April in Denmark

    The world might be awash with independent jazz record labels but the experience of April Records of Denmark suggests demand remains strong

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    Jan Schmidt (left) and Tom Jensen of April Records

    Among its many contributions to jazz, Denmark can point to the impact of such long-esteemed record labels as Storyville, Steeplechase and Sundance/Stunt Records, founded respectively in 1952, 1972 and 1982. Today, a new Danish label – April Records – is making some impressive contributions to affirming, extending and amplifying many an aspect of such a rich historical legacy.

    In an insightful and glowing review of Danish tenor saxophonist Cecilie Strange’s folk-touched and poetically cast Blue, released on April Records in 2019, JJ colleague Derek Ansell wrote that “Good jazz is valid in any place, space or time […] ”. Derek was equally complimentary about Blikan – Strange’s follow-up release on the small independent label, in the same excellent quartet setting with Peter Rosendal (p), Thommy Andersson (b) and Jakob Høyer (d). To date, Derek’s reviews of April Records releases stand in double figures. While not every disc has drawn the level of praise given Blue and Blikan, all have elicited much appreciative comment.

    I share Derek’s enthusiasm. The first April Records release I heard was the eponymous – and outstanding – 2019 live session from Little North, the Danish trio of Benjamin Nørholm Jacobsen (p), Martin Brunbjerg Rasmussen (b) and Lasse Jacobsen (d). Following my JJ review, I was invited by Jan Schmidt, the man behind April Records, to write the sleeve note for the trio’s third release, Familiar Places. It gave me some kick a little later to realise that I was now in the same company as one of my favourite musicians, Palle Mikkelborg – who wrote the sleeve note for April Records’s eponymous Andorra release of 2021 by a potent fusion-fired quintet of Simon Krebs (elg), Mads le Cour (t, flh) , Peter Kohlmetz Møller ( kyb), Morten Jørgensen (elb) and Nikolaj Bundvig (d).

    Something that sets April Records apart is the variety of recording locations it uses. This seems appropriate for the breadth and depth of a catalogue which includes the Shorter-like, musing intelligence of tenor saxophonist Thomas Agergaard’s surpassing Testing 1-2-3-4 with Carsten Dahl (p), Lennart Ginman (b) and Thomas Blachman (d) and the coolly spun melodic meditations of Mosaic, featuring Oilly Wallace (as, f) and Johannes Wamberg (elg); the often free-fired and tumultuous trumpet and saxes-led sextet date that is Alawari, the floating and rippling, reverie-rich moods of guitarist Rasmus Oppenhagen Krogh’s Whereabouts and the mellow, historically literate terrain of drummer Emil de Waal’s hugely enjoyable Vente (reviewed for JJ by both Derek and me).

    Occasionally, minimalist passages in an April Records release may suggest a touch or two of so-called smooth jazz. However, due attention to the diversely fashioned resonance of compositions, arrangements and playing will confirm the lasting quality, the true depth, of indicative items such as Tabloid, featuring Johannes Wamberg’s lucid, finely weighted guitar figures, and the Otooto quintet’s This Love Is For You, with its relaxed yet kicking rhythms and mellow, beautifully cast post-late Miles lines from Jonas Due (t) and Oilly Wallace (as).

    Whatever the music may be, the recording quality of an April Records production is always first class; likewise the striking cover imagery and design as well as the cardboard fold-out sleeves, as elegant as they are sturdy. A touch like ECM when it started, albeit in its own register and range, April Records has quickly established the sort of reputation for overall character and quality which would lead me to recommend on sight any of the label’s releases – mostly issued in both LP and CD format.

    The music offers many a fresh delight, with each album creating and sustaining a distinctive overall mood. Sample the classic Nordic inwardness of the spaciously wrought layering and shape-shifting of Ånd Ud by the intriguingly titled quintet I Just Came From The Moon, and the melodic “singing breathing” of trombonist Lis Wessberg’s superb, at times deeply reflective Yellow Road; the Middle Eastern moods and richly percussive grooves of Kalaha’s Mystafa, or the painterly, in part electronically washed take on the legacy of Tomasz Stanko that is the recent Tomasz Dabrowski & The Individual Beings.

