Review: Ystad Jazz Festival 2017

Michael Tucker enjoys the music at Ystad's eighth jazz festival, finding it a most human, intelligently conceived, brilliantly delivered and deeply inspiring event

The Ystad Festival has grown steadily since its modest but potent beginnings in 2010. This, the eighth festival, saw records broken both for the number and range of musicians involved and the size of the audience.

Introducing the Al Di Meola concert at Ystad Theatre, indefatigable Festival President Thomas Lantz advised the audience that they were "record setters", as ticket sales for this concert had taken overall sales beyond 9000. Eventually, the six-day festival attracted close to 11,000 – some of whom, I hope, would have taken advantage of the fine film programme put on (independently) at the Scala cinema in town. It featured the Swedish classic Sven Klangs Kvintett (1976), Miles Ahead (2015) and the Lee Morgan documentary I Called Him Morgan (2016).

It’s not just the scale of the programme that indicates the growth of YSJF. Thanks to the local religion which is handball, Ystad now boasts a new purpose-built indoor sports arena which can seat 3000 or be divided in half, as it was for the festival’s opening gala concert Monica Z – for Ever and Ever. This tribute to the ever popular Zetterlund (1937-2005) thrilled 1500 people with a programme featuring some of Sweden’s finest. They included festival artistic director Jan Lundgren (pictured above right by Marcus Fägersten), vocalists Tommy Körberg, Svante Thuresson and Hannah Svensson (pictured left by Marcus Fägersten), harmonica virtuoso Filip Jers and the Ekdahl and Bagge Big Band – the last led by pianist Carl Bagge, son of Lars, who was Zetterlund's favourite pianist. The well-known journalist, documentary film maker and TV producer Tom Alandh was the MC for an evening which was very much a Swedish family affair. The various musical tributes were interspersed with memories of and reflections on the legendary singer – the so-called "Swedish Sensation" who from the late 50s onwards did much to help popularise top-quality jazz in Sweden and who, according to the late Bengt-Arne Wallin – so much a part of the evolving history of the YSJF – was Sweden's finest ever jazz singer.

The thought of hearing music in a large arena can strike a note of apprehension in jazz fans conscious of the many potential problems with sound. But here, this was very much not the case. Press officer Itta Johnson explained to me that the black box that is Ystad Arena had been designed for multi-purpose use with special attention paid to (measurable) sound quality in every part of the space. The proof was there in this opening concert, where the band’s crisply spread voicings and striking dynamics could be relished in every detail and the various vocalists heard perfectly.

Körberg and Thuresson contrasted interestingly. Thuresson’s cool phrasing was outstanding on knockout versions of Skylark (with a typically fresh and intelligent solo from altoist Håkan Broström) and Sweet Georgia Brown while Körberg came on strong on a passionate Here’s To Life and – of all things – a slow-drag, punchy arrangement of Rock Around The Clock. Svensson – who has developed a magnetic stage presence – shone on a fast-clip What A Little Moonlight Can Do as well as in a lovely reading, with Lundgren, of the traditional Jeg Vet En Dejlig Rosa. Further highlights included Monica’s Waltz from the famous 60s album with Bill Evans, Lundgren's rhythmically delicious takes on Walking My Baby Back Home and Dat Dere (numbers closely associated with Zetterlund) and Svensson's duet with Jers on the “Toots” Thielemans standard Bluesette.

Ystad has always been known for the integrated breadth and depth of its programme. This year was no exception. Potent shades of Sister Rosetta Tharpe could be sensed in the “up above my head” blend of gospel and blues, combined with New Orleans tropes, delivered in exhilarating measure by America’s The Rad Trads sextet (pictured right by Marcus Fägersten). Featuring, a.o., Michael Fatum (t, v) and Patrick Sargent (ts, v) they electrified the audience at the Per Helsas open-air venue in town before rocking out in an extensive street parade. Japanese alto saxophonist (and former Gregory Porter associate) Yosuke Sato helped fire-up the riffing; he also had the honour of opening the festival with the traditional call from the tower of S:ta Maria Kyrka and played a well-received, chiefly bop set at Per Helsas with Danish guitarist Jacob Fischer and his New Generation Quartet, before further delighting the crowd with a lengthy and lovely encore reading of Sophisticated Lady.

