Monday, July 18, 2011

From Goliath to David: A Tale of Two Festivals

by Marc Chénard

Chapter one
Copenhagen Sounds and Sights

Festivals come in all shapes and sizes. On a scale running from the pocket-sized all the way up to the gargantuan, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival clearly tips the balance towards that outer extreme. Held over the first ten days of July, this mega-event was spread out over 109 stages (indoor and outdoor) for a grand total of 1072 shows (as counted in the 150-page program book, though the festival's press officer Christian Dalgas offered "1154 at latest count" as a revised tally). For any festival attendee then, the main issue is not what is seen, but what is missed. But for all off its size, audiences are never overwhelmed by it. (That said, it is recommended to take the time to study their good book first and whittle down choices according to personal interests and accessibility of venues, a fair number of which are in walking distance from each other.) Because of its decentralized nature, music lovers will not suffer as much from sensory overload as in other events staged in a single perimeter, for instance in Montreal, The Hague or Perugia.

Like any festival, and probably more with the bigger ones, each new edition seems to distinguish itself by some exceptional occurrence that goes marks its history in one way or another. For the city's residents at least, this year's festivities were overshadowed by a deluge of rain on its second day, in the form of a violent storm that dumped 150 ml of water in two hours, its fury compounded by gale force winds and lightening strikes. Several cancellations ensued both for that evening and the following day—Abdullah Ibrahim's slated performance of his newest version of Ekaya being the most noteworthy casualty here. (The festival actually made the best out of this misfortune by stating in its post-festival press release that "The music won out over the weather.") This visitor was also lucky enough to arrive three days after that fact and was thus spared from the brunt of it, the only noticeable after-effect being the shutting down of the city's hot water supply until later that day.

Because of the incredibly wide selection of shows to choose from (both paying and free), it is always tempting to hop, skip and jump to catch as much as possible, but from this observer's own experience, it's best to catch complete shows and, well, just bite one's lip for the painful choices to be made. Given its magnitude, the CJF is truly breathtaking in scope, as you can find just about everything from ragtime (or close to it, as in mock New-Orleans street parades) to no-time with a number of cutting-edge performers of both local and international standing.

With a distinguished history as one of the major jazz capitals of the Old Continent, Copenhagen established its reputation as a welcoming city to American jazzmen, many of whom elected to settle there, sometimes for years (Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Sahib Shihab), if not for the rest of their lives (Kenny Drew, Duke Jordan, Doug Rainey). While the American presence clearly set the tone of the country's jazz scene for decades, with factions of jazz traditionalists and modern mainstream beboppers thriving amongst the homegrown players, things have has evolved considerably over the last decade. Having attended the festival back in 1996, this writer was clearly struck by the growth of its scene in the ensuing years, both in new talents (fostered by the city's Rhythmic Conservatory) and musical pursuits ranging from World Beat to more cutting-edge free improvised musics.

Also of note in this festival are the number of collaborations between Danish and foreign musicians, both from the Continent and the United States. Hailing both from the big Apple were drummers Andrew Cyrille and Tom Rainey, who each appeared in various settings over the week (likewise for trumpeter Herb Robertson and reedman Andrew Di Angelo, whose gigs always conflicted with my show selections). A mere two days after a performance at Vancouver's jazz festival as part of Danish pianist Søren Kjærgaard's trio (with New Yorker Ben Street on bass), Cyrille (the one-time Cecil Taylor drummer) provided a more gentle groove than usual in this ensemble. A rising talent in his country, the Danish keyboardist's music bears the imprint of that so-called Nordic Sound, more restrained in dynamics and definitely mood-oriented. Presented in the spacious hall at the back of the State Art Museum, this free-of-charge concert was part of a double bill that opened with the decidedly more expansive duo of British bassist extraordinaire Barry Guy and Norwegian saxophonist Torben Snekkestad (tenor, soprano and trumpet fitted with a sax mouthpiece). This pair, incidentally, was heard on the day following a recording session in one of the city's churches, for an as-yet-to-be-determined label.

Equally busy for his part, Tom Rainey was caught three days later in the same location stoking the fires behind pianist Jacob Anderskov's solid septet Accident. The leader's suite-like compositions were finely crafted and allowed for generous improvisations, those by alto saxophonist Laura Toxværd stood out especially for their daringness and freedom.

From neighbouring Germany, two musicians of very different generations added their spices to a couple of shows with local players. Pianist Michael Wollny for one is a highly praised thirty-something talent in his country: best known for a series of trio recordings on the high-profiled Act label (including a duo collaboration with an almost legendary compatriot, tenorman Heinz Sauer), Wollny guested with the quartet of reedman Niels Løkkergaard, a fascinating unit also comprised of drums, guitar, fluegelhorn (but no bass). Playing extended compositions comprised of slow moving melodies unfolding over jittery rhythms (sustained by one of the most active albeit subtle drummers heard during the event), the music was a perfect example of quiet intensity at its best, with a couple of doses of humour thrown in, when all except the drummer went clicking away at portable manual typewriters, even if they got a bit carriaged (sic) away by this ploy. As this writer was heading out from the city-run Huset theater, one of the two colleagues in my company noticed that guitarist Pierre Dørge was to play next in a quartet with his wife (Irene Becker), saxophonist Anders Banke and a guest poet (doubling on soprano sax). Regretting the fact that the guitarist's large group, the New Jungle Orchestra, had played on the second day, wrapping up their set just before the deluge hit, it was a fine chance to meet again one of Denmark's better known and most affable musicians years after my first encounter with him.

