Why Nordic Jazz at the Festival?

Coastal Jazz’s Artistic Director Ken Pickering shares his insights, comments, and thoughtful anecdotes about the visiting Nordic jazz artists at this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival…

Why Nordic Jazz and How Did we Get Here?

“The Essence” a double album by the legendary composer / arranger George Russell recorded in 1966/67 (who had moved to Scandinavia in 1964) and the Othello Ballet Suite (Flying Dutchman – 1971) introduced a young neophyte jazz fan to Norwegian and Swedish names like Terje Rypdal, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, Bernt Rosengren and Arne Domnerus.  It was nearly 50 years ago and in the same period some of those musicians were profiled among the first ECM recordings released on that then fledgling label. I was eager to listen.

Some of those early discs left an indelible imprint on my brain that’s still resonating all these years later. Among my early ECM favourites are Afric Pepperbird, Sart, Tryptkyon (Garbarek), the first Rypdal album and Underwear (Bobo Stenson). It should also be noted that Keith Jarrett formed a European quartet (Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen) that performed to great acclaim beginning with 1974’s wonderful ECM disc – Belonging and ending with Nude Ants (1979). Also coming onto the radar were names like Edward Vesala (Finland), John Tchicai (first heard on albums with Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and the NY Art Quartet during his 60’s NYC years), Pierre Dorge and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (Denmark).

This wasn’t long after my mid 60’s introduction to the world of jazz music so you could say I was an early adapter of the Nordic vibe.

I was also fortunate to attend the Berlin Jazz Festival and Total Music Meeting in 1972 (my first visit to Europe) where I heard many of my new heroes live – Garbarek, Andersen and Vesala (Tryptykon) were especially notable.

Fast-forward to the mid 80’s and the halcyon days that marked the beginnings of our Jazz Festival (1986). It was during those years that we presented the marvelous Scandinavian all-star ensemble (Tore Brunborg, Nils Petter Molvaer, Jon Balke, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen) know as Masqualero (named after the Wayne Shorter composition) that was our most memorable live encounter with the that northern scene. Each of those players went on to become notable bandleaders and beacons of the Nordic jazz scene.

The year 1999 was personally important when I was invited to the SOUNDS Festival in Stockholm curated by saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (who I had met a few years before through the journalist/curator John Corbett). This kick started a relationship with the Swedish scene that segued into an overall Nordic affair that continues to this day. Since 1999 beginning with our Box of Swedes project we’ve presented a ton of Nordic artists from the mainstream, avant-garde and free improvised scenes including (and this is only a cursory list- there are literally dozens more) The Thing, Sten Sandell, Gush, Jeanette Lindstrom, Mattias Stahl, Arild Andersen Trio, Atomic, Ole Morten Vagan, Viktoria Tolstoy, Hakon Kornstad, Paal Nilssen-Love, Thomas Stronen, Iro Haarla, Ilmiliekki Quartet, Fredrik Lundin and Sunna Gunnlaugs.

In the intervening years I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Nordic zone on numerous occasions – attending many Swedish Jazz Celebrations (which sadly are no more), jazz festivals in Molde, Kongsberg, Umea, Stockholm, Tampere, Copenhagen, Reykavik, conferences and showcases in Helsinki and the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand. I’m sure I’ve missed some. As a curator these visits have provided me with a window into the diversity of their scene that is far from homogenous across the Nordic zone – not even close – the diversity of sounds that fall within the rubric of jazz in the Nordic countries is really staggering. It’s not all (or only) about fjords and wide-open spaces. Of course there’s lots more that could be said, but I think for the sake of this blog it’s best to move on. Suffice it to say, the Nordic zone contains a very deep and diverse pool of talent indeed.

If you’re still with me – I’m going to jump into the present and have a look at what’s up at this year’s festival. Firstly I must say that we’re very proud that our Swedish residency initiative has been running since 2014 (in cooperation with the Swedish Arts Grant Committee and our local partners at the Western Front and NOW).  Lots of good stuff – good (and lasting) connections have been made with the local music community through this program. So far we’ve hosted Mats Aleklint, Lisa Ullen, Naoko Sakata, Nils Berg, Mattias Risberg, Samuel Hallkvist and Lisen Rylander-Love.

“The Newest Sound” – A Tribute to Jeanne Lee with Lina Nyberg

Our centerpiece for this year’s Nordic lineup is the wonderful vocalist Lina Nyberg (who has performed on two previous occasions at the festival) – the recent winner of the Royal Swedish Academy Jazz prize in 2016. Comfortable in a wide range of contexts (after 16 cd’s) from art song, to Brazilian, traditional jazz and beyond, she’s not only one of Sweden’s most interesting singers today, over the past 15 years she’s risen to the top echelons of the Swedish jazz scene. Lina will be in residence for most of the month and also performs at the festival on July 1st (Canada Day).

Her festival program is a tribute to the late Jeanne Lee (a wonderful singer) – celebrating the seminal album (1962) Ms. Lee did with Ran Blake called “The Newest Sound” – part of which I heard in Gothenberg a few years back. For this occasion she’s gathered together a stellar band that includes her life partner saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist (Atomic)and long time collaborators guitarist David Stackenas, bassist Josef Kallerdahl and Vancouver’s own Lisa Cay Miller (NOW) on piano.

Thanks to the Swedish Arts Grant Committee