Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival 2019

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Festival director Jan Lundgren (piano) with the Göteborg Wind Orchestra. Photo by Markus Fägersten

What else did I expect? The Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary with all the effervescence and intelligence, the class and the quality – the attention to detail and the overall vision – which have long distinguished this consistently surpassing event. And the weather, which at first was what festival director Jan Lundgren characterised as “bracing”, came to smile more and more on proceedings, with the Baltic as pleasantly swimmable as it has ever been these past 10 years.

When Quincy Jones was the guest of honour at the 2012 festival, he spoke of his Swedish hosts as being “360-degree people”. It would be hard to find a better example of what Jones meant than Jan Lundgren. As a pianist, Lundgren has everything: fabulous touch and taste, a seemingly endless capacity for clear-cut melody allied to the most literate harmonic and dynamic awareness, and the sort of swinging rhythmic élan that can put a mile-wide smile on one’s face – plus a deep awareness of the folk roots of the music, embracing both the rich legacy of his native land and the blues of the African-American tradition.

All such qualities illumined the two evening concerts in which he featured at Ystads Teater. “Jazz På Svenska Vis” found his trio with the excellent Mattias Svensson (b) and Zoltan Csörsz (d) in the special company of the Göteborg Wind Orchestra. Widely recognised as one of the foremost classical wind ensembles in the world, when necessary the ensemble evinced a genuine feeling for the snap and the bite of the blues, in a programme which ranged across the history of Swedish composition, from popular dance music to folk song and beyond.

Characterful pieces from Nils Lindberg, Ann-Sofi Söderqvist, Bengt Hallberg, Evert Taube, Jan Johansson, Bengt-Arne Wallin and Anders Ekdahl all received quite superb interpretation, with two linked, rhythmically and tonally intriguing Johansson pieces precipitating some especially arresting passages of smeared blues interplay from the orchestra. Lundgren’s own Mare Nostrum, from the ACT album of that name with Paolo Fresu (t, flh) and Richard Galliano (acn), supplied lyrical prelude to a concluding romp-out on an outrageously burning barrel of joyous fun, where Lundgren ignited a succession of blues-soaked march, stride and train-time figures before a potent yet elegantly worked solo from Csörsz wrapped things up.

The “Mare Nostrum III” concert delivered what its title promised, with ultra-lyrical material from the trio’s most recent release on ACT given the most exquisitely attuned readings. If pieces like Lundgren’s folk-touched, rhythmically sprung Ronneby (a tribute to his home town) got the toes tapping and the fingers clicking, big-time, the overall mood of a set which featured Fresu’s Pavese as well as Galliano’s Blues Sur Seine and Michel Legrand’s The Windmills Of Your Mind was exemplified by the piquant encore reading of Monteverdi’s Si Dolce E Il Tormento, taken from the Mare Nostrum II album.

‘When the history of jazz venues comes to be written, the Ystad Sweden Festival should surely merit a special place in the narrative’

Having missed last year, I was pleased to see that Ystads Teater had retained its place as the chief venue for the festival – and that the town’s recently built large sports arena, which had been used for some concerts in the previous two years, was not needed this time. Good as its acoustics and sight lines are, the hall lacks the soulful ambience and intimacy of such uniquely charming venues as the theatre, St Marias Kirke, Klosterkyrkan and Ystad Saltsjöbad (all indoors) and Per Helsas Gård and Hos Morten Café (both outdoors). When the history of jazz venues comes to be written, the Ystad Sweden Festival should surely merit a special place in the narrative – as should the role of the many volunteers who, year upon year, contribute so much to making Ystad the especially friendly and uplifting experience it is.

And how many jazz festivals do you know where jazz films, art exhibitions and talks offer genuine complement to and enhancement of the music? This year, the colourful painter and print-maker Andy Strüwer, who created the vibrant festival poster, had an extensive and excellent exhibition of his freshly conceived, part-modernist, part-fantastical work with his son Marcel at Gallery M1 in the newly re-vamped Hotel Continental du Sud in the heart of town. There was also an exhibition of 10 years of photographic documentation of the festival, at Ystads Konstmuseum, again in the town centre. 