    So far, two classic “blowing” post-Coltrane & Rollins sessions have appeared on the label: Blessings by Jakob Dinesen (ts), Anders Christensen (b) and Laust Sonne (d) – rated “a most adventurous and together unit” by Derek – and A New York Flight by Andreas Toftemark (ts), Calle Brickman (p), Felix Moseholm (b) and Andreas Svendsen (d). Derek observed in his review of this debut recording from Toftemark: “This Danish quartet are all musicians that are right in the tradition and with something of their own to offer as soloists.” In his sleeve note for the album, Jesper Løvdal – noted Danish saxophonist and chair of The Ben Webster Foundation – ventured: “The music on this album reveals what I have suspected for some time: instrumental, acoustic and improvised music is now on a higher level than ever in Denmark and has a more varied expression than seen before.”

    Jan Schmidt talked to me recently about the origins and development of his lively label. “April Records began in 1994. At that time the main focus was on downbeat electronica and ambient music. But towards the end of the 90s and the beginning of the present century the label profile became more organic and moved towards the sound that at that time was called Nu-Jazz.

    “In 2006 I got tired of the music business and started to work in the movie world. My partner, Tom Jensen, stayed in the music business and in 2019 persuaded me to join him on a trip to Jazzahead in Bremen, Germany – where I DJ’ed as part of the Danish showcase. On that trip we decided to reawaken April Records, but with a profile now more strongly oriented to jazz. Some of the music that we release nowadays incorporates electronic elements, which is evident with a band like Kalaha, but we operate mainly as a jazz label and not as an electronica outfit.

    “We have some 20 or so issues to date and are always on the look out for exciting ensembles and sounds. When we launch a project we try to find a sleeve writer who we think will fit the project and a visual artist, or a visual image, that will complement the particular musical vision. This can all diversify considerably, even as we try constantly to strengthen the label’s identity. We like photo-based artwork, but it can sometimes be difficult, especially with group units, to make a cool or striking photo-based sleeve. So, in many cases, we use local visual artists instead.

    “I have always been a big music lover. When I was a teenager, all of my friends in school spent their savings on buying a moped, but I bought myself a stereo. I’m born in the 60s and grew up in the Danish countryside. All the music I was listening to was on major labels, so I never thought that the music business could be something for me – until one day, an American kid moved to town and introduced me to punk rock. That was the wake up call. This was a DIY movement, where people released records with music by themselves or their friends. If they could do it, so could I. And that was the start of it all.

    “Next year is going be exciting for us. We will have a good mix of new young artists and older more established players. Music-wise we will be presenting a wide variety of styles and flavours. There will be a soul-jazz record of organ grooves by Kresten Osgood and we will also be releasing the new album from pianist Morten Schantz, who was previously signed to Edition Records. We also just signed Danish saxophonist Fredrik Lundin to do a big band project and in August we will be releasing a Turkish-inspired big band album by Kalaha with the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra, featuring vocalist Hilal Kaya.

    “I think that we are living in an interesting time. Jazz has become very hip among young people. There is a lot of great talent within the younger generations here in Denmark and when you go out to jazz concerts performed by younger acts, such as Little North, Tabloid and OTOOTO, the audience is also young and diverse. Another great thing is that many of the young musicians seem to embrace all decades and all genres at once. So, the jazz scene, in the bigger cities in Denmark like Copenhagen and Aarhus, is very alive and open-minded. Nothing seems to be ‘out of bounds’, with many of the young jazz musicians collaborating with other musicians across and within all genres. And I don’t think that this is an isolated Danish thing – you see this happening in Britain and all over the rest of the world.

    “We relaunched April Records only just before the global pandemic hit, which meant that our first batch of releases dropped during the early days of Covid. But against all odds, there has been a lot of positive response and support coming our way. So now our plan is to keep expanding on what we have created already and to widen our range of distribution globally.”