A thoroughly modernist note distinguished a fine early evening set from the quartet of Jerry Bergonzi (ts) and Tim Hagans (t) and an electric late-night concert at Ystad Theatre by legendary drummer and long-time Miles-associate Al Foster and his quintet with Freddie Hendrix (t, fgh), Mike DiRubbo (as), Adam Birnbaum (p) and Doug Weiss (b). Foster's concert was billed as a tribute to Charlie Parker but the spirits of Cannonball Adderley and Clifford Brown must also have been smiling at the quality of the tight yet mellow group interplay and some extensive, deeply cast outings from Hendrix and DiRubbo.

From the opening grooves of The Rad Trads to the very last number of the festival – a slinky reading of Ornette Coleman's Turnaround from the Still Dreaming Quartet of Joshua Redman (ts), Ron Miles (cornet), Scott Colley (b) and Brian Blade (d) – the blues were in plentiful and welcome evidence, including a lovely take on Wayne Shorter's Footprints by the duo of Bobo Stenson (p) and Lennart Åberg (ts, ss, f) and a fabulous Going To Kansas City from Deborah Brown (v, pictured left by Harri Paavolainen) in her Remembering Ella concert. Featuring the excellent Polish tenor saxophonist Sylwester Ostrowski, Brown's outstanding set included Lullaby Of Birdland, Cry Me A River, Summertime and a standout The Nearness Of You. Special character came from some affecting writing for sparely and effectively employed chamber orchestra strings, plus a couple of numbers where this top-quality vocalist took over the piano chair to soulful effect. Her appearance at the nightly jam session (with, a.o., Lundgren and trumpeter Bobby Medina) was totally special.

The outer edge or genre-pushing side of jazz was in plentiful evidence, from the sometimes folk-charged S:ta Maria church concert by Klaus Paier (acn) and Asja Valcic (clo) (pictured right by Marcus Fägersten) which included both a spirited reading of parts of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and a richly percussive original, Tango Loco to the nudging, spacious meditations of the Greek Magnanimus Trio of Christos Barbas (p, v, f, v), Dimitris Tasoudis (d, p, kyb) and Pavlos Spyropoulos (b) and the probing, improvised tone poems of German bassist Lisa Wulff and her shape-shifting quartet with Adrian Hanack (ts, ss, f), Martin Terens (p) and Silvan Strauss (d).

Wulff’s late-night concert took place in the atmospheric Abbey church where earlier, Danish guitarist Fischer and the fine Swedish bassist Hans Backenroth offered an elegant and reflective set of duets. A reflective mood was also at the heart of another set at the Abbey, from Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. Eschewing the ambient ostinato grooves for which he has long been renowned, Wesseltoft offered a cleanly and calmly phrased programme ranging from My Foolish Heart to Blowing In The Wind. The encore of J.J. Johnson’s Lament provided near-nostalgic jazz rhythm.

Pianists have always featured strongly at Ystad and this year saw a particularly compelling series of solo performances. They ranged from the sinewy literacy of the Dutch Louis van Dijk (making his Swedish debut) to the full-on power and poetry of the Finn, Iiro Rantala. While his Beatles-touched programme had not one note of the Finnish obsession that is tango, Rantala played nevertheless with the driven intensity of a whirling shaman or crazed woodsman of the North. His thunderously strong left hand carved out one outrageously forceful and stomping figure after another. A terrific communicator, at one point Rantala invited Jan Lundgren to join him on an increasingly rocking version of the traditional Nordic invocation to summer, Den Blomstertid Nu Kommer. The crowd went first wild, then wilder still.

Following the opening concert dedicated to Monica Zetterlund, Lundgren appeared in a variety of contexts, each of them compelling. His mellow duo set with Nils Landgren (tb, v) was so popular that a second concert was arranged, the audience loving both the folk-inflected numbers and easy-down, blues-shot material like Randy Crawford's Same Old Story, Same Old Song. The Ystad Theatre concert by Lundgren's Potsdamer Quartet with Jukka Perko (as, ss), Dan Berglund (b) and Morten Lund (d) was something else. Drawing from the recently released Potsdamer Platz album on ACT, it found Lundgren and Perko mining a deep, now floating, now swinging-and-burning lyricism over a variety of potent figures from Berglund and the multi-dimensional Lund.

