Copenhagen is a wonderful, wonderful place to get lost in, especially when the cause is jazz. Newcomers to the city, and to the seductive, seasoned Copenhagen Jazz Festival-up to its 32nd edition this summer-will find before them an almost dizzying density of a program, which extends to multiple venues all over the city. It is a decentralized maze of a festival, with countless clubs and restaurants and other venues folded into the performances organized by the festival proper. Other prominent jazz festivals around the world, including Montreal and North Sea, but are infamously dense, but contained with set parameters of space and venues-Montreal in a several-block downtown perimeter, North Sea in a vast complex over a single weekend.
In Copenhagen, more is more, all over the city. The avid festgoer has miles to go (by foot, metro, bus, whatever means necessary), and many idioms to cover before s/he sleeps. This July’s trip, through the first half of the festival’s 10-day stretch, was my second consecutive visit to the city–and the festival–and I’m duly hooked on both counts, and open to that “let’s get lost” sensation.
Grand ambitions require grand and sometimes dizzy-making gameplans. In Copenhagen, the jazz festival philosophy follows with the theory that jazz is a broad and multi-limbed, ever-evolving art form and language. That means the focus is on styles from avant-garde to the mainstream ends of the spectrum, and points between. The music ranged from surprisingly gamey free shows in public (i.e. Carsten Dahl at the beauteous, tourist-inviting Gråbrødre Torv) to mainstreaming fare (i.e. the golden-toned singer Danish singer Sinne Eeg, with the Tivoli Big Band, in the central and family-friendly Tivoli Gardens in the middle of the city center, and the middle of the old school Copenhagen civic soul).
Big names on the summer jazz festival circuit do make their way through Copenhagen, including Diana Krall (in town with her many-tentacled pop star husband Elvis Costello), Bill Frisell and his intriguing new trio, and Marcus Miller (doing a Tutu redux) on a bill with Esperanza Spalding.
From the world circuit, making his festival debut, the fascinating Brazilian sensation Caetano Veloso presented a command performance in the lovely old Royal Theatre. Aided by his young and nimble band, the veteran Veloso served up a song set brimming with life-affirming vibrancy, inimitable joie de vivre, and powers of invention as a songwriter, and a general feeling that this is one of the world’s living greatest makers of song.
Almost inevitably, Herbie Hancock also came to town, in the midst of his new “Imagine Project,” an idealistic and peacemaker’s nod to the “music as universal language” ethos, and also one of his least jazz-centric projects yet. Singer Kristina Train, new to the scene, is a powerful and soulful foil for Hancock’s reworked pop songlist, and young Australian bassist (and singer) phenom Tal Wilkenfeld, are nice additions to the new Hancock mix, as he further explores life and audiences beyond jazz, proper.
Hancock and company landed in one of the architectural prides of Copenhagen, the bedazzling 2005 opera house, aka the Operaen, designed by famed Danish architect Henning Larsen, and perched dramatically over the canal. The chance to hear American jazz greats in important cultural structures is a pleasure not often afforded us in jazz’ native country. And that suitable matching process of artist-to-venue became an unofficial theme of the Copenhagen festival this year.
On the night following Herbie, the headliner action moved over to another architectural wonder of the 21st century, French architect Jean Nouvel cleverly inside-out themed Konserthuset, finished just last year and a controversial sensation in architectural circles globally. That concert also happened to be one of the finest American-Danish confabs this year, as Joe Lovano performed his large ensemble “Symphonica” mode with the strikingly good Danish Radio Big Band (the Novel-designed structure also houses Danish Radio). As heard here, Lovano works beautifully in large ensemble settings, among his other musical gifts. The DR band glowed and swung mightily, and Lovano was at his finest on arrangements by Gunther Schuller and Michael Abene, the sneaky puzzle of “Cool” and the dreamy lustrousness of “Turn Out the Lights” on this great night in a great hall.
Copenhagen is one of those desirable European cities-European, on the bridge to Scandinavian-which has long extended its lure and mutual admiration sensibilities to American jazz musicians, some of whom have expatriated. A sentimental point of history this year was the re-opening of the long dormant Jazzhuset Montmartre, stylishly revitalized after 30-plus years away. For the festival time occasion, pianist Kenny Barron performed, with a notably standards-centric set, with special guest, tenor player David Sanchez (who is sounding better and better of late). In an expansive, intricate piano intro to “Body and Soul,” the chameleonic Barron seemed to be channeling Bud Powell, one of the artists who loved the original club, and vice versa.
Just up the street from the Montmartre is another jazz hub, the Jazz Cup, which also houses a jazz-focused CD store and the home of the Danish jazz magazine, Jazz Special. One afternoon, I squeezed into the packed space to hear some fiery straight ahead playing by fine tenor player Jesper Thilo and band.
More solidly rooted and centered in the Copenhagen jazz scene over the years is its famed basement haunt, the Copenhagen JazzHouse. The poetic power trio Fly (tenor saxist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard), one of jazz’ strongest bands deserving wider recognition, could be found there, cooking up its unique post-modern swing aesthetic to a large sympathetic crowd.
Danish sounds from the edge were also in plentiful supply. Marc Ducret, the spidery smart French guitarist, has been living in Copenhagen of late and his new, strongly horn-minded Danish quintet-including the captivating trumpeter Kaspar Tranberg and bassist Fred Gastard in the bass basement–is a new force to reckon with. Mixing adventurous jazz notions, progressive linear mazes and noisy catharses, Ducret’s new project summons up the exhilaration of complexity and measured abandon. The band played its ear-opening show on a late afternoon at the outdoor Frue Plads venue, where Jörg Brinkman and Peter Danstrup/Reptiles also performed their respective tradition-dodging work.
Free, fluid sounds came spilling out at a midnight, courtesy of the dynamic drummer and Danish jazz scene-maker Kresten Osgod and trio, at the late-breaking venue of the Råhuset. Dubbed JazzClub Loco, the venue was a last-minute replacement for the cool, decommissioned old ship called the M.S. Stubnitz, a highlight of last year’s list of venues but missing this year because of zoning prohibitions. No matter: the music humbly soared. Osgood was at the supple center of an engaging, empathetic free playing session, joined by Americans, bassist Thomas Morgan and saxist Loren Stillman. The Danish-American confab made beautiful, uncharted music together, before a young, alert audience in the wee hours.
As before, I left Copenhagen duly dizzied, with a head full of rippling musical memories and a full notebook of impressions to process. Suffice to say, as of 2010, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival continued its formidable, onward-leaning saga as one of the world’s finer examples of how to do a “jazz festival”.