Report: Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, 2022

This year's gathering on the Swedish south coast featured 170 musicians, including Cyrille Aimée, The Yellowjackets and Jan Lundgren

Cyrille Aimée at the Ystad Sweden Festival in 2022. Photo © Tim Dickeson

Ystad, the gem of the Swedish “riviera”, is not only a must-see place to visit but also the home of a wonderful jazz festival founded in 2010. Under the artistic direction of renowned pianist Jan Lundgren, the festival attracts thousands of visitors every year. This year, from 3-6 August, a total of 170 musicians spread across 35 full-length concerts made the four-day festival a very successful event with many sold-out concerts and an overall 90% attendance.

As with many other festivals, the 2020 edition programme had to be postponed but unlike others, the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival (YSJF) still happened that fateful year under strict rules and with a programme of only Swedish jazz. Originally scheduled in 2020, Stacey Kent almost did not make it again this year due to one of many BA cancelled flights. Another organisation soon found a solution and her set was moved from an evening concert to a midday one on day one, so that she and her band could catch their new return flight. For the singer, Sweden holds a very special place in her heart: she recalls how she was hugged upon her very first tour outside her native USA. Hence her idea to play in Ystad the same repertoire that made her famous back then, some 25 years ago.

Having moved the Stacey Kent gig, Jan Lundgren still had to fill out the gap for the original 8pm concert. Luckily the award-winning young Swedish vocalist Ellen Andersson accepted this last-minute offer. With her second album released in 2020, the singer returned to the quartet format she would also perform at the festival. Her sensual and hypnotising voice revived Rezso Seress’ Gloomy Sunday, a song originally written about despair caused by war. If there ever were a “Sheila Jordan test”, she would definitely pass brilliantly with her duo with bassist Johan Löfcrantz. Their take on Honeysuckle Rose illuminated the stage of the beautiful Ystad Teater, an old theatre dating back to 1894. In fact, this year, the YSJF spread its wings through eight different venues. As usual though the main gigs were held in the old theatre that has long been the cultural hub of the protected medieval city of Ystad. 

Female vocalists are particularly welcome in Ystad and something good was still to come with Cyrille Aimée. The French-born vocalist, now based in New Orleans, gave an amazing performance together with New Orleans native piano player David Torkanowsky and Italian double-bass player Matteo Bortone. You could feel that from the first notes of her take on celebrated Bechet’s tune Petite Fleur. As she explained, Bernie Petkere’s famous Close Your Eyes (written the same year as Gloomy Sunday, by the way) became one of her favourite standards following her listening to the eponymous 1997 Stacey Kent album. I didn’t follow the lyrics’ advice and instead kept my eyes wide open for the remainder of her set. How she moved and sang definitely energised the crowd. Her repertoire mingled classics and originals, including some songs she wrote in Spanish, the language of her mother, a native of the Dominican Republic. She notably accompanied herself with a small guitar on Casa De Piedras, a song she composed while building her own house in Costa Rica during Covid times. Whatever she decided to sing, she made the songs her own and kept everyone on the edge of their seat. From Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise to the standard Almost Like Being In Love, her rich and diverse set list took us slowly through a gig that ended with a Monk tune: “It’s Over Now”, she sang, when we all wished it needn’t be. But then came the encore, her take on La Vie En Rose. That’s how life was for an hour and a half in which we could forget about all the bad news on the TV.

The YSJF wouldn’t be such a great event without the help of a brigade of enthusiastic volunteers, each with a role of his own, from cooking excellent home-made meals to driving musicians around. In a festival that aims to please a large audience with special concerts for kids and senior citizens (Ystad being quite heavily populated with the latter) the outdoor Hos Morten Café served as a hub for the aptly named Jazz Next Generation stage. There shone a young quartet led by vocalist Irma Neumüller, who beautifully sang her own compositions in Swedish.

Not far from Hos Morten stands the Klosterkyrkan, a medieval former friary. Unlike the early morning solo concert saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen gave there in 2019 (she has released two solo albums since then), day one finished with a late night cinematic concert by Rosario Giuliani and Luciano Biondini celebrating famous Italian movie themes. Originally recorded in 2016 as a quartet, as a duo it brought more intimacy, allowing us to appreciate even more in the peaceful monastery the wonderful melodies written by Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone. In the only church in Sweden owned by a municipality, the two Italian maestri revisited La Strada and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso without forgetting of course Deborah’s Theme from Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America.

The spirit of Ennio Morricone lingered on a bit more as coincidentally Grégoire Maret ended his Americana project on day three with a preview of his upcoming album based on Morricone’s film scores. Together with Romain Collin on piano (a French musician relocated to the US) and Marvin Sewell, a blues/jazz guitarist the harmonica player had previously worked with when they were both touring with Cassandra Wilson, the trio took us on a Frisellian slow trip that would end in the Andalusian desert where the spaghetti western Once Upon A Time In The West was partly shot in 1968.

