The Jazz.com Blog
November 12, 2008 · 0 comments
No critic covers jazz in more countries than the indefatigable Stuart Nicholson, who has reported on musical events in more than a half dozen nations in this column during recent months. Below he offers his candid assessment of the recent Umea Jazz Festival in Sweden. T.G.
Although it celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, chances are you’ve never heard of Umea Jazz. Yet this Swedish festival has played host to just about every big name in jazz from 1968 to the present day.
The anniversary program featured a selection of photos of just a few of the many stars who made the hour long flight north of Stockholm, while the original black and white prints made an impressive display in the foyer of the Umea Folkets Hus, the six stage performance centre in the middle of town where the festival is held. A casual glance at the exhibition and jazz legends leapt out at you: the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, jazz royalty in the shape of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, icons such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, B. B. King, Kenny Clarke, Nina Simone, Art Blakey and…. well, you get the picture. A who’s who of jazz have appeared at a festival you never knew existed.
Umea has the reputation of one of the best festivals in Scandinavia, and the job of maintaining its remarkable tradition is in the hands of its current director, Lennart Strömbeck. “Umea is the second biggest jazz festival in Sweden,” he says over a coffee, “It’s an exciting challenge building on the reputation the festival has built over the last forty years, but we try and mix establish stars with up and coming talent. Even though this festival is just beginning, planning is already underway for next year. It’s a year long job to get the program the best we can.”
The event opened the night before I arrived with “European Jazz Night,” so my festival began with the Dave Holland Quintet, who were predictably flawless in their relentless perfection. Next up was Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson with a line-up not too dissimilar to Holland’s famous quintet—saxophone, trombone (albeit doubling tuba), vibraphone, drums and an electronics whiz instead of a bassist. Yet not only did the music seem to come from a different world to that of the Holland quintet, it could well have come from a different planet in some far off galaxy. Gustafsson reminded us that danger and surprise are still vital ingredients in jazz, elements largely absent in Holland’s performance, whose set seemed a paean to the god of virtuosity.
Gustafsson addressed the folkloric heritage of Swedish jazz embodied in the music of musicians such as Jan Johansson and Lars Gullin. Now this is tricky territory. Johansson and Gullin are icons in the Swedish jazz firmament, and their repertoire is revered—indeed the best selling jazz album of all time in Sweden is not Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme but Johansson’s Jazz pår Svenska, recorded in 1962-3. Yet Gustafsson’s arrangements were artfully constructed stories that were well told, using the contrast between inside and outside playing to dramatic and often memorable effect.
However with Joshua Redman’s Trio, we were back to well grounded certainties—theme, improvisations, theme. Despite an excellent bassist and one of the world’s greatest drummers (Brian Blade), there was a sense in which time seemed to have passed these fine musicians, and musicians playing in the post-bop idiom here in Europe, in America and the rest of the world, by. While the extended solo may have been good for Coltrane’s generation of fans, it does it not necessarily hold good for today’s generation. Reduced attention spans are only part of the reason. The other part is the increasingly self-referential nature of post-bop, partly as a result of a dominant pedagogy. Today it is almost impossible for young musicians to create solos that do not refer back, primarily, to recordings of the great masters. Like it or not, this style of jazz is about itself now.
In fact, attention is now shifting away “jazz as a soloist’s art” to ordering the infinite possibilities of ensemble sounds and textures. Many soloists are no longer intent on testing listeners’ attention spans by leaping off into the wild blue yonder with a lengthy statement that may or may not relate to the composers intention, but instead work within parameters of the composition, often in a way that blurs the distinction between the written and the improvised. The challenge today is no longer one of musical athleticism, whose frontiers have been well and truly conquered, more of expressivity and meaning.
This shift away from virtuosity-as-a-thing-in-itself to more ensemble based styles has left trumpeter Christian Scott somewhat high and dry. Hailed as the next “new” star in a decades old style, despite a nod to contemporary culture in Jamire Williams’ rhythms, he was left straining for effect. His playing, and indeed Redman’s, brought to mind Max Harrison’s observation about pianist Oscar Peterson in The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2 that holds good for other instrumentalists, “the mere crowding-in of as many notes as possible amounted to playing the piano rather than making music.”
