The Sounds of Denmark Festival at Pizza Express later this month will offer a fresh insight into the state of jazz in a country with a fine tradition of the music. Martin Chilton previews it:
Denmark has a rich jazz history. Louis Armstrong was mobbed on a visit to Copenhagen in 1933 and world-class musicians such as Ben Webster, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon made the country their home for a time. Revered drummer Ed Thigpen taught at Copenhagen Conservatory and Mikkel Hess, one of his students and now an acclaimed percussionist himself, is coming to London in October for the Sounds of Denmark series.
For the past four years, London has hosted an annual celebration of contemporary Danish music and it returns from Wednesday 16 October for a special four-day ‘revisited’ programme, again hosted at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street.
The eclectic mix of styles – traditional Nordic jazz influences, large ensemble sounds, funk fusion and nu-jazz electronica – will be showcased by a host of leading Danish performers, including Hess, Makiko Hirabayashi, Marilyn Mazur, Kathrine Windfeld, Snorre Kirk and Morten Schantz.
Drummer Hess, who will be appearing with two bands – Hess/AC/Hess Spacelab and Hess is More – is looking forward to playing here again. “The Pizza Express club is a very nice venue and I feel instantly at home there,” he told LondonJazz. “It has a good, intimate setting, where we will be setting up the band in the middle of the room, a so-called in-the-round concert so that the audience can experience the band visually and sound-wise from various angles. It breaks down the barriers between musicians and audience. It doesn’t happen often there.
“I am doing two different concerts in one day. We will be playing something from the album 80 Years, which is out on the English label Edition Records, which is another local connection. We will also be playing from previous albums and field-testing a couple of new pieces. We are working on some new material but overall the show for Hess is More will be a little of a retrospective.”
Asked to describe the music of Hess is More, the drummer says: “Sometimes I use the term ‘ministry of musical integration’. Some of the musicians we work with are not from a jazz background but from a dance music background. My brother Nikolaj, a pianist, is very much from a jazz background. I am in-between. Ed Thigpen used to say that there are two kinds of music: good music and bad music. There are many different influences and genres coming through, with cult rock, jazz obviously, electronic dance music and elements of folk music, but we hope it is good music.”
Hess says that one of the lessons he took from studying with the late Thigpen was to try to “uncover something”. He is proud to have worked with the drummer who played with so many great 20th-century jazz stars, including Dinah Washington, Lennie Tristano, Johnny Hodges, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.
“I studied with Ed Thigpen in about 2000 and he was an inspiration, both with his playing, which of course I was familiar with already, but maybe mostly with his spirit. He was a very curious musician, all the way to the end. He kept exploring new things with the drum set. He was very open-minded. I had listened to him playing with the Oscar Peterson trio, so I had this idea that he was maybe a little bit of a traditionalist. It was liberating to find him being so curious and always wanting to explore something new. He didn’t talk so much about the old days. He was more interested in where he was now. One day he had a double pedal, which is mostly used in metal music and things like that. It was the last thing I expected. It was beautiful to see how he stayed curious and wanting to learn.”
Hess’s own musical path has been full of musical innovation, something fans will see at the Hess/AC/Hess Spacelab concert (18 October), which features Hess alongside his lifelong friend Anders ‘AC ‘Christensen (on acoustic and electric bass), whom he has known since childhood days in Vejle.
Sounds of Denmark opens with Morten Schantz Godspeed (16 October), the synth-based piano trio who encompass a modern, funk-fusion sound and are hailed as the modern-day heir of Weather Report. On the following day (17 October), the Snorre Kirk Quartet, which features drummer Kirk along with saxophonist Jan Harbeck, pianist Magnus Hjorth and bass player Anders Fjeldsted, will be in action. They have been gaining plaudits since winning Denmark’s ‘Album of the Year’ award for their 2012 debut Blues Modernism.
Japanese-born pianist Makiko Hirabayashi’s trio (20 October) features bass player Klavs Hovman and former Miles Davis Group percussionist Marilyn Mazur. Mazur has a degree in percussion from the Royal Danish Academy of Music and won the Ben Webster Foundation Prize while she was in her twenties. Mazur, a powerful, inventive performer, also recorded with Gil Evans for EmArcy Records.
“Marilyn Mazur is an amazing musician and we are very proud of her in Denmark,” says Hess. “Of course most famously she played with Miles Davis and Jan Garbarek, but she is always very present in everything she does, whether that is local or playing with international stars. She is a really beautiful musician and composer also. She is very natural in her approach.”
The award-winning pianist and composer Kathrine Windfeld returns for the second year with her concert (20 October), which features a young Scandinavian sextet, comprising Jakob Lundbak and Marek Konarski (saxophones), Rolf Thofte Sørensen (trumpet), Johannes Vaht (double bass) and Henrik Holst Hansen (drums).
“Kathrine is great. She has been improving as a composer and a bandleader who has taken a unique path by deciding to start a small big-band on her own, which is no easy task,” adds Hess. “She has built it into something really impressive – so hat’s off!”
Sounds of Denmark was launched in 2016 as a collaboration between JazzDanmark, PizzaExpress Jazz Club and Sue Edwards Management with support from the Royal Danish Embassy in London and Augustinus Fonden. (pp)
Tickets for all October 2019 shows are on sale now.
LINK: Sounds Of Denmark 2019