Continental shift at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival
This article is from 2009.
There’s excitement brewing at this year’s Festival and much of it is down to another fresh influx of New European Jazz. Kenny Mathieson talks to some key players about tradition, America and toilet paper
While American jazz remains a central plank of the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival programme, its European counterpart is still well-represented. The Festival is an opportunity to both welcome back seasoned artists (or in the case of Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, give a debut to an established figure) and introduce some exciting new names to Scottish audiences. European jazz has grown steadily in both size and significance in the post-war decades. Once a sideshow in which standards of excellence were measured by how close players could get to an authentic American sound, European jazz has developed a distinctive range of voices and idioms that not only stand as a viable alternative to the US mainstream, but also exert an influence on many American musicians.
France, Norway and Denmark score well this year. From across the Channel come Gypsy jazz guitar outfit Les Doigts de l’Homme, guitarist Sylvain Luc and pianist Sophia Domancich who is long associated with the Canterbury jazz-rock scene, and here will collaborate with our own Raymond MacDonald. The route across the North Sea will bring a return for the exciting Norwegian quintet Atomic, while that band’s superb rhythm section of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love will also team up with Swedish avant-jazz star Mats Gustafsson on saxophone in The Thing. Another new name on the roster, the enigmatically named trio Elephant9, completes the Norwegian contingent.
Denmark is also well-represented, with singer Sinne Eeg, the Peter Rosendahl Trio and bassist Chris Mihn Doky (performing with Tommy Smith and pianist Makoto Ozone) all making appearances. Perhaps the most intriguing of the debutants, though, are the acclaimed trio Ibrahim Electric, featuring drummer Stefan Posberg, guitarist Niclas Knudsen and Jeppe Tuxen on the Hammond B3. Faced with a name like Ibrahim Electric, there can only be one opening question for Stefan Posberg. ‘It came from a store in Egypt. There was a long street there with a lot of different stores, and they were all selling toothpaste and toilet paper. Suddenly there was a store named Ibrahim Electric, and we thought this was something special; but that store also sold toilet paper and toothpaste. We found that very hilarious, and we took a picture of the shop and used it on our first CD.’
Which clears up that mystery. The band formed back in 2002, although all three players had worked together in other permutations (‘we criss-crossed in various bands’ is how Posberg describes it). The drummer decided this particular combination had definite possibilities, and has been proved entirely accurate. Their canonical line-up of Hammond organ, guitar and drums replicates the classic 50s soul-jazz set-up favoured by the likes of Jimmy Smith and Les McCann, and that is certainly inherent in the band’s pulsating music, but it would be a mistake to think that is where they stop. There is a whole lot more feeding into their trademark approach, one that is defined by a simple watchword: energy.
‘We have a lot of different references in common, but the main thing for us is energy in the music,’ Posberg confirms. ‘We are all very much influenced by a mixture that includes The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, the John Coltrane Quartet and Booker T and the MGs, mixed with some surf, Afro and punk influences. That is the only label I can put on the music; somewhere in the mix of all that is where we come from, but the energy is the foundation.’ This will be their first appearance in Scotland, and they are looking forward to it. The band prefer to operate as a trio, but also have two wonderful live albums available with the iconoclastic American trombone player Ray Anderson: a dynamite combination. ‘A few years ago I got the opportunity at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival to put together a concert where I could pick whoever I wanted to play with,’ Posberg explained. ‘I thought the combination of Ray and Ibrahim Electric would be really nice, so I called him and he showed up. I met him at a session in Denmark a couple of years before that, but we hadn’t played professionally together.’
That American linkage permeates their music, but I wondered if there was a Danish influence in there somewhere, in the way that the likes of Jan Garbarek and Ketil Bjørnstad have drawn on their native folk music? ‘That is always a tough question. I am forced to say yes, but I can’t figure out what it is; it’s difficult to put a label on it. Denmark is like a melting pot of all kinds of influences.
We’ve had a lot of mainstream jazz here and musicians like Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster lived in Copenhagen.’ As aspiring musicians all three members of Ibrahim Electric loved their standard jazz. ‘Perhaps the Danish influence might actually be the strong tradition that came from the jazz scene at the famous Montmarte in Copenhagen, and the way it reflected that mainstream American scene. That history influenced us to be well informed about the traditions of jazz music, so maybe the Danish influence is actually more like an American influence.’
It is an intriguing slant on a perennial issue of just how European is European jazz. The emergence of a distinctly continental sound is often ascribed in part to a sense of place and local influence, and that perception has seemed especially true in Scandinavia. It’s a question I have put to a lot of musicians over the years, and no real definitive consensus has emerged. Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, for example, gave a qualified assent. ‘Where you grow up affects your tastes and shapes your frame of references. But Norway is very much a part of the global community although it lies on the outskirts of Europe. We have gained inspiration from the global cultural scene through traveling, through immigrants enriching our own culture, through the media, and of course by listening to music from all over the world. I still think that the space of Norwegian rural environments, the darkness of our winters, and the connection to a heritage of folk music, might certainly account for something in our music.’
Faced with a similar question, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson captured a thought that I suspect many musicians might echo. ‘I cannot really say,’ he mused. ‘I have always been interested in classical and folk music and all kinds of things, but it’s not so much that we take parts of that into the music; it is more that we use the language of those things and mix it in with our own understanding of American jazz. I think that is what I usually think of when things like a Nordic sound are mentioned. The American jazz tradition is not so rigid for us as it is for American musicians, and we can be freer in our approach.’
That sense of freedom is certainly reflected in Ibrahim Electric’s freewheeling synthesis, and in the music of many of the other bands coming to the Festival. It should make for another exciting immersion in the new wave of European jazz.
For full details of all shows, go to edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk, 0131 473 2000.