Henry Threadgill argued his case with his band Zooid from a position midway between tighter compositional forms and extended solos. On record he is often more succinct, and his compositions assume greater significance as a result. But here in live performance whatever meaning the soloist might have taken from Threadgill’s compositional context was often lost by the sheer length of the solos. Yet when the ensembles did coalesce, the unusual combination of instruments—saxophone/flute, tuba, cello and guitar—created refreshingly original tone colours that sparkled all too briefly.
Norwegian/Danish pianist Maria “Monk with Hiccups” Kannegaard presented her quartet at Umea, and her jumpy, fragmented themes were interpreted with audible glee by her conspicuously young band who have internalized her demanding repertoire well. This is music that does not fill you with joy, but there is something compelling about the ugly beauty of her music. Tenor saxophonist Håkon Kornstadt threw himself into the heart of her compositions, his dancing, angular lines building on Kannegaard’s awkward melodies, before expanding on her ideas with his own. As he showed with his fine work with pianist Håvard Wiik on the Jazzland label he seems to respond well to strong musical personalities.
Mats Gustafsson, whose hometown is Umea, was the featured artist at the festival and his collaboration with the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was a festival highlight. Gustafsson’s relationship with Brötzmann (best known for his epic album Machine Gun from 1968) began as that of student-master, but he has now moved on to become a vital voice in his own right on the European free scene, while Nilssen-Love has seamlessly progressed from a hugely promising talent to a huge talent. Nilssen-Love’s ability to get inside the music and compliment its density was best demonstrated in his duets with Gustafsson that also highlighted how this style of music is a performance art—and how recordings so often diminish its effect. This is music that has to be experienced; you have to feel it, hear it and see it to grasp its subversive meanings. Although European free music has long since found its own identity at the hands of masters like Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Han Bennik, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love have emerged as new heroes taking the music to a new level.
You would need an awful lot of time on your hands to come up with a greater contrast to Gustafsson/Nilssen-Love/Brötzmann’s music than that of the vocalist, pianist and guitarist Maria Laurette Friis. Friis sings in the little-girl-lost style of several Scandinavian singers who have emerged on the scene in the last couple of years such as Susanna, Hanne Hukkelberg, Torun Eriksen, Karen, Hilde Marie Kjersen and others. But she has her own slant with lyrics that are poetic in their construction and set to simple melodies. Accompanied by Pamela Kurstin’s gently throbbing theremin, she wove an intricate spell that held her audience rapt.
The festival has within its mission the ability to commission projects that might otherwise remain a figment of the creative imagination, and for their 40th anniversary celebrations they made sure the event would not slip by unnoticed by commissioning “Jubileumsmusik,” a piece for symphony orchestra, forty voices, and Joakim Milder’s solo saxophones. Milder also composed and arranged the piece and his use of voices was imaginative, from animated conversational hubbub to Sprechstimme, and from hearty Alleluias to orthodox choral chants. Percussionist Lisbeth Diers led from behind, keeping the huge ensemble honest and on track with a virtuoso display that was visually and well as musically absorbing. Milder’s saxophones (tenor and soprano) emerged as the voice of reason in a piece of music that was ultimately as uplifting as it was non-genre specific.
Yet for all the remarkable diversity of music on offer, the festival dealt a wildcard that turned out for many to be their gig of the year. On the face of it here was another girl vocalist plus piano trio, but Nina Ramsby knows how to make an entrance. Dressed in an immaculately tailored gentleman’s white lounge suit, plus collar and tie and with her head shaven, all eyes were on her. She did not waste the moment. Singing her own originals in Swedish she had that indefinable “X-Factor” and if there’s any justice in the world she’ll scare countless lesser talents into another line of work.
Somehow she managed to pack a bigger punch than a symphony orchestra plus forty voices. The wonder of it all was how she could convey the meaning she did to the non-Swedish speaking members of the audience—like me. Yet this is not as mysterious as it seems. Today with World Music enjoying the popularity it does, it is worth noting that the prospect of audiences enjoying songs in languages they do not understand would hold little promise for them if the melodies, rhythms and harmonies did not move them in some way. But this was not World Music, it was jazz with a capital “j” and whether she was playing flugelhorn (“this will scare the boys,” she mused in English), clarinet or allowing her vocals to take flight against Ludvig Berghe’s brilliant piano accompaniment, she made absolutely certain that first thing anyone would remember about the 40th anniversary of the Umea Jazz Festival was Nina Ramsby.
This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.