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Your Favourite Jazz Records: No Rules in Jazz

Jakob Baekgaard By

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In the late 2000s, Danish jazz is experiencing something of a renaissance. The fertile milieu around Copenhagen's Rhythmic Music Conservatory has helped to create a network of connections that is making it possible for musicians to control their art and release their music on self-owned labels. A perfect example of this new movement is the small label, Your Favourite Jazz Records, owned by pianist Lars Winther.



"I started the label in 2005," says Winther, "in order to publish my first record with my own trio: Love 2005. I chose to start my own label since I have always been a DIY artist and I'm very impatient waiting for other people to do the work for me. Another reason is that there isn't really a tradition in Danish jazz for knocking on the doors of the major labels, which by the way don't really exist. That is a strategy that is more commonly associated with pop music."

In the beginning, Winther only had one label, Your Favourite Records, but since then he has created the sub-label Your Favourite Jazz Records, which deals with more jazz-oriented outings. However, with a catalogue covering everything from instrumental funk to a singer/songwriters, Winther's definition of jazz is wide ranging. "In many ways, jazz to me means no rules," he says. "No rules about a chorus within 45 seconds, no rules about a maximum song-length of 3:22, no rules which say what one can and cannot do. I realise that this is a very broad definition, but I think that freedom and the ability to use it is a very central thing in jazz.



"And then there is another thing: jazz musicians tend to play music just for their own sake. Of course, there are many other musicians working in other genres that do that too, but in jazz, external sources of motivation such as economy, fame etc. are taken out of the equation. There is nothing left but the man and the music. I like that a lot!"



Cordelia
Pink Pony
Your Favourite Jazz Records
2009



Cordelia is a fine illustration of Winther's eclectic approach to the artists he signs. The ensemble consists of nine musicians whose musical backgrounds include folk, classical and jazz. The result of the merging of these very different musical minds can be heard on Pink Pony. On the crystalline ballad "Stalactite," female singer Stinne Henriksen's gorgeous voice is wrapped in an epic setting of swirling strings and introverted pianism. On the whole, Henriksen's voice is one of the strongest cards of the ensemble. She's equally at home doing semi-hysterical parodies of cabaret music on the opener, "The Circus Is Back In Town," and exploring faux country in "At The Pink Pony," with its banjo and lap steel.



The band's Shakespearian reference is no coincidence. Cordelia is as musically complex as her literary creator and the ambiguous musical landscape of Pink Pony, which spans the manic and tranquil, manages to be both thoroughly entertaining and artistically satisfying.



Aggerbæk
My Oh My
Your Favourite Jazz Records
2009



The singer/songwriter Benjamin Aggerbæk is another example of an artist who escapes any narrow definition or categorisation. The cover for My Oh My is a more or less hidden reference to singer/songwriter Tom Waits, and while Aggerbæk's mixture of folk songs, blues, cabaret and old time jazz certainly owes a great deal to Waits, his voice is as far removed as possible from the American's signature growl and comes across instead as a striking hybrid of Nat "King" Cole and Jeff Buckley. The music, while solidly grounded in tradition, is wildly adventurous. "My Oh My" has a washboard beat and its fat brass shows the influence of New Orleans, while the lightly swinging "A Spark" features a Toots Thielemans-like harmonica, courtesy of Alexander Kraglund.



One of the strengths of album is how the many participating musicians contribute to the session. Aggerbæk's many-facetted vision is realised perfectly and the mood changes from low light midnight reveries with romantic string arrangements to the sunny bossa nova of "Orange Moon." Aggerbæk has said that his musical aesthetic is about stealing from the best to make his own sound, and while echoes of singers/composers Louis Armstrong, Tom Waits, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Jeff Buckley ring throughout the album, Aggerbæk fulfils his ambition of melting the many influences into a music that is truly his own.

Looter Beats
The Legend of the Brown Baron
Your Favourite Jazz Records
2009



If Cordelia and Aggerbæk demonstrate how diverse musical influences can be merged into a sound for the future, then Looter Beats is more focused on recreating a particular sound of the past. The cover of The Legend of the Brown Baron gives the reference away: its graphic design emphasises the homage to the 1970s and, specifically, soundtracks for blaxploitation movies and actioners such as Dirty Harry (whose protagonist, Harry Callahan, is given his due on "Godspeed Callahan"). While there's a great deal of humour involved—take a song title like "But I Do Insist (Heart-Shaped Velvet Bed Song)"—there's more to the music than just pastiche. The grooves are worked out with a seriousness that makes the dedication to the genre shine through. Songs like "The Rodox Files," with its delicate layers of flutes and use of wah-wah guitar and triangle, gives insight into the band's way of meticulously building a distinctive 1970s sound.