Several concerts were put on a short distance outside Ystad, including the (pre-festival) party blast in the grounds of Bergsjöholm Castle from the left-field Italian marching band Funk Off. The Jazzoo 2 concert given at Löderup’s Solhällan by the potent and quirky Oddjob quintet (with a.o. trumpeter Goran Kajfes and saxophonist Per “Rusträsk” Johansson) continued the welcome Ystad tradition of bringing jazz to children – or rather, children to jazz. Further fine concerts confirmed this commitment, exemplified by the performance of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf at Ystads Teater, narrated by Swedish actress Beatrice Järås in the rousing company of the Norrbotten Big Band.

JJ readers may be aware of my enthusiasm for this ensemble, as evident in a recent post discussing their Symphonic Bop recording with the Swiss piano trio Vein. Directed by (distinguished but here, non-playing) Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder, they had the signal honour of accompanying living legend Benny Golson in a moving and quite magnificent evening concert at Ystads Teater. One classic Golson piece after another – Along Came Betty, I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Killer Joe and Blues March, for example – found the main man (who turned 90 this year) blowing beautifully, his tenor sound as full yet nuanced as his phrasing was simultaneously fluid and firm.

If, at times, the shape-shifting quality of the arrangements recalled the variegated delights of Golson’s lovely Stockholm Sojourn session of 1965 – where his companions in the International Jazz Orchestra he led then included Benny Bailey and Bengt-Arne Wallin, Cecil Payne and Grachan Moncur III, Eje Thelin and Roman Dylong – the overall ethos of the music at Ystad was simultaneously up and mellow, harmonically hip and blues-shot, historical and contemporary: all in all, classic and timeless and delivered with spot on precision and passion all round. 

The icing on the cake came with Golson’s masterfully paced recounting of the genesis of Killer Joe and Blues March, which completely slayed the audience. No wonder, then, that festival president Thomas Lantz invited Golson to become next year’s festival ambassador – an invitation which the ever-gracious Golson (who appeared at the first Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival in 2010) – accepted immediately.

Another fabulous concert at the theatre featured another terrific big band, the Hamburg-based NDR, accompanying Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and his regular – and superb – rhythm section of Childo Thomas (elb) and Eduardo Simpson (d). Largely drawn from the recent Es:sensual release on ACT, with arrangements by the Brazilian Jaques Morelenbaum, the music was both hot and up, as in Cha Cha Du Nord and Glu-Glu (the latter featuring vocal samples from Sosa) and laid-back and mellow: fragrantly beautiful passages for flutes projected the rubato ballad moods of tracks like Reposo and My Three Notes. Sosa (pictured above by Markus Fägersten) was in in smile-inducing inspirational form and the band was marshalled superbly by the Norwegian saxophonist Geir Lsyne, who for now has set aside the inspired playing and compositional ambitions which marked such striking albums of his as The North Star and New Circle (both on ACT) to concentrate on leading the NDR.

You might think that two such outstanding big bands would be enough for any festival. But this was Ystad. And so, at Per Helsas Gård, the fine Swedish trumpeter Peter Asplund and his compatriots of the excellent XL Big Band led by saxophonist Claus Sörensen opened proceedings with a mid-morning concert – just as they had done 10 years previously at the first festival. Beautiful as the concert was, the really great thing for me was the fact the festival had available copies of the band’s 2018 recording Gråskala. This features three diversely atmospheric pieces by Sörensen, including the outstanding, ostinato-underpinned meditation that is Requiem För Sverige, on which Sörensen is the featured soloist. I remarked the piquant beauty of his playing in my review of the band’s performance of this haunting post-Lars Gullin/Nils Lindberg piece at the 2017 Ystad festival – and I really can’t recommend this recording highly enough.

When the festival began, there were some 15 events in all. Ystad 2019 had almost 40 concerts, spanning most eras of jazz and several jazz-related musics and generating ticket sales of over 11,000 – a festival record. In her engaging afternoon performance at Ystad Saltsjöbad, legendary Brazilian singer and guitarist Joyce Moreno paid spoken and musical tribute to mentor Antonio Carlos Jobim. She also underlined the importance of jazz to her, a factor especially evident in a jazz-inflected and really grooving encore. The Portuguese fado-meets-jazz star Cristina Branco, first heard at Ystad in 2014, gave a typically soulful performance, again at Ystad Saltsjöbad, which like that of Moreno was fully appreciated by the all-but sold-out audience. Explaining that her surname translated as “white” and dressed in that colour, Branco spoke of her charged belief in “all the colours” that were gathered in that ostensibly neutral spectrum.

