07/14/11

Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2011

A Vast and Remarkable Jazz Buffet in Denmark

The richness of Denmark’s jazz tradition is beyond question. The country whose love of the music once embodied resistance to the Nazis and later offered a comfortable home to American exiles such as Stan Getz, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon continues to breed formidable new talents and ideas nearly nine decades after its first homegrown artists appeared. But knowing this doesn’t prepare one for the mammoth scope of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Its sheer size—the most lightly programmed of its 10 days (of which this writer saw the final five) featured 76 performances—is overwhelming by itself, even without considering its stylistic and international breadth.

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Kristoffer Juel Poulsen

Sonny Rollins at Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2011

Though the festival’s headliners—Sonny Rollins, Bobby McFerrin, the Keith Jarrett Trio—were all American, the artists from jazz’s homeland were otherwise spread fairly thin. A few more had their own high-profile concerts, notably the Charles Lloyd Quartet and the Terence Blanchard Quintet at the famous Copenhagen Jazzhouse and a Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman duo at the Skuespilhuset. Most of the Stateside artists, though, were to be found as featured players with Danish leaders or ensembles. This writer’s first concert was the Rasmus Ehlers Trio at JazzCup, a small record store near the Queen’s summer palace, with saxophonists George Garzone and Frank Tiberi guesting. (Another American, Adam Nussbaum, also sat in on drums for one tune.)

Elsewhere, drummer Tom Rainey worked with the masterful progressive ensemble Anderskov Accident at Denmark’s National Gallery, and pianist Kenny Werner and trumpeter Dave Douglas performed at Provehallen with a Danish postbop group led by stalwart Copenhagen saxophonist Benjamin Koppel. These were excellent performances by top-notch American artists, but it was clear that the attraction was to see them working with the local favorites.

The same held true for most of the musicians from other parts of the world, too, with mixed results. Norwegian guitarist and fusioneer Terje Rypdal added Danish trumpet legend Palle Mikkelborg to the Bergen Big Band for his extended work Crime Scene at the Islands Brygge, the city’s “beach”; the result was a beautiful horn atop to an overloud, overcrowded jumble that had promising sections but killed them with endless repetition. On the other hand, a tribute to Fela Kuti, performed by a fusion of African percussionists with the lounge-jazz band Spacelab, was one of the highlights of the festival—not to mention one of the most original interpretations of Afrobeat that can be imagined.

Of course, it was the Danish artists that were in the spotlight in Copenhagen, and aside from the cross-cultural collaborations there were hundreds of all-Danish musicians and ensembles. These were also the primary representatives of the broad spectrum of jazz styles, from the Dixieland trad of Doc Houlind’s All Stars to the free improvisation of The Mighty Mouse. The volume of Danish music on display during the festival was no surprise; what was, at least to these American-educated ears, was its consistently spectacular quality. The sedate post-jazz of the Gustaf Ljunggren Band at Copenhagen Jazzhouse, featuring mandolin, guitar, and two vibraphonists, was uniquely beautiful and compelling; Andrew D’Angelo’s guest turn on bass clarinet was just the icing on the cake. Also unique (as always) was the group led by drummer/percussionist Marilyn Mazur in an outdoor performance at Der Kongelige Danske Haveselskab; though all musicians involved were Danish and the music was jazz-based, it remains exotic-sounding in any context. Furthermore, avant-garde trumpeter Kasper Tranberg appeared in multiple ensembles and venues—including the nine-piece Anderskov Accident as well as the trio Staerkoller—and was brilliant in all of them.

Indeed, the two Most Valuable Players of the festival (or at least its second half) were two avant-garde journeymen in the same mold as Tranberg; one was Danish, but one was American. The pianist Soren Kjaergaard has a cerebral, meditative approach with a fondness for prepared piano and dissonant harmonic language reminiscent of Cecil Taylor’s, which was an unusual counterpoint to the Staerkoller trio in its performance at the small bar Kafcafeen. He also has a clandestine sense of swing that he often breaks out in the most unexpected of places—like his Leapings of Play solo concert at 5e, an unfinished industrial garage in the city’s old Meatpacking District (located, as if to drive the point home, on a street whose name translates to “Slaughterhouse Road”). Kjaergaard’s opening tune, “Tales of Weaving,” began as a slow and resonant piece that was so spacious that at times the creaking of the piano pedals was the loudest sound to be heard; by the end of the same piece, the keyboard had evolved into an impression of the walking bass.

Kjaergaard also appeared frequently with the other MVP: drummer Andrew Cyrille, best known as the accompanist for free-jazz masters Cecil Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams. Working with Kjaergaard in the sextet White Trash at the outdoor Frue Plads, he was ferociously energetic and never without a creative improv line. In his own solo concert at the Skuespilhuset, however, he was a phenomenon unmatched by any other single performer in Copenhagen, playing dizzying rhythmic color on his own composition “Nuba,” then moving with ease to clever, spot-on tributes to Huddie Ledbetter (“Drum Song for Leadbelly”) and Art Blakey (“A Tribute to Bu”), and capping it with an unaccompanied bebop performance inspired by Kenny Clarke. Festival producers had promised the concert would be very special; they were not wrong.

Though there were certain programmatic themes in the festival, including “21st Century Jazz” (e.g., Redman and Mehldau), “The State Sessions” (Anderskov Accident) and “Something Else” (Cyrille), any experience of the festival is necessarily scattered. Actually, that’s a description that functions on multiple levels in Copenhagen: the festival is scattered throughout dozens of venues, styles, and national and artistic perspectives so it’s hard to examine it as any sort of rational progression without very careful planning. But then again, there’s no need to do so either. As it is, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival is a vast and remarkable jazz buffet that need not be assembled into cogent meals to more than satisfy the music lover’s appetite.

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