Even though The Legend of the Brown Baron doesn't succeed in bringing anything new to the particular music it explores, it works on its own terms as an uncompromising celebration of a style that, considered by some too cheesy and in poor taste, has been corresondingly neglected in jazz circles.

Borderline Ensemble
Beware
Your Favourite Jazz Records
2009



While the smooth grooves of Looter Beats have the potential of reaching a wide audience, the avant-garde project of Borderline Ensemble caters to a decidedly smaller audience. Musician and poet T.S. Høeg is a living legend on the Danish experimental scene, and on Beware he lends his poetic musings to a project which employs the technique of soundpainting developed by Walter Thompson.



The idea is that the leader of an orchestra is able to conduct live improvisation through the use of specific gestures. It is a way to structure and orchestrate music of the moment and thus realise the idea of instant composition, which is an ideal of some in the avant-garde. In Denmark, trumpeter Ketil Duckert and trombonist Gustav Rasmussen are the first to use the language of soundpainting and Beware documents their efforts to make the technique a viable artistic tool. The result is a varied record where a compositions such as "Imod Blues—Den Anden Vej" (Against Blues—The Other Way) provides knotty structures of horns, drums and bass over which Høeg delivers his ramblings. It must be admitted that the poetry is an acquired taste which tends towards the cerebral, but the music itself is rewardingly complex and melodically provocative.

Rasmus Ehlers
Trinity
Your Favourite Jazz Records
2009

Pianist Rasmus Ehlers is one musician signed to Your Favourite Jazz Records who actually plays relatively straight-ahead jazz, but even he does so with a twist. Followers of the eminent saxophonist George Garzone will know that he has played in quartet with Ehlers and considers it one of his favourite gigs. But Ehlers also has his own trio with bassist Paul Ehlers and drum-wizard Kresten Osgood, and it is this wonderfully interactive trio which is captured on Trinity.



The album starts with the title track, a free-form piece with the piano's swirling chords set around the loose structure of drums and bass, but the mood changes when Ehlers provides a thoughtful interpretation of the standard "I Fall In Love Too Easily." Ehlers is situated somewhere between free-form modernism and romantic traditionalism, and his poignant playing avoids unnecessary ornaments in favor of a sense of restraint that is nevertheless able to swing full speed ahead—as is proven on a dancing version of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Trinity gives the impression of a trio which is able to play on several musical strings.


Play, in the dual meanings of the word, is a keyword when it comes to defining the sound of Your Favourite Jazz Records. As Winther says: "If, for instance, you take Borderline Ensemble's soundpainting, Looter Beats' old school funk and Aggerbæk's vocal-folk-jazz, then they clearly have one thing in common: the playfulness and openness." It is this willingness to experiment and play across genres which has made the label a success, perhaps not in financial terms, but artistically.



When asked about the future of the label, Winther's hope is that it will be able to get wider distribution and find new listeners. "It is my hope to build some strong ties to distrubuters around the world, but it is also a tough market right now." As of winter 2009, the label releases six to eight records a year and Winther thinks, at least for now, that this is a suitable rate.



Releasing records isn't the only thing that matters to Winther. He also places high priority on creating a musical community. "It is important to me to do other things than just crank out records. For instance, as part of Copenhagen Jazz Festival, I have arranged a series of concerts: 'Your Favourite Jazz presents the finest in Young Danish Jazz.' Even though it isn't something I make money on—on the contrary, in fact—I think it is important to present the artists as a whole, both to illustrate the connection there is between them, but also to give them a sense of community, that they're not just a number on a label's list."

It is this sense of dedication that has made Your Favourite Jazz Records into something special, but it is also a trait that characterises the new independent jazz scene in general. It's a movement where artistic quality and a feeling of community is as important as the pursuit of an individual career. Thankfully, Winther also has time to release his own music besides running the label and 2010 will see him releasing a big band project that he has been working on for some time. The little label and its artists keep working, doing what they do best. More than anything, Your Favourite Jazz Records is a proof of the paradox that jazz is an anarchistic art form whose finest quality is that its number one rule is that there aren't any rules at all.

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