While the spirit of Morricone was evoked in two concerts, so was the music and legacy of Toots Thielemans, his centenary being celebrated in many places this year. The Belgian guitarist, harmonica player and whistler, who visited the YSJF in its early years, has long been a superstar in Sweden. In the many Swedish tours he undertook, Toots inspired many local musicians. One of them was Filip Jers, who now wears a moustache as his mentor did. During his tribute In The Spirit Of Toots, the Swedish harmonica player explained that Toots once told him to learn at least one Ellington tune to play in every single concert. Together with the Carl Bagge trio, he interpreted one of Toots’ favourite pieces by the Duke, Sophisticated Lady, as part of a set list the harmonica maestro would have probably chosen in his own time.

Toots’ memory was evoked here and there again, notably when Linda Petterson sung a Swedish version of Bluesette at the beginning of her set with Lars Ericsson on double bass and Bengan Janson on accordion. The concert given by these three impressive Swedish musicians was the only one held in the beautiful Sta Maria Kyrka church, a place known for its excellent acoustics. Despite a repertoire a bit too eclectic for my taste, there were quite a few great moments that made the numerous baroque putti dance and fly over our heads.

While Toots was much celebrated, so was the Duke, notably with the Jan Lundgren and Ulf Wakenius quartet’s Tribute To Oscar And Duke. Oscar Peterson is cited by Lundgren as one of his earliest and most important jazz influences, starting from when he first heard the 1963 Night Train album at the age of 15. Wakenius, the man with the cap, had to take it off whenever he played with Oscar Peterson, a rare image we would not witness again. Together with Hans Backenroth on bass and Kristian Leth on drums, the two musicians offered great moments of conviviality and interaction in this double tribute that ended as it started with some originals from the Canadian pianist.

When given carte blanche by Jan Lundgren, bassist Mattias Svensson, an original member of the pianist’s trio when it was formed in 1995, built up a powerful force comprising Bill Mays on piano, Morten Lund on drums, Victoria Tolstoy on vocals and lastly Pascal Schumacher on vibraphone, the last being the only one Svensson had never played with before. Starting the performance as a trio, this scalable band played a mix of Svensson’s originals and standards. Thanks to the bassist’s brilliant idea to bring the Luxembourg musician on board, we were nicely thrown back to those years when the vibraphone player became famous with his own quartet. Svensson’s eclectic set list notably included a brand-new original dedicated to the memory of Toots called My Toots’ Toots, and a duo with longstanding partner Tolstoy, the two scatting on a Ray Charles classic. Oddly enough, after a fake end with a Svensson original bearing no lyrics that left the vocalist no choice but to totally improvise, the quintet finished with their arrangement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Sweden is a country of traditions and the city of Ystad has maintained one of its own. Since 1748, Ystad’s tower watchman has checked that all is well during the night and each year for the festival a musician is selected to act as the tower watchman in the evening of day one. Three years ago we caught a glimpse of Nils Landgren’s red trombone. This year it was virtually impossible to see any of the various instruments used by Ale Möller, whose award-winning Xeno Mania project had featured a few hours before at the Saltsjöbad hotel. He’d shown his musical prowess on such diverse instruments as mandola, accordion, bouzouki and banjo.

Among other traditions specifically related to the YSJF, various ambassadors and a guest of honour are nominated every year (normal, I guess, in the land of the Nobel prize). This year marks the 90th birthday of a great drummer and human being perhaps better known for the method he developed for strokes and Parkinson’s disease after having suffered a stroke himself. Following Toots’ advice, YSJF Ambassador Ronnie Gardiner, originally coming from the US, established himself in Sweden many years ago. For one of the last gigs of the festival, Jan Lundgren assembled a quintet around the drummer who had selected most of a set list that started with Ellington’s Take The ‘A’ Train, a reminder that Gardiner once played on a train with Bird. Alongside Martin Sjöstedt on bass and Klas Lindquist on saxophone, the pianist also invited his fiancée, vocalist Hannah Svensson who appeared in a blue dress matching the colour of her eyes. Listening to Come Rain Or Come Shine, I was determined to attend all future editions of the festival no matter what. The set ended with Caravan, the actual highlight of the set, featuring the 90-year-old drummer in a powerful solo for which he also used his bare hands. Almost out of breath when he was handed gifts and flowers, he explained that when he comes to play in Ystad, it really feels like a family, a feeling not only shared by musicians but by the packed audience as well.

And then, something totally different: Bob Mintzer, this year’s guest of honour, gave a top-notch performance together with Dane Alderson on bass, William Kennedy on drums and Russell Ferrante on the keyboards, the only original member of the legendary Yellowjackets. The US band commenced their 40th anniversary tour last year and they were thrilled to be part of the YSJF programme for the very first time.

After more than 10 successful editions, come rain or come shine, Jan Lundgren came up last year with a brilliant idea and so the Ystad Winter Piano Fest (YWPF) was born. Since it went quite well, the second edition will take place on 28-29 December. The programme sounds just great and since it takes place at the Saltsjöbad hotel, you ought already to have booked your jazz and sauna at the beach.