Review: Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival 2014

Michael Tucker is delighted by another bumper year at Ystad, featuring standout performances from Kristin Korb, Joshua Redman and Enrico Rava

Jazz Journal readers will be aware of my enthusiasm for the Ystad, Sweden festival, initiated in 2010 by Jan Lundgren (pictured right) and directed and delivered by him in collaboration with the festival's president, the indefatigable Thomas Lantz - to say nothing of the many volunteers (120 this year) who do so much to help make the festival an especially friendly and enjoyable experience for the visitor.

This, the fifth incarnation, had everything – including the chiefly excellent weather – which has made the previous years so memorable, and then some, with a record 6,000 tickets sold before the five-day event kicked off. Doug Ramsey, the award-winning writer who along with JJ's Mark Gardner furnished the extensive sleeve information on All By Myself, Lundgren's latest recording for Dick Bank's Fresh Sound Records, was in town to cover the music for The Wall Street Journal and report on the state of contemporary jazz in Sweden. As Ramsey said to me, “Jan's long done a great job here. The Baltic location is superb and the range of characterful, intimate venues second to none. There's such a good balance between major names and up-and-coming talent, all with the sort of breadth and depth of musicality – including plenty of welcome surprises! – you would expect to be emphasised by a musician of Jan's pedigree. And while the festival has got bigger over the years, it's not too big, thank goodness! There's none of that 'supermarket' feeling that, unfortunately, has come to mark some other festivals.”

To celebrate its fifth year, the festival produced its most extensive programme – and biggest brochure – to date. The brochure included visual documentation of the wealth of music Ystad (a town of around 20,000 population) has been able to offer: from, e.g., Quincy Jones, Hugh Masekela, Arild Andersen, Richard Galliano, Claire Martin, Harold Mabern, Kenny Barron, LaGaylia Frazier, Tommy Smith, Lars Danielsson, Elise Einarsdottir and Bengt Hallberg to Pat Martino, Paolo Fresu, Toots Thielemans, Terje Rypdal, Viktoria Tolstoy, Clarence Penn, Tomasz Stanko, Youn Sun Nah, Rigmor Gustafsson, Ulf Wakenius, Dave Douglas and John Surman – and that's just for starters.

This year, as previously, plenty of welcome exposure was given to vocalists of the superior class of, e.g., Dianne Schuur, Sinne Eeg (pictured left), Hannah Svensson, Lily Dahab, Hanna Söderkvist, Josefine Cronholm (her vocalese in Marilyn Mazur's Celestial Circle group with John Taylor and Anders Jormin at times practically shamanic) and Miriam Aïda (who shone in altoist Fredrik Kronkvist's fiery, Coltrane-fed Afro-Cuban Supreme set). As well as the Danish Eeg's knock-out, electrifying concert with her trio at Ystad Theatre, and Svensson's engaging and wide-ranging "Standards and More" outdoor concert with leader and harmonica player Filip Jers and the XL Big Band, I was especially taken by the blend of tradition and modernity explored by Portuguese singer Cristina Branco.

Like the spectacular night-time audio-visual performance at the harbour by pianist Stefan Rusconi's trio and the Sardine Sauvage dancers, or the very different offering at Ystad Art Museum of reverie-rich tone poems by the Smoking Mouse duo of accordionist Christophe Girard and brass specialist Anthony Caillet, Branco's emotionally charged Fado concert at Ystad Saltsjöbad exemplified Lundgren's willingness to integrate “at-the-edge-of-jazz” music into a programme distinguished overall by its resolute commitment to core, yet evolving, jazz values of an essentially modernist – and both harmonic and modal – persuasion. Such values were epitomised in a fine piece by the excellent bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb during her popular trio set at Per Helsas Gård: following her rolling “Kind of Blue” pizzicato bass introduction, Korb's vocals moved seamlessly between some measured James Brown-like testifying and Irene Kral's signature piece Better Than Anything: delicious!

