Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Swedish Jazz Celebration

Lulea. Loo-lee-aw. Say it often enough, and with an appropriately lascivious lingering on those lingual glides, and you start to sound like old Humbert Humbert harping on his Low-lee-tah. The Swedish Jazz Celebration, an itinerant annual festival held this year in Lulea, may be attractively underage, but it has all the promise of real staying power.

I always judge jazz festivals less by the program, because it’s a law of life that the gig you opted to skip for dinner always turns out to be the blue-chip one where the surprise guest turns up to set the stage alight, than by the added value of ambi.ance, cuisine and spirits. This can be on the debit or credit side. For instance, at the Islay Jazz Festival in Scotland you get a nip of Black Bottle whisky at every gig, and home baked cakes at Portnahaven. On the other hand, every time I went to the old Bracknell Jazz Festival I came away with a bout of food poisoning, while North Sea always induces acute agoraphobia. At Lulea, you get a free dogsled ride out on the ice, which is almost as bracing as the drive or cycle across Islay.

I’m laboring the similarities between Islay and Lulea because they have several things in common, as well as some salutary differences. For a start, they’re both in out-of-the-way places. Islay requires a two hour ferry trip. Lulea is tucked away in the north-western corner of the Gulf of Bothnia, and in March the sea is still frozen over. They’re also both more than usually committed to a balance of young local talent and distinguished visitors. What separates them most obviously is a different approach to programming. Islay presents geographical challenges, but also the possibility of clearing your head of one performance before you plunge into the next and with minimal overlap in the schedule. Lulea is the opposite. Restricted to a single, magnificent venue rather than a scatter of village halls, distilleries and private houses, it present the classic dilemma of whether you dive out of one gig after half an hour to make the start of the next one or see it through to the end and risk coming in on the middle of a classic.

Funnily enough, I met Islay organizer Roger Spence on the street in Lulea and he was saying – or rather he did when his lips unfroze – that he’d rather enjoyed the different experience of three very different concerts in succession, in his case Oddjob, pianist Bobo Stenson and Atomic saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist. I took a slightly different talk, building in a sorbet-like walk out in the cold before I moved from one hall to the next in the magnificent new Kulturens Hus; large hall, recital room, art gallery, foyer and restaurant were all in operation, sometimes at more or less the same time, and one of the many impressive things about the set-up was how hermetic the sound-proofing proved to be, with barely a bass rumble leaking from one room to the next.

Spence has been closely involved in bringing Swedish musicians to Scotland, which inevitably throws into focus one of the less visible but no less obvious differences in jazz provision between the two countries. There has been a thriving scene in Sweden since the 1920s but the “local” talent has generally stayed put. The current generation of Scottish players - who like much of what we do, in sports, politics, whatever, are more than punching their wait - are the first who’ve been able to consider making a career at home, rather than moving south. In Sweden, there is the obvious pull of Stockholm and Gothenburg, with clubs like Fasching in the capital, the headquarters of an estimable array of record labels – Dragon, Imogena, Caprice, Moserobie and others – and closeness to other aspects of the cultural infrastructure. On the other hand, and somewhat unlike Scotland – yet – Sweden has got its cultural devolution pretty much right.

There is a pious cliché here, heard whenever someone decides to up sticks from the city and live somewhere remote. People invariably ask if you won’t miss out on things, theatres, clubs, cinemas. At which you put on a serious face and say “We make our own entertainment up here”. There’s a grain of truth in it. The year I left London I was at more concerts, saw more plays and films than I had when living three miles from Leicester Square, largely because in the metropolis you spend an undue amount of time held in gravitational suspension between two equally appealing possibilities, whereas in the boonies you make do with and make an effort for whatever rolls into town. And you make your own entertainment.

* * *

This is pretty good going. Six paragraphs in, but despite some de rigueur references to alcohol, no mention yet of money. Few musicians poormouth quite so egregiously as British jazzers, north and south of the border. When I was doing regular radio interviews with jazz players for the BBC, I used to say that you could always predict that while the Americans, even those who were making a marginal living, would simply talk about getting by, getting on and getting the work out there, the Brits would invariably complain, long and bitterly, about funding.

