Rogers (b. 1974) and Gregory Hutchinson (b. 1970), both highly profound and versatile musicians, play (and have played) with jazz' innovators and elder stars, such as Charles Lloyd, Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, Betty Carter, Ray Brown or Red Rodney, but also young(er) big stars such as Joshua Redman. They both belong to the most in-demand sideman musicians of their generation and share a lot of band duties in North America as well as in Europe, especially Italy and Scandinavia. They are prominent examples of a new smart type of jazz musician, deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, well organized, sophisticated and flexible players operating in a broader spectrum of tradition-bound groups with a contemporary face, technique and sound which have built a bigger following also of a younger audience. You will find them in prestigious small clubs as well as bigger halls and festivals. They are not defined by special sensational attributes but by solidity and sensationally good playing.

Both have already been connected for a while to the Danish scene as educators and as sidemen of Scandinavian groups such that they got deeper involved in the Montmartre line. Their first encounter with Carsten Dahl took place during a workshop at the Conservatory of Rhythmic Music in Copenhagen. They played there together without any preparation as their first personal encounter. It went in a way and on a level that performing together as a trio became a quite natural next step. Shortly after, a year ago, they brought it into reality by playing their first concert at Montmartre.

Variation of an old model

The old model of a horn player from outside accompanied by or working with a local rhythm section during a longer or shorter residency is still operative as a functional principle at the newly started Montmartre, although in new variations. The modus operandi clearly has to be distinguished from the concept of a featured guest- musician (star). Even as some other North Americans, Reuben Rogers and Greg Hutchings are no incidentally joining musicians. Both have already worked several times earlier within the specific Montmartre setup. Greg Hutchinson worked intensively with a Scandinavian lineup of Swedish saxophonist Tomas Franck, who also played in a trio with both Rogers and Hutchinson. Hutchinson also performed with Swedish saxophonist Ove Ingmarsson at Montmartre and Reuben Rogers with Swedish saxophonist Frederik Kronkvist. So there are multiple lines set out which make musicians like Hutchinson and Rogers connect deeper to the Montmartre spirit and thereby establish a common operative ground from which they can carry and feed different combinations of musicians.

Standards but not standard

This trio is no standard trio, but a trio playing standards. That means the threesome confines itself to a restricted choice of pieces. Standards are compositions which are acknowledged as strong, considered as highlights, allow challenging and beautiful expansions, juxtapositions and transformations, are highly attractive for audiences, are performed very often and render strong pieces of music under varied performance circumstances. Standards offer clear reference points for musicians as well as audiences.

But why play standards, why canonize pieces and forms? A certain amount of easy recognizability has a lot of advantages. It gives the musician and the audience something to hold onto and at the same time allows expanding into unknown latitudes. This tension can work as a power to ignite highly creative processes and listening pleasure. The other side of the coin is that listening to standard renditions can also be very boring. A weird and badly played standard is always better than a boring one! Standard playing serves also to keep access to the sources of jazz open (for both players and audience) and to renew and spread canonical forms. It seems quite simple but happily is not. There are many ways, many variations in executing the task of playing standards.

The way Paul Motian played standard repertoire with the youngest generation of musicians in the 1990s in the Electric Bebop Band which comprised two young Danes differed clearly from the approach of the Keith Jarrett Trio during the last three decades. Django Bates' beloved trio work also originated from a Danish context and again had a totally different way of doing his musical thing with the heritage of Charlie Parker. Dave Douglas' Tea For Three and the trio of trumpeter Avishai Cohen are other examples. And finally the trio of Stefano Bollani turns it round again. A prominent musician from outside with a highly acclaimed Danish rhythm section, but now the group plays Danish/Scandinavian standards.

In its own powerful way This trio appeared to have its very own approach and powerful sound which can be characterized as heavily grounded, inflammable, flying high, burning throughout and above all, driven by pure joy of playing and a good sense of humor. It is definitely more than an accumulation of the profound qualities of each player: the anchoring and propulsive sonorities of Reuben Rogers, the decisive drumming and stunning high-up to die-down, slugging staccato to whispering dynamics of Greg Hutchinson, and the impressive catch of the whole melody through clear harmonizing and great percussive , arpeggio-like articulation of Carsten Dahl. It was their joint dynamics of surge and ebb away, the inner power stream which lifted it all up to a higher level again and again. And, just by articulating in their very own way from time to time, the old masters clearly shone through. Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Juan Tilzol, Paul Desmond, Thelonius Monk and the like, along with some very fine balladeering, built up to an impressive arc of tension that made the audience enjoy and cheer in the intimate Copenhagen club room. It was a clear inter pares affair with no self-kicking soloing but with keen, careful and intense listening to each other. It could not only be sensed by feel but it was visibly manifested very often in the intimacy of the small club. As an important part of their performance, it drawd the audience in on a higher level.

There was a clear intensification from night to night. In the first night the trio took a highly energetic and sparkling ride on Monk at the start and then let the music flow into different directions along Cole Porter, blues-marching, Gershwin ballads ("Someone To Watch Over Me"), Latin-tinged sounds, conjured up the descendent line of Tizol's "Caravan" from the deep rhythms of Hutchinson's drums, uniting the various temperatures in a flaming finale and soothing encore.

The second night the trio immediately went to a much higher level with its amazingly gripping and surprising rendition of Paul Desmond's "Take Five," which seemed a completely new piece of their own. This masterful move paved the way for a highly appealing unified first set rolling through an attractive landscape of colors and temperatures part of it again a stunning rendition of Juan Tizol's "Caravan" which unfolded from differing shadows and shapes this time. Hutchinson knows very well how to go and come from behind the line.

This is what the art of the piano trio really is about, starting from the beginning every time, work through to unification in difference and contrast of players, unification along different kind of songs, lifting up the soul. Time and time again this much-employed rhythm tandem sounded so deep and powerful, so connected, expanding and joyous. Time and time again it reached the melting point. And they did it again, together with a highly focused Dahl and his little madcap moments. It was clear evidence that Montmartre is still a nurturing place linking past and present in a valid way, worthwhile to spread to other places. In this case it stimulated the desire to dig more of that great stuff, rediscover and enjoy it (also at home).

Although the live situation is the ultimate thing, it can in some cases be worthwhile to watch concerts on videos. The second night was streamed and could be watched and listened to via internet. Montmartre has set up a subscription system for access to streamed concerts (see the Montmartre website for details http://www.jazzhusmontmartre.dk/jazztv)

Photo credit:
FoBo—Henning Bolte

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