Ingrid Øygard Steinkopf is a twenty-five-year-old Norwegian pianist and bandleader headed for great things. In Norway, as in most other places across the globe, jazz has fallen victim of hard times. Record stores are closed, streaming revenues are moderate to microscopic and, worst of all, stages both big and small have closed. Some festivals may be postponed until this time next year – once again – or at the very least scaled down. It’s easy to lose heart. But once you have found the music, there is no reason to despair. So says pianist Ingrid Steinkopf, in this interview originally done for Norwegian jazz publication Jazznytt (*) for International Women’s Day 2021.
Ingrid Steinkopf is originally from Vaksdal in the west of Norway and now lives in Trondheim in the middle of the country, where she previously studied at the world-famous Jazzlinja at NTNU. She is one of Norway’s many very promising musicians and composers, with her distinctive bands Briotrio and BounceAlarm both having brilliant debut albums out recently. Steinkopf is also already the recipient of the Norwegian Jazz Forum big band award for her work with Starlight Big Band, which consists exclusively of women.
Ingird says: “There is of course a lot of frustration in the music community, but here in Trondheim we have actually started with some concerts again now. Admittedly, the audiences can only be small for the moment, but it will at least be music! I was involved in signing a petition in the media for young musicians who are struggling during the pandemic, with little income to show from before and without opportunities to do anything this year. It’s depressing. At the same time, when during a survey I was asked if at any time I had considered quitting and doing something else with my life, the answer was clear – there was no alternative!”
Dealing with music is an important part of the meaning of life for many of us. Steinkopf sees the value in combining the poetic with the pragmatic: “I read a concert review of a band here in Trondheim recently where it said something like, ‘This was music that the musicians had to make because it burned inside them. Not to keep the lights on at home or to fill stadiums, but because their lives would have been less perfect had they not done so.’ I thought that was nice. The goal is to master the combination between the pure joy of the art and maintaining a daily work ethic and thinking professionally. I’m a pretty structured person, so I’ve made it so far.”
The Norwegian system for jazz is a well-oiled machine, with special attention on talents in education, collaboration between festivals and organisations, and generally a lot of cultural policy work on issues such as gender balance and musicians’ rights.
“Some people think that we educate too many musicians in Norway compared to the number of jobs that exist, and it is true that it sometimes feels as if there are many fighting over the same gigs,” Steinkopf admits, adding, “At the same time, those who really want to can make it. In Norway, we are good at taking care of each other, both organisationally and on a more personal level. Jazz is characterised by an inclusive community.”
Despite her young age, Steinkopf has already been able to share her musical experience with younger musicians.
“I’ve taught students aged 16 and up at VGS in Molde, and of course, there will be some who drop out or change paths. But even if you end up in a completely different place in life and work on other things, it is very useful and educational to understand music and to play with others. Almost as if there is an element of wisdom,” Steinkopf muses.
Steinkopf’s songs and playing style are engaging, they make you stop and listen. Briotrio’s extremely charming, self-titled debut album is part of a mischievous Norwegian piano trio tradition after Moskus, Close Erase and Svein Finnerud Trio, with even greater elements of folk music melodies, singing and humming. With song titles like ???, it’s clear they don’t take too serious an approach to jazz history.
“The most important thing for this trio is having fun with music, rather than approaching it as a prestigious project,” she says. “Everyone contributes. It is irrelevant for me to call anything the Ingrid Steinkopf Trio – this is something we do together. Isn’t that a bit in the nature of the trio format? Whether writing the music or dealing with the admin side of things, everyone grabs a task. That’s how to make something nice together.”
Doing paper work, managing, booking, doing press, smiling on social media, producing and making the music itself… there is a lot involved in being a musician these days. Steinkopf also finds time for another band, the slightly more American-sounding sextet BounceAlarm, which debuted last year with the sprawling album Bouncing Through Some Banging Tunes. Prior to this, the band was a participant in the Nordic Jazz Comets at the Barbican in London in 2018. Allaboutjazz.com wrote that: “Many jazz genres could be name-checked as the group changed between whiplash bop breaks, detailed and restrained cool jazz, cooking hard bop and rock energy.”
“BounceAlarm is a joint project with saxophonist Elisabeth Lid Trøen, and the other boys in the band, of course. I also play a little flute here, so the idea was to write for the brass, and connect it with the rest of the band. What kind of music it is? I’ll call it jazz.”
Ingrid Steinkopf recently received the Norwegian Jazz Forum’s big band award, and it is somewhat unusual that it goes to such a young musician. What is it that attracts her to big band music?
She explains: “I am fascinated by the idea of big bands, arranging and orchestrating many voices, and the fact that each voice is so important, that exactly your voice is needed here. And of course all the artistic possibilities you have with doubling the saxophones, with muting the trumpet and trombone, and that you can combine the instruments in so many ways… I also like to think about the entertainment aspect, and how in the 30s and 40s this was dance music. I’ve tried to dance Lindy Hop to this music – it swings fiercely! I think it is good to appreciate this in addition to the large, modern works. It is nice to work with and play music that has different uses.”
In addition to exciting events and even elements of rap, the Starlight Big Band distinguishes itself by having a young and female ensemble.
“It was a bit random really. I got an opportunity to put together a project at Dokkhuset in Trondheim in 2018, and I was inside my big band bubble. They wanted a new perspective and were looking for ideas,” Steinkopf remembers. “Dokkhuset’s producer Arild Schei suggested: How about putting together a project with only women? Would there be enough people? We just went for it, and managed to fill the band at the first concert, and then the rest took care of itself. Now we have formed a board and got it into more orderly forms – it is a project with potential. But we don’t want to make it all about the fact it’s women in the band, the most important thing is that it is good music.”
Steinkopf also likes to look back for inspiration: “There was actually a tradition for this. In the 1940s, there were several larger bands with only women in the lineup. These were bands that got room when the men were sent to the war as entertainment or soldiers. Then there was suddenly wroom in the music and in society for women, but when the war was over, it was it unfortunately also over for these bands.”
The gender-political aspect of jazz music in Norway is something that first came gradually, and then suddenly. People have become more aware of all the major biases that have long existed in jazz.
“It’s a bit like the saying we learned from BLM: “educate yourself”… there is so much you may not think about, but fortunately we are starting to become more aware of such questions now,” she reflects.
When it comes to the future vision for her own music, Steinkopf is clear: “I want to contribute good arrangements and creative music to a versatile big band ensemble, while I continue to cultivate the smaller formats in the trio and sextet. And in general work with music in a more collective way.”
This article has been published in the following magazines as part of an IWD collaboration to highlight young jazz and blues female musicians across Europe: Citizen Jazz (Fr), Jazzaround (Be), Jazz’halo (Be), Jazznytt (No), London Jazz News (UK). #Womentothefore #IWD2021
(*) Read the original interview in Norwegian on Jazznytt [add link]