Her words could be taken to sum up the ethos of a festival which, as in previous years, gave welcome exposure to some excellent female artists, such as vocalist Mimi Terris, featured at Hos Morten Café with an excellent sextet featuring a.o. the individualist trumpeter Mårten Lundgren. The charismatic Rigmor Gustafsson (v) led a tasty trio of Jonas Ostholm (p), Martin Höper (b) and Chris Montgomery (d) at Ystad Saltsjöbad, while her compatriot Hannah Svensson’s often poetically pitched vocals shone in an early morning concert at Per Helsas Gård with Ewan Svensson (g), Jan Lundgren (p), Matz Nilsson (b) and Zoltan Czörsz (d). Such highlights as a poised yet liquid treatment of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and an exhilarating, scat-fired romp through Honeysuckle Rose can be enjoyed on Svensson’s new Nilento CD, the soulful Places And Dreams.

Out beyond Ystad at Sövde Ampiteater, the popular genre-crossing singer Jill Johnson fronted the Monday Night Big Band, featuring leading musicians from southern Sweden and conducted by Anders Berglund. Back in town, the dynamic Danish singer Caecilie Norby led the pan-European “Sisters in Jazz” late-evening concert at Ystads Teater, with Anke Helfrich (p), Nicole Johänntgen (saxes), Hildegunn Øiseth (t), Lisa Wulff (b) and Dorota Piotrowski (d). I had been looking forward to hearing Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli, who features on the recent ACT recording which furnished much of the concert’s material, but she was unable to make the gig. After some initial (and for Ystad, most uncharacteristic) issues with sound levels and feedback, the concert hit its stride with Helfrich fitting in well and all contributors conjuring some tasty moments.

An especially memorable performance at Hos Morten came from the lyrical Magnanimus Trio in their “Jazz from Greece” set. Led by Christos Barbos (p, f) and often as gently yet engagingly polyrhythmic as it was spaciously modal in nature, the music featured a stirring vocal from Barbos during the setting of a Shakespeare sonnet which featured as an encore. An equally widely cast set of solo piano distinguished Nguyen Manh’s “Jazz from Vietnam” concert at Ystads Konstmuseum, while back at Hos Morten the probing Swedish quintet that is Soundscape Orchestra (with a.o. Thomas Wingren on electronics and percussion and Anders Åstrand on vibraphone) offered a freshly voiced take on aspects of, for example, late Miles Davis, Weather Report and beyond.

I passed on so-called “yacht rock” man Ed Motta’s “Criterion of the Senses” concert at Ystad Saltsjöbad but heard passable reports about it. Traditional and mainstream jazz – taking the terms in their broadest sense – were here in good measure, with that fine drummer Ronnie Gardiner leading a beautifully attuned sextet through a programme of mellow mainstream classics at a packed early morning concert at Per Helsas Gård; while the Malmö-born Paul Strandberg (cl) and his quartet celebrated older values in their “The Great 1920s” concert at Hos Morten. And Danish star vocalist Sinne Eeg fronted an immensely popular “Tribute to Svend Asmussen” concert at Ystad Teater with Mads Mathias (v), Bjarke Falgren (vn), Jacob Fischer (g), Filip Jers (harm), Hans Backenroth (b) and Kristian Leth (d) – and with Jan Lundgren sitting in for a couple of numbers.

Given the wealth of music at Ystad, it seemed only appropriate that Charles Lloyd’s concluding “Kindred Spirits” concert at Ystads Teater ran to almost two hours, mixing the ringing harmonic intelligence of Julian Lage (elg) with the early blues slide-guitar magic of Marvin Sewell, over the shape-shifting rhythmic grooves of Reuben Rogers (b) and Eric Harland (d). Lloyd played plenty of flute and raised the roof with an outstanding tenor take on Defiant, the opening track from his recent and superb Vanished Gardens release.

‘Along with Lundgren’s aforementioned concerts and the Golson and Sosa sets, for me Johänntgen was one of the absolute highlights of the festival’

The breadth and depth of Lloyd’s music epitomised the life-affirming qualities of a festival which ran from the spaciously conceived, tender and intensely spiritual alto sax improvisations of the Swiss-German saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen, through the now exuberant, now musing pianism of Lars Jansson in his pin-bright trio with Thomas Fonnesbaeck (b) and Paul Svanberg (d) – check out Jansson’s excellent new Storyville recording Just This – to the full-on hard-bop antics of the Joey DeFrancesco Trio’s “In The Key Of The Universe” set – like Jansson’s, delivered at Ystads Teater.

