Ystad serves an ace

Michael Tucker hopes Jan Lundgren won't be diverted by his renascent groundstroke from devoting his full attention to the world-class Ystad jazz festival

Early in life, Jan Lundgren, artistic director of the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, showed the sort of talent on a tennis court that might have led him to consider a professional career in the game. Fortunately for those who have followed this fine Swedish pianist’s career, the classically trained Lundgren abandoned tennis in order to focus on the considerable jazz potential he had shown as a student at Malmö Conservatory.

Long a world-rated pianist, a few years ago Lundgren picked up his tennis racket again - which may account for all the stamina and energy he displayed with grace throughout this, the second Ystad festival. Aided admirably by festival president Thomas Lantz and a host of volunteers - who, in a typically inclusive touch, were all brought onstage at the end of proceedings, in order to receive due thanks - the Ystad-domiciled Lundgren introduced concerts with literate enthusiasm, in both Swedish and English. He also found time to converse with various visiting guests and critics, including legendary bebop expert Ira Gitler.

Lundgren’s lovely flowing lightness of melodic touch and depth of both harmonic understanding and rhythmic intelligence contributed to two of the festival’s many outstanding concerts. One was with the father and daughter team of vocalists Hal and LaGaylia Frazier, and soaked in the archetypal spirit of the blues and The
Great American Songbook. The other featured Lundgren with invited guests Youn Sun Nah (vocals), Peter Asplund (trumpet) and Arild Andersen (bass). Ranging far in both musical source and emotional overtone, the music included a rhythmically enticing rekindling by Andersen and Lundgren of the poetic folk feeling
of the famous Jazz på Svenska recordings by the late Jan Johansson and the very much alive Georg Riedel. This long-renowned bassist’s own concert, with his daughter Sarah on vocals, saxophonist Joakim Milder, trumpeter Jan Allan, pianist Jacob Karlzon and vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl, included spacious settings of the work of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

Questions have been asked in recent years about the current condition of jazz. If jazz has in part become a “world music”, fed by many a distant tributary of the mainstream, what does that say about the continuation or development today of the bedrock values of swing, of blues projection and feeling, of harmonic intelligence, of the overall soul of the music?

Lundgren has spoken of what he calls timeless qualities in the music and in his introduction to the dual-language festival brochure, stated his belief that, while boundaries are meant to be crossed, and jazz today is constantly developing, “if jazz as a music form is to develop, its own strength and appeal must be showcased.”

I can’t recall many other modern-to-contemporary festivals where this central theme has been handled in such a lucid, stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable way - or where the “local” and the “international” have blended so well, in a programme which did much to profile emerging young Swedish talent.

Warmly cast tributes to Monica Zetterlund (from Anna-Frida Abrahamsson) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (from Rosalia De Souza) rubbed shoulders with the chamber jazz of guitarist Jacob Fischer and bassist Hans Backenroth (who also appeared with vocalist Claes Janson in a fine band led by organist Kjell Öhman); swinging big band charts fronted by Swedish vocal legend Svante Thuresson set off the pumping funk vocals, sax and electric guitar of the charismatic Sofi Hellborg Gang, while trombonist Nils Landgren and guitarist Johan Norberg offered intimate duo contrast to the heavier-driven atmospherics of ex-EST bassist Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket quartet.

In all, almost seven thousand tickets were sold. Thirty-plus concerts included the modern-mainstream pleasures of the Toots Thielemans European Quartet and the Scott Hamilton and Jesper Thilo “Tenor Battle” Quintet: no battle, this was a smile-inducing collaboration with Hamilton’s Lester-like lyricism providing reflective foil to Thilo’s assertively chewy approach, in a now joyous, now intimate set of ballads and blues, swing and bebop.

Backed by a fine German quartet, The Hamburg Connection, Herb Geller also offered many a mellow pleasure - and, like many of the musicians, expressed his appeciation for the warmth of the reception he received. At the other end of the scale were the modal meditations of Marcin Wasilewski’s solo pianism, the jazz-meets-classical structures of Enrico Pieranunzi’s Scarlatti programme and the sometimes shamanic overtones of the psalms and folk songs of the Kuára trio of Per Jørgensen (trumpet, vocal), Samuli Mikkonen (piano) and Markku Ounaskari (drums).

The organic blend of the old and the new, the mellow and the energising, was typified by the diverse filmic moods, freely cast solos and, at times, New Orleans-like theatricality of the festival’s finale from accordionist Richard Galliano’s La Strada quintet. Generating several encores, this hugely enjoyable and ecstatically received midnight Nino Rota tribute featured Dave Douglas (t), John Surman (ss, bcl), Boris Kozlov (b) and Clarence Penn (d).

Like most of the headline concerts, it benefited from the acoustic of Ystad’s Theatre, a harmoniously proportioned and decorated neo-classical building from the late-19th century, with a seating capacity of some 500. Other concert venues, all easily walkable in a town blessed by a rare architectural blend of the historically preserved and the new, included charming open-air courtyards and a splendid church, as well as a pleasingly scaled “people’s park” from the 1930s and a cafe and cinema.

Several sessions were held just a short drive out of town in the superbly located Saltsjöbad Hotel - at the edge of the Baltic and only minutes away from some of the striking prehistoric sites and beautifully proportioned Romanesque churches to be found in the gently rolling Skåne countryside made famous by the Wallander crime novels and films.

As one have might expected, Lundgren’s programming featured some of the best piano being played today - and on some really special instruments, courtesy of Steinway. Harold Mabern came on strong in the Pat Martino and Eric Alexander Quintet’s fistful of mostly tough New York grooves, hip and hot and with the spirit of Wes Montgomery never far away, while Bobo Stenson and Stefano Bollani led Scandinavian or European trios which offered essentially lyrical but also contrasting approaches, typified by the folkish Don’s Kora Song which was Stenson’s encore and the sometimes Dada-like humour of Bollani’s trio, including the leader’s vocal take on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

Erik Lindeborg’s piano trio impressed and Niels Lan Doky sparkled in a terrific blues-rinsed concert dedicated to Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, with guitarist Ulf Wakenius, drummer Alex Riel and, especially, bassist Mads Vinding in superb form.

The opening concert was no less striking, featuring as it did the return to live performance, after a gap of some years, of Bengt Hallberg. Those years had done nothing to diminish this living legend’s crystal-clear sound and overall elegance, his spacious, sometimes (subtly) stride-inflected rhythmic authority and quicksilver chromatic invention, evident throughout a delicious programme which embraced Dinah and Stardust, blues and folk tropes, Ellington and Evert Taube. (Hallberg and Lundgren enthusiasts are in for a real treat soon, as these distinctive exemplars of Swedish jazz piano are scheduled to record some duets together, in Stockholm.)

Presented in the heart of what is known as Sweden’s Provence, Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival 2011 was nothing less than a tonic. Programmed with far-ranging intelligence, at a refreshingly human scale, and delivered with the utmost care and professionalism, with sound levels just right throughout, it was the most intimate and friendly festival one could have wished for: a jazz festival through and through, with especially welcome touches such as afternoon interviews with festival artists Riedel, Hallberg, Geller and Hamilton. Here’s to Ystad 2012!

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