So it bears mentioning that the Swedes’ buoyant and venturesome spirit isn’t just a matter of national pride and dogged determination. It is underwritten handsomely. In Stockholm I spoke to Bengt Stroglik of the cultural ministry – he was also present in Lulea as co-organiser of the Jazz Celebration – and asked him to give me occasional breaks if my skin developed a greenish tinge. Stroglik isn’t one of those, like his Norwegian counterparts once did, who insist on the existence of a “national style” in jazz. “No, apart from that mixing of jazz with folk music, which you hear with Lars Gullin and afterwards, I don’t think there is. We’re very different from the Norwegians in that respect. They have developed something and gone on to conquer the world with it. We have tended to concentrate on doing it here.” There’s an easy, bottom-line explanation, and starting with the bottom line it is €1.2 million per annum invested in jazz by government. Approximately half of that comes direct from central government, with the remainder raised in parity by regional authorities and then parcelled out through the jazz federations.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Lulea weekend was the showcase of young talent – very young talent – throughout the Kulturens Hus. Another, though already widely known, was the presence of the Norrbotten Big Band, directed by Tim Hagans and last month fronted by Randy Brecker. It’s hard to imagine a comparable area in Scotland, or England, and presumably quite hard to imagine any non-campus town of a comparable size in the US being able to sustain a big band of this quality. It isn’t entirely down to money. There is also a great deal of devoted effort involved. But it helps.

Dogsled rides apart (though it was a buzz), how did the Jazz Celebration play out? By and large, it was a success. Brecker, who looks ever more Buddha-like, was well inside his comfort zone, playing Brecker Brothers material (and Vince Mendoza arrangements) in amongst the more recent stuff. With a solid band behind him, there was less reason to suspect a paucity of solid improvisational ideas. Also in the big hall, singer Lina Nyberg and Brazil Big Bom did little to impress, largely because she looked and sounded out of place, a touch mumsy and safe even for this mostly local and older crowd. Pianist Bobo Stenson, who’d picked up an award at the opening dinner, showed that he doesn’t just do ECM-friendly arpeggios and limpid soundscapes but can blow with the best of them. More impressive still were his sidemen. Anders Jormin is one of the few European players who can make the double bass sound like a concert instrument and an old-fashioned bull fiddle in the same number. His solo spots were beautifully shaped and perfectly proportioned, while percussionist Jon Fallt, less well known than namesake Jon Christensen, found an impressive array of sound-colours to put round Stenson’s lines.

There was one big disappointment. Pianist Lars Jansson is one of the most reliable trio players around at the moment, perhaps a little eclipsed by the trendier profile of EST but still a formidable presence. His “Where Is The Blues?” project made use of a small wind and string ensemble, but the mix was uncertain and the results were oddly cinematic, reminiscent of the Sideways soundtrack. Fortunately, Oddjob had come along to blow. Playing the sunken art gallery space, frontmen Goran Kajfes (on trumpet and bass drum, and wearing impressive trousers) and saxophonist Per “Rusktrask” Johansson were attractively rowdy, while pianist Daniel Karlsson did a magnificent job of keeping the energy up and adding some subtle harmonic colouration. Almost as entertaining was blind pianist, Moog player and vocalist Mats Oberg, who had Sweden’s other great bassist Filip Augustson in his group. They were in the smaller recital room and one of the perils of that booking and this kind of festival became evident when the venue half-emptied halfway through as everyone made for the next event. Singer Anna Christophersson and dynamite accompanist Steve Dobrogosz (forever associated with the late Radka Toneff) had turned in a lovely set in the same room, though as always with the pianist you were left wondering why he doesn’t do more on his own account.

There was plenty of other stuff and typically I missed what were said to be the late night highlights but the overall impression was that a music scene that has the confidence and the backing to stick close to home has the capacity to generate work of real standing. Just up the road a ways from central Lulea is the Gammel Stad or “old town” abandoned when the harbour silted up. It’s one of Sweden’s ancient pre-Reformation church towns (now a World Heritage Site) where the imperative of worship brought country people into a loose township that encouraged music-making, community spirit and related crafts. It’s a by no means irrelevant model for the jazz scene as well.

She may look frosty on the outside, but Lulea has real heart and fire and she’ll draw me back, my Bothnian Low-lee-tah.

Brian Morton©2007

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