The set ended with the riotously up-beat groove that is Dance Of Masja, prelude to a smile-inducing and Dada-inflected encore that had the Ystad Theatre audience baying for more. A little later in the week, the superb Swedish/Norwegian/Danish trio of Lars Danielsson (b), Marius Neset (ts, ss) and Lund (d) had a similar effect on a packed crowd at Per Helsas, as they played the rhythmically strong and poetically arresting music of their 2016 Sun Blowing release with extraordinary élan. If there are more dynamic, restlessly exploratory yet formally convincing saxophonists than Neset right now, I'd like to know who they are.

Big band music has always been a core part of the YSJF. Following the opening gala Zetterlund concert with the Ekdahl and Bagge Big Band, three sets offered further evidence of the variegated strength of the big band scene in Sweden today. They came from from the XL Big Band, led by that fine altoist Claus V. Sørensen and appearing with Bobby Medina (t, flh, pictured above left by Marcus Fägersten); Håkan Broström's richly voiced New Places Orchestra with “progressive-rock” vocalist Ebbot Lundberg, and the Ann-Sofi Söderqvist Jazz Orchestra, featuring vocalist Lena Swanberg. Hear the last - their music as refined and intelligent as it is provocative, swinging and sensuous - on their recent Pitch Blue release Move: Live At Fasching & Bangen. As if all this were not enough, Tommy Smith (ts) brought over vocalist Eddi Reader and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra to offer a terrific Songs Of Scotland concert. It featured vibrant settings of Robert (Rabbie) Burns, interpreted superbly by Reader - a natural, endlessly engaging performer and communicator - and with both dance-driven and rubato ensemble colour and steel-blue solos from Smith and his cohorts.

Same old story, same old song: if festivals can delight, they can also disappoint. I just couldn't get to hear Ingrid Jensen (t) in the David's Angels quintet with vocalist Sofie Norling (but heard extremely positive reports of the music) and found Danish pianist Carsten Dahl (a musician I admire) and his quartet's take on Taylor-like free jazz less than riveting – even if I had to acknowledge the integrity of altoist Jesper Zeuthen's distinctive tone and rigorously sustained lines. I preferred the way in which legendary 1970s Swedish tenorist and free player Gilbert Holmström (still blessed with a huge sound) and his New Sextet with, a.o., Magnus Broo (t) and Jonas Kulhammar (ts, bar) placed dissonant 60s-like pieces such as Dogfight within the leavening context of music inspired by Highlife or classic 1960s Wayne Shorter Blue Note recordings like Night Dreamer.

While the Al Di Meola concert (with Peo Alfonsi also on guitar) was billed as "The Music Of Di Meola, Piazzolla and Lennon-McCartney" I could only (just) recognise one Piazzola and two Lennon-McCartney pieces in a performance as top-heavy with technique as it was lacking in nuanced dynamics or poetry. My loss, no doubt, as much of the audience seemed to love it. I pleaded reviewer's exhaustion to skip the late-night concert by Hiromi (p) and Edmar Castaneda (hp). Fellow critics were sharply divided about the merits or otherwise of a near-two-hour set which featured a four-part suite written by Hiromi for a musician said to take the harp into entirely new realms of sound and improvisation.

One harpist I did hear at Ystad this year, and whose subtle use of electronic effects impressed me greatly, was the Swiss Julie Campiche. She appeared in one of the festival's most inspiring and refreshing concerts, the international, all-female Sofia II (pictured above right by Harri Paavolainen) put together by Campiche's compatriot, Nicole Johänntgen (as, ss). It followed the success of the initial Sofia project which Johänntgen had presented at Ystad 2015. Featuring a range of striking contributions from Campiche, the Belgian Anne Niepold (acn), the Swede Charlotta Andersson (elg), the Nepalese, Norwegian-domiciled Shresta Sanskriti (tab), the German Lisa Wulff (b) and the English Sophie Alloway (d) the Sofia II concert premiered a suite of diversely atmospheric pieces by Johänntgen, all dedicated to Ystad, together with further originals by Andersson, Campiche, Niepold and Wulff.

The musicians had never played together and had only met a day before the concert. And yet the subtle, diversely textured, often modal music (at times a touch reminiscent of Steve Reich) flowed from them with unerring assurance, flair and sensitivity. I have already remarked in JJ how impressive I find Johänntgen, not only as an increasingly distinctive, questing composer and lyrical improviser but also as an enabling and inclusive bandleader. If the melodically appealing, rhythmically rich and essentially affirmative music of this concert was heartening, so too was the co-operative way in which it was presented, with each musician given ample time to introduce their piece to the audience.

