The Jazz.com Blog
July 20, 2009 · 0 comments
Jazz.com is delighted to add Larry Appelbaum to its roster of bloggers. A distinguished writer, broadcaster, promoter, and general expert on all matters jazzy, Appelbaum reports below on the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, one of the most ambitious annual jazz events in the world—with a mind-boggling one thousand events over the course of ten days. T.G.
It's no surprise that the Copenhagen Jazz Festival is one of the longest running, most successful festivals in Europe. Denmark has had a strong association with jazz going back to the 1920s and, like many Europeans, the Danes have always considered jazz an art form as well as entertainment. The city of Copenhagen has historically been receptive to American musicians, many of whom lived there and shared their knowledge in the 1950s, '60s and 70s, including Ben Webster, Thad Jones, Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew.
After more than three decades, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival offers more or less what you'd expect from any major jazz festival: 1,000 events over the course of ten days, at 99 different venues all over town. But it also holds a number of surprises, especially for a first time visitor. First, Copenhagen has a fairly small downtown area, which means most venues are within walking distance from one another. In most cases, walking is faster than taxi, though without many metro stops in the city center, it's worth renting a bicycle or learning a few bus routes to help you venture outside the city center or across the lake. Second, while there are quite a few impressive concert spaces, including the Royal Theater, the Royal Library and Skuespilhuset, there are also a number of more unusual performance venues, such as the former Elephant House at the Zoo, various record shops, and an East German fishing trawler, the M.S. Stubnitz. Third, it's worth remembering that every concert and club performance seems to start at least 15 minutes late. That's not a game stopper, but a mental time conversion will help if you're planning to hit multiple shows in the same time frame.
Two more surprises: Despite the current right-wing government and the effects of a contracting economy, there appears to still be public money available for such festivals in Denmark, which speaks to enlightened cultural priorities. This also means that the jazz festival can present music for aesthetic reasons without having to sell out or shill for corporate interests (for example, there are no commercial announcements from any of the stages or tacky merchandising). As for ticket prices, the big name concert seats (James Taylor, Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater) run between $30-$125, though in most cases, the more interesting shows are found in the more affordable clubs, or scattered throughout the city in free outdoor events. Besides, who goes to a jazz festival to see James Taylor?
One last surprise: The Danish jazz scene is not as musically conservative as its reputation might suggest. Yes, there's a strong, American-influenced mainstream represented by big bands and various prominent soloists and leaders, such as Jesper Thilo, Ole Kock Hansen, Alex Riel, Carsten Dahl and others. But there have always been adventurous players like John Tchicai, Hugh Steinmetz and Pierre Dørge, who've explored freer jazz forms and world music. And there's a newer generation of conservatory-trained players, like Jacob Anderskov, Mark Solborg, Lotte Anker, Anders Christensen and Søren Kjærgaard, who specialize in creative improvised music but who can, and do, play everything.
Speaking of Kjærgaard, the pianist and composer performed throughout the festival in many different contexts, including the highly regarded Optics Trio with Ben Street and Andrew Cyrille. But he displayed more of the range of his personality in a solo appearance at the public library. About 50 people gathered on a weekday afternoon to watch Kjærgaard mix floating, impressionistic chords with triggered samples and loops, extracting speech-like effects from the upright piano's strings. Kjærgaard has a penchant for the absurd (making use of tennis balls, duck quacks and a demented recitative), but his heartfelt versions of Strayhorn's “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” and movements from Ellington's Far East Suite and The Queen's Suite showed a a deep respect, understanding and love of tradition. A closing duet on Beethoven's “Für Elise,” featuring music box and Kjærgaard's twinkling right hand variations, was both amusing and cute.
As expected, there were a handful of American artists on the festival, including John Scofield, Herb Robertson, Steve Swallow, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Liebman and Chick Corea. After recent long tours with Return To Forever and the 5 Peace Band, Corea is traveling this summer as a solo pianist and his performance at the Royal Theater displayed his imaginative approach to familiar material; from the shimmering introduction on his own “Armando's Rhumba,” to the romantic rubato of “Waltz For Debby.” A suite of four Monk tunes—“Trinkle Tinkle,” “Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk” and “I Mean You”—flirted with dissonance and polytonality, and made inventive use of Monk's trademark descending, chromatic lines.
After Corea, a 10-minute walk along the water brought me to the M.S. Stubnitz, where John Tchicai held forth in a series of duets with drummer P.O. Jørgens. Though the ship's below sea level decor was industrial/mechanical, the music balanced cerebral expression with strong feelings and emotion. Tchicai, who turned 73 this last April, still plays with the fire of a young man, but he takes his time and lets the music unfold rather than explode. His bass clarinet work was especially beautiful when set against Jørgens's steel drum or balafon. Backed by trap set, Tchicai read some forgettable poetry, but his indecipherable vocalizing was memorably unnerving.