John Tchicai (photo: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen)

Also a famous son of the Danish jazz scene is saxophonist John Tchicai, best known for having played on the legendary Coltrane side Ascension as well as co-leading the New York Contemporary five of that now vintage era. Last seen in Montreal two years ago (in a trio with guitarist Garrison Fewell and reedist Charlie Kohlhaas), this 75-year old veteran is still very much in fine form, and also benefitted from some fine company, with a younger compatriot, multi-reedist Jesper Løvdal and the great German drummer Günter 'Baby' Sommer. Together, these musicians let some of the most delightful and earthy musical sounds ring in the Beboerhus (another fine cultural center in the heart of the neighbouring district of Christianhavn). Over two sets, enthusiastic listeners were treated with everything from Coleman Hawkins to Albert Ayler—Løvdal's solo tenor variations on "Body & Soul" would have had Hawk smiling from above, while Tchicai's broad toned tenor conjured the spirit of A.A.'s sing-songy melody lines. On that night, the drummer and Tchicai also marked their first reunion in 30 years, "in that strange country called the DDR" quipped the drummer before adding "but that had nice people, too." Both on that night and the one before, where the drummer meshed with his younger colleague and multi-instrumentalist Kresten Osgood at the jazz club Christiana (right in the heart of that city's famous, or infamous, hippy commune), the excitement was clearly palpable, everyone swinging like mad and lifting the bandstand in the proceedings.

Charles Lloyd (photo: Jonas Pryner)

Clearly the days of Americans calling the tune in jazz are no more. In fact, Europeans can call their own just as well as Americans, albeit in very different ways. And no better examples could there be of this duality than the two shows seen at one of the city's better known venues, the Copenhagen Jazzhouse. While the festival bookended its schedule with two superstars, Sonny Rollins at the beginning and Keith Jarrett at the end, one musician eagerly awaited was tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd. On the strengths of his two most recent ECM recordings (and a third one now in the offing), Lloyd has come full circle in his current quartet. Rekindling the magic of his vintage late sixties band with Jarrett, DeJohnette and Ron McLure, Lloyd can still wail at his lyrical best over a rhythm section with as deep a pocket anyone could ever hear in the business today. Jason Moran, Eric Harland and Reuben Rogers breathe as one and their free-flowing beat pulses so naturally as to inspire the leader to his flights of fancy (on tenor mostly, but also on alto flute and the exotic taragot). Before an SRO crowd in the large basement size room of the club, the quartet performed two sets of under an hour, with a ten minute plus encore to send the crowds home in high spirits after a rewarding night of music-making (opening on a silent prayer and closing on a reading from the sacred Hindu scriptures). While Lloyd is not charting any new territories here, few do it as well and as convincingly in this genre as he. Who knows? Maybe Coltrane may well have been smiling from above…

If Lloyd presented something utterly familiar, and did it very well, saxophonist Lotte Anker however dared to lead her audience down a radically different path just two nights later, even though the results of the adventure were mitigated at best. Best known for playing in small-group free improvising situations (as heard at the funky Ilk Sessions venue two night previously), she has collaborated with a veritable string of American notables such as Marilyn Crispell, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver. For her main show, Anker lead an almost all-European cast of nine musicians (The What River Ensemble) through a highly structured extended work of her own making. Included in the cast were guitarist Fred Frith, vocalist Phil Minton, drummer/percussionist Chris Cutler and electronics specialist Ikue Mori, all known for their bold musical forays. Rounding off the group were musicians from the contemporary classical world, most notably one-time Arditti String Quartet violist Garth Knox, bassist Jesper Eglund and clarinetist Anna Klett. Premiered last year in England at the Huddersfield Music Festival (a reputable event in modern classical music), the suite-like piece was more somewhat out of character for a jazz den. By and large, it gave the impression of a series of intricate mood-like pieces whose dynamics were very contained and allowed for little personal initiative. Unlike the bulk of contemporary music where every note is precisely laid out, there were clearly open sections but the very tight overall structure did not allow anyone to step outside of the frame. To see/hear the likes of Frith, Cutler and Minton being so contained and restrained was unusual to say the least; by and large the hour-plus performance appeared more like a stringing of discrete episodes that somehow did not add up to an equal, let alone a greater sum than its individual parts. As such it came across as an attempt to emulate all the earnestness of a contemporary chamber music ensemble from very seasoned improvisers known to cut loose. Opening that evening, Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endressen (known to any ECM aficionado) gave an almost hour-long a capella performance, a bold stroke to say the least. While this writer has to admit his lack of enthusiasm towards any kind of vocal music, her soft, delicate chants had their undeniable charms, even if was a rather long haul, especially when having to contend with the effects of jetlag. (Incidentally, this double bill occurred before the Sommer performance at the Christiana Jazz Club alluded to above, the contrast between the performances contributing to the high appreciation of the latter for its unfettered playing.)