A second all-female group, the Karolina Almgren Project, provided a further highlight of the week. Playing at the festival's most intimate outdoor space, the charming Hos Mortens Café, Almgren (ss, pictured above left by Marcus Fägersten), her sister Malin (d, pc) and mother Martina (d, pc) were joined by fellow Swede Isa Savbrant (b) and the Finn Anni Elif Egecioglu (clo). Together, they fashioned an hour or so of chamber jazz of a special order. Ellington's In A Sentimental Mood was given a new twist through the use of pedal-point sections redolent of Coltrane's Naima and both Shorter's Mahjong and the standard Here's That Rainy Day were given fine readings. But the heart of the concert lay in the leader's own compositions, inspired in part by a recent trip to Visby in Gotland. The spare eloquence with which Almgren and her companions developed her folkish motifs conjured aural poetry of simultaneous clarity and mystery, never overplayed or over-developed.

The poet Rilke called music “that heart-space grown out of us”. One of the things that has always struck me at Ystad - where a number of free concerts by young, relatively unknown musicians, of high quality, are always given - is the human grain of the whole enterprise. This runs from the literate and enthusiastic introductions given to practically every concert by Jan Lundgren to the many dozens of helpful volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to making sure the festival is as enjoyable as possible. Much of this overall "heart-spirit" was present in the concert given by Bobby Medina (t, flh) who appeared at the Ystad Theatre with the XL Big Band from southern Sweden.

Apart from being a fine instrumentalist, Medina has always been a great communicator. He took time to contextualise the various orchestrations of classic pieces like Autumn Leaves (based on a late Chet Baker recording), Horace Silver’s Filthy McNasty, Hugh Masekela’s Grazing In The Grass and his own lovely ballad, Forever My Love. Medina also found time for a guest appearance by young local vocalist Frans [Jeppsson-Wall] who was the 2016 Swedish representative for the Eurovision Song Contest. It was Frans's jazz debut and he gave a confident, strongly jazz-sprung and well-received performance of his competition song If I Were Sorry. Further icing on the concert cake came from a guest appearance by Jan Lundgren and Hannah Svensson.

Medina’s concert drew attention - in a natural and unforced way - to the simple but important fact that jazz is a music with a deep and rich history. The Ystad festival has always been concerned with the question of how children might get involved with such a music. This year, spectacular confirmation of such commitment was provided by a wonderful afternoon concert at the new Arena venue from Sweden’s Electric Banana Band (pictured right by Marcus Fägersten). This dynamic outfit has supplied the soundtrack for several generations of children in Sweden, with lyrics by Lasse Åberg and juicy guitar from Janne Schaffer complemented by rich percussion and quartet vocals plus plenty of funky dance moves and an array of costumes that would suit shamans and circus performers alike (Schaffer, for example, appears in full zebra costume). They certainly brought out my inner child and it was a great joy to see so many parents and young children really getting into the music.

If the Electric Banana Band epitomised the sheer joy that jazz can bring, they also featured thoughtful and subtly stimulating vocals. It doesn’t take much reflection on the history of jazz to recall the eternal human dialectic of sorrow and joy and two of the most striking performances at YSJF 2017 gave fresh voice to this. At one point in his concert, Bobby Medina left the stage to the XL Big Band who gave a mesmerising rendition of a lengthy pedal point meditation by leader Claus Sørensen, who soloed to piquant effect on his Elegy For Sweden. At the end of her vibrant concert Meet Me At The Movies the statuesque Swedish vocalist Viktoria Tolstoy gave an encore in homage to the much-missed Swedish pianist, Esbjörn Svensson. Its tender, piquant lyric and rubato phrasing brought out the best from the excellent Krister Jonsson (elg) who together with Mattias Svensson (b, elb) and Rasmus Kilhberg (d) had earlier supplied an enticing range of voicings and sometimes swinging, sometimes funky grooves for diversely engaging pieces like Kiss That Frog, New World and Have A Good Time.

Ystad: as Nicole Johänntgen said during the Sofia II concert, “The most professional festival I know. It's extraordinarily awesome to be here!” Long may this most human, intelligently conceived, brilliantly delivered and deeply inspiring festival prosper.

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