Though there were quite a few vocalists at this festival, the most unforgettable was Norwegian Sidsel Endresen, who held forth in a solo show at Skuespilhuset. Her extended techniques and spooky, improvised word salad, backed by the occasional use of kalimba, cast a spell, combining otherworldly sounds with silence, Sprechstimme and breath.
With any festival this size there are hits and misses. The most absurd, even ridiculous performance came from the Argentine-Uruguayan group Bajofondo. Ostensibly a modern tango phenomenon, this octet was about as tasteful as last week's smørrebrød. Yes, they were all dressed in black and one of them played an amplified bandoneon, but between the smoke machine, the thump-thumping rhythm section and the unnecessarily distracting strobe light effects, there wasn't much tango to hang onto. It was all sizzle and no steak, but the crowd ate it up, every last thump-thump.
Some of the most compelling performances throughout the festival were smaller scale, more intimate efforts. For example, guitarist Jakob Bro and bassist Anders Christensen, while waiting for their drummer to show, played several duet numbers in front of a handful of listeners at KafCafeen. Their “Stella By Starlight” was liquid flow and cliche-free, making use of implied harmonies and the space between notes. Bro, who often works with Tomasz Stanko and Paul Motian, has plenty of technique but he never uses it to show off. He phrases naturally, as if he knows the lyrics to these songs, and on “I Remember You,” he picked particularly thoughtful voicings for his chords. For his part, Christensen played slightly behind the beat, which set up a delicious tension with the guitar, yet his tone was fat and his time steady. He was also fun to watch, as he swayed and danced with his instrument. It's not hard to see why he's such an in-demand bassist.
Another Danish player who works a lot on the international circuit is drummer Stefan Pasborg. He played in many configurations during the festival, notably with Marc Ducret, Delirium, and Ibrahim Electric, but the most joyously rousing was his group Odessa 5 (none of whom, by the way, are from Odessa). They played a couple of sets in a hip, well-stocked little jazz record shop called Jazz Cup, across the street from Kongens Have park. Pasborg, joined by Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen, Lithuanian Liudas Mockunas, and fellow Danes, sousaphonist Jakob Munck and saxophonist Anders Banke, prepared an intriguing repertoire consisting of originals, such as the rambunctious “Fanfare for the Bastard,” the time-shifting, Balkan-flavored “Last Man,” and a danceable calypso-mambo titled “Mambo Royal.” Most interesting were the three medleys, based on music by Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and, perhaps most astonishing, three movements from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.
Like Pasborg, pianist, composer Jacob Anderskov appeared in several different groups and collaborations throughout the week. The best of them, however, was his octet Anderskov Accident, which gave an outdoor concert on Frue Plads. These outdoor concerts were not only free, but they gave an opportunity to wander through the audience, soak up some rare sunshine and get a feeling for Copenhagen's jazz community. Anderskov spent a fair amount of time conducting, then sitting at the piano with hands in his lap watching his music unfurl. He writes in structures that breathe; balancing exuberant, often free playing within extended compositional settings.
Other musical highlights at this festival included beautiful ballads played by legendary Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren, the spacey, electric Miles sound of Thunderstrucks, a mind-expanding (if unfortunately named) quartet called Mold, and a nearly telepathic duet between pianist Jacob Karlzon and bassist Mads Vinding. At Jazz Cup one afternoon, a sweat-drenched Danish trio backed Boston-based saxophonist George Garzone in several long excursions through post-Coltrane territory, and drummer Andrew Cyrille gave a late-night, for-insiders-only solo recital in Vesterbro, not listed in the festival program. The concert that held the most promise was trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg performing a new work inspired by his collaboration with Miles Davis. It was something that looked good on paper, and it was extremely well played, but it became repetitive and wore thin after 30 minutes. The most transcendently moving performance featured the Universal Quartet, with 88-year old Yusef Lateef appearing alongside percussionist Adam Rudoph, trumpeter Kasper Tranberg, and drummer Kresten Osgood. The music was intensely spiritual and often playful, and the setting, in one of the Tivoli ballrooms during a raging thunderstorm, only added to the experience.
One of the criticisms leveled at this year's festival is that there were no jazz superstars, such as Ornette Coleman, who appeared in the festival's 30th anniversary edition last year. And it's hard to ignore the fact that the audience for this festival is not a particularly young one, especially for the ticketed shows. Still, with 1,000 events and 200,000 attendees each year, it's hard to knock success. Nearly every style of jazz is represented at this festival, and the bar is set high for both music and production values. Most important is the fact that the Copenhagen Jazz Festival affords the opportunity to delve deeply into the pool of world-class Danish improvisers. For the naysayers, it's worth noting that in terms of growth, the festival has nearly doubled in size in the last 20 years. It's good to know that the quality of local musicians has grown as well.
This blog entry posted by Larry Appelbaum