DeFranceso’s astonishingly energetic multi-instrumentalism precipitated some seriously chiselled lines from tenorist Troy Roberts, who also doubled on bass on occasion. The contrast with the poetics of Johänntgen (pictured left by Anna Rylander) could not have been greater. She delivered her compelling meditations in a 40-minute early Sunday morning solo concert in the clean-lined spaces of Klosterkyrkan. Moving slowly and intently, often with eyes closed and the stilled demeanour of a contemporary dancer, Johänntgen explored the acoustics of the church to arresting effect in a continuous, subtly modulated series of measured ascensional lines. Along with Lundgren’s aforementioned concerts and the Golson and Sosa sets, for me this was one of the absolute highlights of the festival.

Not far behind came (parts of) two concerts featuring Lars Danielsson. This superb Swedish bassist, cellist and bandleader appeared at the first Ystad festival and has been a continual favourite ever since – for example, with his Liberetto group, who have recorded three fine CDs for ACT. This year he featured in two often electrifying sets: “4-Wheel Drive” with Nils Landgren (tb, v), Michael Wollny (p) and Wolfgang Haffner (d, pc), and “Mozdzer-Danielsson-Fresco” with Leszek Mozdzer (p) and Zohar Fresco (pc).

The 4-Wheel Drive quartet is a classy affair. Haffner in particular caught my ears – and eyes. I’d come to know him primarily as a subtle shaper of “sounds and silence” so here his sheer drive and unflagging good humour came as something of a revelation. The group fired up Ystads Teater with some full-on readings of the more arresting material from their new ACT release, such as the title track and Wollny’s Polygon. The Beatles’s Lady Madonna and Sting’s Shadows In The Rain were the best of that part of the concert which mined pop: a little of Landgren’s intimate and consistently upper-register vocals goes sufficient way for me, while trombone-wise, I would have welcomed a touch more of the funky figures and bluesy smears which he shortly went on to exhibit in his excellent festival opening solo fanfare in the tower of St Marias Kirke – which included a lovely take on Dear Old Stockholm.

The Mozdzer-Danielsson-Fresco concert was an outstanding example of group improvisation at its diversely unfolding, lyrically charged and rhythmically energising best. Unfortunately, I had to leave this late-night Ystads Teater concert half-way through, in order to have any chance of delivering my talk “ECM at 50” at 9.00 am the next day, at Hos Morten Café, with any semblance of lucidity. (Reviewed here by Doug Ramsey.

Ystad has long honoured ECM and this year was no exception. Three fine concerts spoke strongly of the breadth and depth of producer Manfred Eicher’s musical vision. At Ystads Teater, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and his trio gave the most compellingly wrought concert I’ve heard from them to date, the music building implacably on both Bach and folk song, gospel tropes and off-centred grooves. The echo-enhanced sound and patient phrasing of Palle Mikkelborg’s trumpet and flugelhorn (and also his occasional wild singing into his mouthpieces) was perfect for the ascensional ambience of St Marias Kirke, in a lunchtime concert led by the quietly exciting Danish guitarist Jakob Bro and which featured material from Bro’s recent Returnings release: Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy was on board to both subtle and energising effect. And at Ystads Konstmuseum, the young Polish altoist Maciej Obara showed why he is beginning to create impressive waves across Europe. He played two concerts with his lyrically attuned compatriot Dominik Wania (p) and the excellent Norwegians Mats Eilertsen (b) and Gard Nilssen (d). The concert I caught was distinguished by an extensive and mesmerising free-ballad tribute to the late Tomasz Stanko, which will feature on the saxophonist’s next ECM release, due later this year.

So that was Ystad 2019. Another year of convivial company, of sparkling programming and stellar performances – some of them at the nightly jam sessions led by the trio of drummer David Forss Norberg with Sven-Erik Lundeqvist (p) and Johnny Åman (b), and including some burning workouts, with improvisers of the quality of Leszek Mozdzer and saxophonist Håkon Broström (from the Norrbotten Big Band) present, on material like Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.

Another year to relish – and to begin looking forward to the next time. Thank you, Ystad!

Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, 31 July – 4 August 2019