Review: Ystad Jazz Festival 2012

Michael Tucker reviews the 2012 Ystad jazz festival, featuring special guest Quincy Jones fearing for young people's attention spans and lamenting America's failure to appoint a minister of culture to promote jazz

Photo: Quincy Jones by Markus Fägersten

Quincy JonesBuilding on the success of last year's festival, Ystad 2012 (2-5 August) put some special icing on the cake as guest of honour status was given to living legend Quincy Jones.

The man whose multi-dimensional achievements include work with Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson had been fêted several years ago at Montreux. However, as Jones declared more than once during the festival, this Swedish celebration of his life and work meant something very special to him, given his strong connections to the country and its modern, yet folk-touched jazz musicians such as Bengt-Arne Wallin - connections which go back some six decades or more.

Ystad did Jones proud with an art exhibition beautifully curated by Anna Lönnquist which featured over 70 LP sleeves, many rare photographs and much memorabilia, plus music sheets featuring Jones compositions. There were two public opportunities to learn much about Jones's take on both music and life, in a press conference and in an interview session with journalist Doug Ramsey, and the ever-generous Jones also gave several critics and journalists the opportunity to interview him personally.

Throughout, the mutual warmth of feeling between Jones and his Swedish hosts and fans was palpable. In the final moments of the concluding two-hours plus concert, which housed some 1600 enthusiasts in a marquee tent erected specially for the occasion, when Jones took over from Wallin to conduct the excellent Bohuslän Big Band in fine renditions of two of Jones's classic Scandinavian pieces, Stockholm Sweetnin' and The Midnight Sun Will Never Set, there weren't many dry eyes in the house.

Expertly compèred by Anne Lundberg, the concert gave a fine overview (as relaxed in overall manner of presentation as it was focused in musical delivery) of Jones's work from the early 1950s to now. The Bohuslän Big Band's precise, subtly variegated yet powerful charts were complemented by appearances from, among others, festival director Jan Lundgren and his trio, Nils Landgren (impressive as both vocalist and trombonist) and vocalists Viktoria Tolstoy and LaGaylia Frazier. Frazier's soulful vocals and electric stage presence impressed as much as they had done at last year's festival.

At one moment in the proceedings, Lundberg asked Jones why it was that he had been so drawn to Sweden all these years. "Because you are 360 degree people" replied Jones. "You have all the heart, soul, feeling and creativity that can really make life what it should be."

The same could be said about the Ystad festival. As with last year's event, the organisers did an excellent job of mixing up-and-coming Swedish talent with an impressive roster of international names. I was particularly taken by the Ystad-born tenorist Björn Jansson and his quintet, featuring trumpeter Tobias Wiklund, in a set which featured original material throughout: at times reminiscent of the writing of Kenny Wheeler and Keith Jarrett, the music concluded with a burning pieces of classic bop character, including some Blakey-like press rolls from drummer Daniel Fredrikksson.

Hard bop accents could be enjoyed in concerts by the Anders Bergcrantz quintet, which featured on-the-case contributions from tenorist Billy Harper and drummer Victor Lewis, and the Benny Green trio with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Rodney Green. Pianist Green offered a set of considerable character and variety, ranging from the fiercely smoking grooves of a piece dedicated to one of Green's "all-time favourite pianists, Sonny Clark" to the slow-burning moods of some beautifully developed original ballads.

A similarly fresh take on the modern tradition was offered by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and his trio, featuring bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jeff Ballard: Rosenwinkel impressed me with his combination of chordal sophistication and linear storytelling, which included some deliciously simple hammering-on in a lengthy and affecting reading of Mingus's Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

A sense of (refreshed and replenished) tradition was also to the fore in the set by the Swedish Tenor Kings, one of several events held outdoors at Per Helsas Gard, a most attractive farm courtyard setting, right in the centre of town. Bernt Rosengren, Nisse Sandstrom and Krister Andersson did full justice to pieces like Coltrane's Blue Trane and Andersson's reading of Monk's Ask Me Now was outstanding.

A similar dialectic of the old and the new informed an excellent set by Claire Martin and her trio, including pianist Gareth Williams, where Martin's rendition of the late Esbjorn Svensson's Love Is Real really touched the heart.

And it was just such a dialectic that made Jan Lundgren's various appearances so enjoyable, whether in dialogue with Swedish piano legend Bengt Hallberg in a set largely drawn from their recent Volenza release Back To Back, or with accordionist Richard Galliano and trumpeter Paolo Fresu in a deeply poetic performance of the material on their recent ACT release Mare Nostrum. For me, this was one of the absolute highlights of the festival, together with the appearance of pianist Ketil Bjornstad and guitarist Terje Rypdal in the beautiful  Sankta Maria Church and Tomasz Stanko's "Legend in Focus' concert with the young band he featured on his last ECM release Dark Eyes.

If Bjornstad and Rypdal took classically inflected tone poem moods to some electrifying heights, Stanko and his cohorts, including the superb Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila, showed how both melodic and rhythmic excitement can be generated from deep within the development of relatively simple material. Equally exciting, the trio of Arild Andersen, Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinaccia leavened some tough readings of the material on their recent Live At Belleville recording for ECM with a wonderfully weighted reading of Bacharach's Alfie.

Speaking to me about the state of popular music today, Quincy Jones expressed his fears that, affected by the shorter and shorter cuts of the movie and MTV worlds, too many young people are developing what he called Attention Deficit Syndrome. He also expressed his disgust that America remained  a country without a Minister of Culture to promote the music - jazz - that so many people around the world loved so much.

He was therefore very taken with the various efforts of the Ystad festival to begin to develop ways in which to get jazz music out to a younger audience, including children. He was no less impressed by the sheer breadth and depth of a programme that ranged from the blues-charged power of Dee Dee Bridgewater's Tribute to Billie Holiday concert with the Norbotten Big Band and the sensuous pianistic and vocal magnetism of Eliane Elias and her quartet to the unclassifiable, quicksilver energy of Japanese pianist Hiromi's solo concert and the Ornette Coleman-inflected lyricism and energy of the Petter Wettre  quartet from Norway.

And if Quincy Jones says something is good, you had better believe it. Ystad continues to be one of the most refreshing festivals around, and congratulations are due all round.

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