Copenhagen Jazz Festival
July 1-10, 2011
There’s a good reason why a quarter of a million people attend the Copenhagen Jazz Festival every year. Or maybe I should say there are 1,000 reasons, since that’s how many concerts are presented in 100 different venues across the city over a 10-day period. It’s a sprawling event encompassing nearly every style of jazz, focusing on Danish and other European jazz artists, along with a smattering of American headliners, African and Latin stars, and a few pop crossover acts.
With so much going on simultaneously, it’s worth noting that most of the festival concerts take place within an easy walk from anywhere downtown. Still, for international visitors it can help to purchase a Copenhagen Card, which gives free rides aboard the city’s efficient public transportation system, as well as free admittance to museums all over town. With subway, bus and water bus, you can easily navigate even the most far-flung gigs from one side of town to the other. Almost all of downtown is flat, so you can also get around quite easily on bicycle. And you’ll never have to sweat being a few minutes late for a gig because nothing starts precisely on time. It’s a relaxing approach, but one that should factor into whatever timetable you’re juggling.
I arrived on the 5th day of the festival, and just missed the torrential freak storms and rare flooding of the city. I had been to this festival once before–this time I chose to pass on many of the big name American stars who I can see all the time. Instead, I chose to focus on the Danish and other European players, especially those who rarely cross over to American shores.
My first stop on my first day was the free outdoor stage at Frue Plads (Cathedral Square) for a performance by
Thomas Agergaard’s octet Ok Nok…Kongo. Agergaard’s compositions, for the most part, were tonal but with a modern edge and advanced harmonic vocabulary that left plenty of room for free expression. After the first piece it became obvious that everyone in the band is a first rate soloist, as you can hear in statements by special guest saxophonist John Tchicai and guitarist Niclas Knudsen.
Members of Ok Nok…Kongo often showed up with other groups in mix and match combinations throughout the festival. For example, trumpeter, cornetist Kasper Transberg also played in Richard Andersson’s quartet Udu, as well as with bass legend Hugo Rasmussen’s Allstarz. In the latter group, Tranberg’s unaccompanied introduction on the 1911 Danish song “Ole sad paa en knold og sang” set up his surreal take on “Basin Street Blues.”
Another seemingly ubiquitous presence at the festival was the 33 year-old pianist and composer Søren Kjærgaard, who appeared at the Statens Museum for Kunst with a trio including bassist Ben Street and drummer Andrew Cyrille, which joined forces with Norwegian saxophonist Torben Snekkesatd and American bassist Barry Guy for an encore. The next day, Kjærgaard, Snekkestad and Cyrille teamed up with Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker for a free jazz blowout at the converted garage known as 5E, which served as the venue for many of the uncompromising musicians recording for the artist-run ILK Records.
Anker later presented her adventurous What River Ensemble at the Copenhagen Jazz House, a surprising venue given that most of the acts there tend toward the mainstream. Anker’s music balanced thorny, dense, textures with snatches of poetry and narrative, interwoven with bracing solo turns from Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, Chris Cutler, Anna Klett, vocalist Phil Minton and strings. Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen opened the show, giving the most impressive solo vocal performance I’ve seen this (or perhaps any other) year. It was brave, quirky and deeply moving.
Another original vocalist, Ane Trolle, joined Nikolaj Hess and Spacelab for several intriguing songs at KafCafeen on the final night of the festival. I like that she came out of the audience still wearing her raincoat, appeared unfazed that her microphone wasn’t working and just sang anyway. That’s a real singer.
I did make it a point to see two American groups. First was Charles Lloyd’s luminously beautiful offering featuring his latest quartet with Jason Moran, Rueben Rogers and Eric Harland at Copenhagen Jazz House. The other was Keith Jarrett’s celebrated trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette at the Operaen (Opera House). By now it should surprise no one to learn that Jarrett stopped the music twice during the first half. The first time, in the middle of Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” Jarrett rose from the piano bench to complain to the audience that he heard a frequency he didn’t like (in the bass? bass drum?). The second truncated song came while playing “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life,” during which Jarrett explained that the hall was too “dry” and not suitable for ballads. It occurred to me that Jarrett’s fans have come to expect this sort of behavior, and in fact might be disappointed if he didn’t display such temperament. Interruptions aside, it’s still a remarkably transcendent trio.
From Jarrett, I took the water bus to catch guitarist Jakob Bro with his trio and saxophonist Bill McHenry at Skuespilhuset. Bro, who may be best known these days for his work with Paul Motian and Tomasz Stańko, has all the chops you could ask for, but it’s nice to see that he never uses technique just to show off. He seems more interested in phrasing and melodic variations than running scales and patterns. Bro was also one of the featured soloists with White Trash at Frue Plads, a free-improv concert that was more wall of sound(scape) than noodling or noise.
In a festival this size there are always surprises along the way. For instance, I had seen Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg in a number of contexts over the years, from the cooperative trio Ibrahim Electric to his own Odessa Five. But I’d never seen him play in a straight ahead jazz piano trio, as he did with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi at the Jazz House. Pasborg’s brush and stick work stayed mostly inside but he took advantage of one moment to bust out a bit.
Another unexpected pleasure occurred one afternoon as I was walking the streets looking for lunch and heard the sound of a wailing saxophone with an unusually tart tone. It turned out to be Jesper Zeuthen playing outdoors with the blind bassist Richard Andersson’s group, Udu. I remembered seeing Zeuthen years ago with the Jungle Orchestra, but in this quartet he had a chance to stretch out, spurred by drummer Tom Rainey.
A quick change in plans one afternoon enabled me to catch Hugo Rasmussen’s Allstarz at Christians Kirke.
Rasmussen is the legendary Danish bassist who has appeared on 800 albums with jazz stars from all over the world, and it’s not hard to hear why everyone wants him. It’s his deep, rich tone, choice notes and playful sense of time. Rasumussen knows a lot about how to swing, but at age 70 he’s also not afraid to surround himself with young players who want to take chances. It was adventurous music but more often humorous than cerebral. And to hear him hook up with drummer Kresten Osgood felt very good.
Though the emphasis at this festival was on more modern modes of expression, it was balanced with varied examples of traditional, pre-swing styles. When racing from one gig to another, I was stopped in my tracks hearing someone play soprano saxophone with a wide, Sidney Bechet-like vibrato. Another day, another street trio played an unadorned Old Rugged Cross, stripping away everything but its essence. You can’t hear it from this video, but the bassist had an old school woody sound that almost no one plays with any more. He probably can’t play a million notes or improvise on complicated changes, but sometime it’s really all about feeling and sound.
Lastly, one of the earthiest pleasures of the festival occurred late one night at Pressen, Politkens Hus when keyboardist and London-based bandleader Dele Sosimi led a large contingent of Danish players in celebrating the musical legacy of Fela Kuti. The mass of performers crowded onto the stage included singers, dancers, horns, two bassists, three trap drummers and various percussionists, whipping up infectious vamps and percolating Afrobeat grooves. As with the entire festival, it was irresistible fun all the way.
Text, video and photos by Larry Appelbaum.
More videos can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/user/lapp9999#g/u
Danish jazz labels can be found here: