April 7, 2016
By Ken Waxman
When attending a Copenhagen gig, ensure you’re on time. Unlike “jazz time” where a set begins from one-half to one hour late, the Danes are so punctual that during the final days of Copenhagen’s annual VinterJazz (VJ) festival February 24 to 27, 15 minutes was the average “delayed” start time. Created 15 years ago as a relation to the summer Copenhagen Jazz Festival, in 2016, hundreds of shows throughout the city took place under the VJ banner often simultaneously, so selectivity was the watchword.
One landmark show that started almost on time was at the JazzHouse’s main space featuring a jazz institution decades older than the festival, The Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO), celebrating its half-century anniversary. What this nonet lacked in numbers it made up in generational participation. On hand from the band’s birth were leader/pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, trumpeter Manfred Schoof and tenor saxophonist Gerd Dudek. Others, such as trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and drummers Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens joined in later years; while trumpeter/flugelhornist Jean-Luc Cappozzo, trombonist Christof Thewes, alto saxophonist Henrik Walsdorff and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Daniele D’Agaro were 21st century recruits. With Lytton enhancing the beat with blunt strokes, Lovens embellishing rhythms with pinging finger cymbals and rubbed drum tops; and with the pianist rarely flouting his blend of Teddy Wilson- swing, Jelly Roll Morton stomps and New music string plucking, space was left for the horns. Schoof’s corrosive blowing confirmed his never-lost skill in free contexts, while Dudek’s warm uncluttered tone contrasted with the others’ severity during reed face-offs. Meanwhile Cappozzo matched Stańko’s innate lyricism or Schoof’s abrasiveness; and his choked tones fended off massed saxophone freak outs as cunningly as they blended with Thewes’ modified slurs. D’Agaro’s fluency triumphed as he added tough tenor touches alongside Dudek or laid bare pure emotion via double-tongued clarinet cries. Notable for its solo strength, this GUO variant was more like a cousin than a brother to the composition-driven GUOs of the past.
Cappozzo’s convivial personality was demonstrated later that night as the only GUO member to attend the improv sessions saxophonist Lotte Anker hosted in the Jazzhouse’s upstairs bar. Playing with visiting cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm plus locals, alto saxophonist Sture Ericson and drummer Ståle Solberg, the resulting music was puckish and provocative. Paced and prodigious, Anker’s wide tone and conviction on tenor and alto saxophones expertly matched the cellist during an earlier duet, whether he bow-slashed strings, dug into them with finger tips or dislocated the sounds with foot pedal electronics.
If foreign players brought distinctive narratives to Copenhagen, the VJ was as much about showcasing Scandinavian musicians. One spectacular instance of this was the 10-hour ILK Eksplosion that took place in Forbrændingen, a suburban heating plant converted to a utilitarian music space. More than a label night, not all of the two dozen participants record for ILK and stylistic breadth was extensive.
This was obvious with groups that began and ended the explosion. Framed but not fettered by staccato minimalism, reedist Torben Snekkestad, pianist Jacob Davidsen and guitarist Hasse Poulsen ambled through linked improvisations. While rippling keyboard drones and pressurized saxophone inferences suggested Evan Parker and John Tilbury – except when Snekkestad purred textures from his reed trumpet – it was Poulsen’s mix of agitated finger-tip clanks, bow-string sweeps and electronics-propelled field-recording interjections that defined this trio’s originality. Concluding with piano chords evoking the introduction confirmed the trio’s structural smarts. Snekkestad’s solo versatility on soprano and tenor saxophone, clarinet and reed trumpet was showcased two nights previously at the Nørrebro Jazzklub, where he bubbled, spit, wheezed, snarled and whistled a cornucopia of timbres from his horns.
Pianist Simon Toldam’s Orkester Stork, which wrapped up the Ilk festivities, included trumpeter Jimi Nyborg, trombonist Mads Hyhne, Ericson, bassist Niels Bo Davidsen and drummer Peter Bruun. But the leader’s precise voicings multiplied the textures and personalities. Cinematically, Toldam’s slow-motion ballads featured near-symphonic horn choir interpretations, often overlaid by Ericson’s bass clarinet glissandi. Careening keyboard chiming sparked brisker tunes, featuring embellishments that contrasted boppish trumpet leads with tailgate-like splashes from Hyhne.
Bruun was on hand for a set featuring guitarist Mark Solborg, tenor saxophonist Anders Banke and tubaist Lars Andreas Haug. Solborg played a gig the night before at the quiet PH Caféen, near the restaurant-choked Meat Packing district, with tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Francesco Bigoni – part of the Eksplosion’s horn-heavy opening fanfare and a Swedish-language agit-prop showcase for the six ILK horns – pianist/ synthesizer player Christian Balvig and electronics manipulator Mads Emil Nilsson. Slipping between composition and improvisation, the PH quartet created droned delicacy with Bigoni sounding hard-edged ballad variations. Restrained, the music advanced in droplets so that Solborg’s single-note flow, sustained by e-bow buzz and below-the-bridge pitches, cemented the interpretations. More aggressive at Forbrændingen, ringing guitar note spraying melded with, or piled up notes against, harmonized tuba/tenor counterpoint which managed to swing superbly even when paced languidly.
Earlier Haug had his time in the spotlight, though tempered with freezing cold. The audience donned outerwear and descended four stories below ground to the plant’s former coal chute where the tubaist improvised using the massive unheated space’s natural acoustics. His high notes resembled angelic choirs, his low tones could come from undersea creatures and when he vocalized through the valves it sounded like plainsong. Pivoting his elephantine instrument for multiphonic augmentation at the finale, Haug shoved its bell against one concrete wall and blasted, extracting further unexpected textures.
Contemporary freebop came from other groups, most notably Jesper Løvdal’s trio with bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen and drummer Stefan Pasborg. Using long-lined slurs Løvdal ingeniously enlivened the deep tones of tubax, tenor and baritone saxophone with superfast articulation, making them swing, while Pasborg prodded from all parts of his kit. Still the set was the only time bossa nova-like references were heard.
Pasborg plus organ and synthesizer specialist Ståle Storløkken played as a duo whose alliance was to noise and electronics. A set by the two the previous day at the canal side Kayak Bar was a bit numbing; a collection of tremolo foot-tappers that avoid soulful riffs, depending on multi-keyboard excess. The Forbrændingen set was more notable. Putting aside the idea of hearing Emerson & Palmer without Lake, the duo furrowed a stimulating groove with unforced drumming and mellifluous keyboard chording, appending variants of “Paint it Black” to the performance. Tenor saxophonist Maria Faust is a talented composer and soloist, but her Shitney band with Qarin Wikström (voice/electronics) and Katrine Amsler (self-made electronics) was more attuned to punkish commotion than improv. Performing in front of a screen of squirming visuals, incomprehensible vocals, pounding riffs and blaring sax lines allowed the band to let off steam rather than make a point. Using plug-ins during an earlier Forbrændingen set, but diverging from Shitney’s electro-rock were Herman Müntzing’s electronics alongside Håkon Berre’s drums, and Anders Filipsen’s synthesizer/keyboards. Committed to reflection not stridency, Berre’s dampened rhythms retreated beneath bubbling electronic splooshes. An occasional cymbal clip or maracas-like crack broke the oscillating drizzle; still a central narrative appeared missing.
Hits, misses and everything in-between were on show during VinterJazz, and its continuous growth testifies to the health of the Danish jazz scene.
—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2016