Also appreciated were two Euro-American collaborations, the first at the now reactivated Montmartre Jazz Club, the second at the Prøvehallen (i.e. rehearsal hall) tucked away in the outlying suburb of Valby. In May 2010, Copenhagen's one-time jazz Mecca, the Montmartre, was re-opened to much fanfare in its original first location (Store Regnegade 19), its decor an almost carbon-copy replica to the original local haunted by many an American expat, from Dexter G. to Kenny D. and unarguably the country's most famous native son, the late bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Caught on the first night of a three-night run was the native French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc in a trio setting with American drummer Billy Hart and one of the city's veteran bassists, Mads Vinding. A virtuosic pianist full of quick and often unexpected musical twists, Pilc is one of those rare birds capable of re-treading even the most worn-out evergreens, as demonstrated during that evening's first set, that also comprised two of his own originals, a lithe ballad dedicated to his son and a vamp-based tune that effectively built tension to sudden flurries of playing. Full marks go to his sidemen as well who were given lots of room to strut their own stuff.

Farther from the city core, but reachable via a ten-minute train ride on the S-Tog (regional commuter train), the Prøvehallen is an intimate black box shape room that tends to get a bit stuffy for lack of air circulation (or conditioning). Throughout the festival, it serves as basis of operations for a series hosted by the Cowbell Music label, the concerts featuring for the most part its leading artist, altoist Benjamin Koppel, who shares programming/artistic duties with pianist Kenny Werner. Over the festival's run, the hall greeted such high-profiled players as Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Alex Sipiagin from the States, as well as Europeans John Taylor, Anders Jormin and Copenhagen's own leading percussionist Marilyn Mazur.

On the one night there, Werner and Koppel greeted star trumpeter Dave Douglas as its special guest, rounding off their quintet with German bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Jonathan Blake. The proposition of seeing Douglas and Werner together was an incentive in itself: after all, who could have thought a few years back that the one-time avant trumpeter would team up one day with a stalwart mainstreamer like Werner? It goes without saying that Douglas has found a comfortable niche somewhere in the center of the jazz spectrum, and those who dug his Tiny Bell Trio or tenure with Zorn's Masada might bemoan this, but he still remains a helluva horn player, also capable of writing zesty pieces, many of which were played during the hour-plus set. Bass and drums anchored the proceedings effectively overall (the latter a times a little too busy or loud), Werner always the equal to himself, and Koppel (both on alto and straight alto, or was it manzello?) holding his own in rather concise solo statements (that got better as the night wore on). One quibble though: amplification was a little overdone for a room that size, albeit the balance allowed everyone to be heard on a equal footing.

Given the numerous outdoor stages in the inner city, time must be allotted to at least catch snippets of one or another of the performances. This writer made a point to see a complete set by a group called Phronesis, a trio of up-and-comers missed in Montreal the week before. Is it possible nowadays for yet one more of those classic piano-bass-drums combos to achieve a sound of its own? When listening to their set, it may well be that they lack a little in originality or distinctiveness (it is essentially quite conventional in concept), but their music comes across with conviction and energy, thanks mainly to the kick-ass drumming of Anton Eger who always knew how to get his mates digging in a little deeper.

For sure the jazz tradition is very much in good hands these days due to a thriving younger generation, but there are plenty of veterans around as well, such as tenor man Jesper Thilo (who meshed with Scott Hamilton) and long-time American expat Bob Rockwell who played some relaxed tenor of his own at the Jazz Cup, the city's last remaining jazz record store and home of the label Stunt Records and its affiliated distributor Sundance music.

Unlike other cities that have one big jazz splurge a year, Copenhagen's harbors and suburbs are redolent with music in all seasons, as are many other areas of that small land with the oldest monarchy of the world (where another jazz fest takes place in the city of Århus in the following week). Audiences are also both very knowledgeable and have a pretty good grasp on all strands of jazz. What's more, local talent is promoted beyond its borders thanks to cultural funding programs and agencies devoted to exporting talent abroad. Also of note are a variety of homegrown labels, Storyville and Steeplechase enjoying international recognition for their productions involving international names, while companies such as Stunt, Ilk Records and Cowbell Music devote themselves more to producing albums by a wide variety of native performers, at times sharing the spotlight with Americans.

As an interesting fact, it's worth noting that Denmark is the one country that consistently comes out on top of surveys measuring the degree of contentedness or satisfaction in life of its citizens. If one also believes that jazz towns are happy towns, then Copenhagen has plenty to smile about, and no one need to be surprised by that either when statistics have also shown that the Danes are also happen to be the greatest per capita buyers of jazz recordings in the world.

See program and post-festival info at:

For label information and catalogues, google label names mentioned above.



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