Supported by a Watson Fellowship to study transnational dialects of jazz, I traced the footsteps of musicians like Dave Liebman, living for two months in Stockholm, Sweden. I arrived in late July with my trumpet, two Nordic jazz-folk recordings, one by Keith Jarrett, the other by Jan Johansson, and one contact.
With an absent jam culture, a slow summer season, few venues and a very close-knit community, my task was not easy at first. I spent far more time explaining my project than sitting in on gigs. And no, contrary to what everyone seems to think outside the U.S., not every American that plays well goes to Berkeley. (Just one example: after a jam session at the Oslo Jazz Festival, I learned a rumor had spread that I was a young Norwegian trumpeter from a small town in central Norway who was on scholarship to Berkeley). However, rumors about Sweden are accurate—it is rich in talented musicians, the jazz community is serious and anything but intoxicated. As I worked my way into the scene, I became more and more aware of a definite Nordic jazz dialect.
I quickly realized that the jazz-folk synonymous with Johansson is limited in describing the Nordic vibe. It’s too easy to take a Nordic folk tune and rearrange it in jazz; and you certainly don’t have to be Scandinavian to do it. Stan Getz was the first to record Dear Old Stockholm, a jazz rendition of the 19th century Nordic romantic ballad Värmlandsvisan. The fusion of folk and jazz was simply a hip thing to do at the time, much like Coltrane thought it was hip to turn the classic My Favorite Things into a modern jazz waltz. At the same time, behind the scene, the music industry was promoting this fusion with hopes of expanding their audience. So Nordic jazz-folk is not the end all. My interest shifted to a more universal, but intangible Nordic aesthetic. Melancholy in nature, many I met call it the Swedish blues. This Nordic vibe reflects a cold, dark, rainy environment. But there is much more to it than that.
Toward the end of my stay in Stockholm, a bassist I knew introduced the Swedish word lagom. The word, he said, is essential to understanding the Swedish psyche. There is no direct English translation, but roughly lagom means good enough, the right amount, or less is more. Translated through music, lagom resonates with a minimalist approach by many Swedish musicians. It also typifies their humble, less-than-talkative disposition. But when jazz is the spoken language, Swedes are quick to open up.
Nils Berg Cinescope
Swedish jazz musicians can be incredibly playful and daring with their music. It’s as if jazz liberates this wacky, creative child in them. This adventurous approach is traceable through instrumentation, composition, and occasionally something you’ve never even heard before. Cinescope, a trio led by saxophonist Nils Berg, features YouTube performers from all over the world edited, looped and projected onto a screen behind the band. Berg improvises tastefully over a bizarre accompaniment. But I think the piano trio Lekverk epitomizes this approach best (lekverk is Swedish for playful). Their lengthy interludes vary from a capella singing (none of them are singers) to blowing into Coke bottles. The drummer tears paper or hits nearby objects (sometimes even the bassist) for rhythm instead of his own drum set. Playfulness aside, the quality of music is always superb. The product is a wildly entertaining but all too different kind of jazz show.
Lekverk at the Glenn Miller Cafe
I realized later that the root of this adventurous approach is in education (duh!). In September, the Svensk Jazz Final showcased original, creative music by high school aged jazz groups. As someone educated in the U.S., I found myself peering into a slightly different world. Swedes put a much greater emphasis on developing your own original sound and style before mastering the jazz tradition and building up chops. The result is clearly audible: young Swedes who play mature original music, but with more minimal, subtle lines. In comparison, talented players I grew up with in Seattle jazz programs had monster chops and could skip their way through comprehensive bebop changes while using advanced substitutions.
Young saxophonist Johan Christoffersson leads his trio at Fasching
Obviously, exceptions arise in both cases—Sweden has its fair share of omni-bookers and the U.S. is not necessarily short of young, creative talent. But which should come first in education, originality or tradition? Having been to the Essentially Ellington Festival twice, I think I know what avid spokesman Wynton Marsalis would say… But I’ll only say this: coming from an education in the U.S. which stressed tradition and chops, it’s exciting to hear young players doing their own thing rather than playing All The Things You Are or Billie’s Bounce. Along these lines, I’ve been agreeing more and more with something saxophonist Warren James said: “Sometimes, I’m not sure it’s worth all the dues you have to pay in order to learn to play bebop; it’s so hard to unlearn it afterwards.”
A Quick Note on the Swedish Jazz Audience
As any jazz musician knows, concertgoers don’t always show up solely for the music. The jazz venue is romanticized as a backdrop for enjoying classy drinks and intimate conversation. As drinks mix with chitchat and live music, conversation can get a little too loud. Enter the proverbial shoosh! The Swedish jazz audience patronizes such loud talkers with a hissing shooshhhh! which sounds more like a quiet death threat. I was impressed to see such intense listeners. In Sweden, jazz is a music chiefly supported by its musicians. Still, there is a definite non-musician audience in Sweden, an enthusiastic crowd any musician would love to play for. I see only one drawback—this jazz audience shares an unfortunate similarity with the classical music audience: silence. At times the audience is so mentally engaged they even forget to clap after a solo. Personally, I love when an audience member shouts, comments or dances and claps during my own solos. It gets me excited; it inspires me to play even harder. The distinction is that the interaction is with the music, not their date or drinking buddy.
The audience watches Fredrik Lundkvist