Horncraft: ‘Inside Looking Out’ (interview with Håkan Nyqvist)

Swedish multi-instrumentalist Håkan Nyqvist was for many years an in-demand big band trumpeter, most notably with the James Last Orchestra – in fact, a semi-viral video making the rounds on social media of Derek Watkins performing Maynard Ferguson’s notoriously difficult rendition of “Gonna Fly Now” also features Nyqvist in the trumpet section. In addition to trumpet, Nyqvist is an accomplished French horn player and this instrument has become his focus in recent years, alongside composing and arranging. A primary outlet for both is his band Horncraft, which released an album featuring Stan Sulzmann back in 2002. Now, over 20 years later, Nyqvist is releasing a follow-up. Interview by Charles Rees

Håkan Nyqvist. Publicity photo.

LondonJazz News: You play both trumpet and French horn – that’s quite rare – what’s the story? 

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Håkan Nyqvist: When I was a kid my father told me to play the violin and as a teenager in school I played trumpet. Later when I moved from Örebro to Stockholm to study music, a teacher told me “if you play horn you’ll have a better chance to get into the music college”. I loved the sound of it, and so he fixed me up with a horn and a teacher from Stockholm Philharmonic. I studied with him for two years and got into the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. 

I still played the trumpet in a commercial band. After a few years, I was playing in the Gugge Hedrenius Big Blues Band. I also played in a theatre and was a substitute in the Airforce band, sometimes on trumpet but most of the time on horn. When I joined the Swedish Radio Jazz Group, I also doubled on trumpet and horn.

In 1976 I started with the James Last Band on trumpet, and at the same time I was offered a job in the Swiss Radio Band on both trumpet and horn. I managed to keep both jobs for a couple of years but left Switzerland in 1978 and moved back to Sweden. I stayed with the James Last Band where I met some fantastic British musicians, many of whom became very close friends: Stan Sulzmann, Derek Watkins, and also Kenny Wheeler for a couple of tours.

LJN: What led you to form Horncraft?

HN: In 1979 I was working in a theatre playing the musical Cats, and there were four horn players sharing the two french horn chairs. We decided to meet on our day off and play some horn quartets; some classical repertoire, but we also tried some “jazz quartets”. I started to write a few simple blues themes and jazz standards. We invited a saxophone-player friend of mine to come along, later we added a rhythm section and then we found some small restaurants to play in. Four French horns, saxophone and rhythm… we called it Horncraft. 

After some time the group changed to three horns, trombone, sax and rhythm. I sent out two demos in order to get some gigs, and one led to the opportunity to record an album. Horncraft played in Jazzclub Fasching but didn’t get much more work – we were all busy making a living and we couldn’t play regularly, so would do projects instead.

LJN: Can you talk about the members of Horncraft – what about their playing do you enjoy?

HN: The pianist Torbjörn Gulz and the bassist Filip Augustson have both been with the band for more than 25 years, and they know each other well. They are so musically versatile and give the rest of us great support… and they play great solos!

Peter Danemo is now the regular drummer with the band, but he was away at the time of this recording. He recommended a student of his, Henrik Jäderberg as a substitute, who did a wonderful job. Sven Berggrén on trombone has also been in the band for over 25 years – he is a great player, an interesting soloist…

My son, Erik Palmberg, is on trumpet. He is an exciting soloist and I’m very proud to have him in the band. I love the way he plays with Örjan Hultén (on saxes) and it gives me the opportunity to write classical trumpet/tenor lines in the music. Örjan is also a very productive musician and his quartet is a band within this band – he, Torbjörn, Filip and Peter form the much acclaimed Örjan Hultén Orion Quartet. Örjan is a fantastic soloist who makes lovely music of everything he plays. 

The two other French horn players on our first record do not play today. But I’m very happy to have French horn player Eva-Tea Lundberg in the band. She has a wonderful sound, understands the timing of jazz and delivers melodies in a lovely way. There are three French horn parts in the book, but Staffan Lundèn Wellden who plays the third part was busy, so on the recording dates Eva-Tea and I recorded it where necessary.

LJN: Have your experiences playing in bands such as The Swedish Radio Jazz Group or the James Last Orchestra helped to inform your writing?

HN: Yes, I like the writing of Kenny Wheeler, Thad Jones and Gil Evans very much and it was a treat to play some of the arrangements that Gil Evans wrote for Miles Davis. The Radio Jazz Group also did a couple of productions with George Russell, and his writing is very special. What they all have in common is something that makes even the third trumpet part fun and important to play.

LJN: It sounds like Kenny Wheeler is a major influence in your writing…

HN: Yes, absolutely! There is a certain kind of melancholy in his music that I like a lot. His writing is so wonderful and inspiring to play. I think “Opening” on his album Music for Large and Small Ensembles is a gem and a true masterpiece. So complex and yet so easy to listen to…

Kenny did a couple of productions for the Radio Jazz Group, and we also did a short concert tour… to play his music five nights in a row and to hear him solo every night was a treat.

LJN: The first Horncraft album was in 2002. And only now is there another one. What happened and what were you doing in the meantime?

HN: Well, it’s like life came in between… The album got good reviews but I couldn’t get many gigs with the band. Everybody was busy making a living… good work was hard to get for me, so I found a part-time teaching job in the area where I had bought a summerhouse a few years earlier – I moved there in 2005.

In the small community where I was teaching, I met another teacher who was also a poet and we started to do performances together – I enjoyed that a lot. It also inspired me to write new music for Horncraft that could be used in a project for jazz and poetry. I got a new band together and we played at a small theatre in Stockholm. 

Eventually, the jazz and poetry project ended. Then I started rehearsing a new project that we called the “Kärrtorp Sessions” after a Stockholm suburb where we rehearsed – there are a few clips on YouTube. That led to the opportunity to play at the Stockholm Jazz Festival once a year, and also at Jazzclub Fasching in Stockholm and a few other places. All the players in the band supported and inspired me to write more, and to think of getting an album out. It took me a while to get it together – the pandemic put everything on hold for about two years – but now it’s here!

Today, Håkan Nyqvist focuses on writing and playing French horn. His new album with Horncraft, Inside Looking Out, will be released on 21 April.

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