Aware of jazz history as he is, Lundgren has always been conscious of the need both to cherish and to make that history new, getting the music played by, and across to, a new generation. Two concerts in particular testified to Ystad's commitment to the ongoing relevance of matters (ostensibly) past. One was the excellent Ellington Sacred Concerts set at the beautiful Santa Maria Kyrka, where pianist Anders Ekdahl and his seven-piece band joined forces with the Eva Ekdahl choir to stirring effect, with various takes on the Freedom! theme as arresting as a moving rendition of Come Sunday. The other was the outdoor concert “Down Memory Lane” given by the Swedish Statesmen Jazz Group at Per Helsas Gård (pictured right). Such quality material as Song For My Father, For All We Know, Green Dolphin Street and Scotch And Water was well served by a splendid swing/bop octet driven by that ultra-reliable drummer Ronnie Gardiner – the subject of a fine feature article in the October/November 2013 edition of Orkester Journalen. Violinist Gunnar Lidberg's energising, sometimes Stuff Smith-like figures were as enjoyable as the soulful trumpet of Bosse Broberg and leader Kurt Järnberg or the diversely inflected saxophones of Eric Norström and Roland Keijser, the last-named doubling on flute.

Building on previous years' ventures, plenty of space was given to jazz for children, including a major concert with Georg and Sarah Riedel and the Bohuslän Big Band. A different sort of younger generation could be seen relishing the three nights of (free) jam sessions which took place at the Bryggeriet bar and restaurant just around the corner from the festival's main venue, the Ystad Theatre, with Joshua Redman, Grégoire Maret and Lundgren himself all participating in extensive late-night sessions driven by a range of mostly young, chiefly Swedish talent.

Much richly variegated pleasure of the paying kind was offered to packed houses by major world exemplars of the music such as Abdullah Ibrahim, John Scofield (pictured left), Marilyn Mazur, Roy Hargrove, Charles Lloyd and – especially – Joshua Redman and Enrico Rava. Redman closed a 30-day tour with a spectacular performance, his renditions of Stardust and Bebop furnishing two of the absolute highlights of the festival. Rava moved from ravishing free ballad playing to staggered riffs and driving tempi with the overall poetic assurance of Nino Rota or Federico Fellini: trombonist Gianluca Petrella and drummer Fabrizio Sferra were outstanding in this aptly named Tribe quintet. Such strongly contrasting, equally vivid paradigms of contemporary American and European improvisation will live long in the memory. However, for all such long internationally acclaimed brilliance, for me one of the most affecting sets of the festival came from the cool, young and as yet relatively little-known Swedish quartet led by local pianist and vocalist Fanny Gunnarsson, with Karolina Almgren (ss), Kristian Rimshult (b) and Hannes Olbers (d).

Appearing at one of Ystad's smallest and most charming venues, the outdoor Hos Morten Café, Gunnarsson and her fellow-Swedes played a variety of original, post-Monk, technically assured yet sparely rendered, poetically engaging material from their strikingly good debut album Same Eyes As You – recently produced by Jan Lundgren for the Volenza label, along with the scarcely less enjoyable Each Little Moment by Hannah Svensson (a standards-rich, sparkling outing on which Lundgren appears) and Things Change by the all-Swedish John Venkiah Trio. In a well-received set at Ystad's Scala Theatre, Venkiah mixed elegantly turned vocals with his post-Monk-and-Jarrett pianism to fine effect; at the same venue, fellow-Swede, modern mainstream trumpeter (and occasional vocalist) Björn Ingelstam and his part-Danish quartet also impressed. So too did Swedish pianist and vocalist Caroline Leander and her Colours in Motion quartet, with some ringing, funky lines from electric guitarist Magnus Lindeberg helping get the final Sunday programme off to an energising 10.30 am start. Earlier in the week, I was energised in a more subtle way by a freshly conceived set from the philosophically inclined Swedish vocalist Isabella Lundgren, at Per Helsas Gård – where Finnish altoist Jukka Perko and his now coolly swinging, now gently deconstructive quartet with Teemu Viinikainen (elg), Ville Herrala (b) and Teppo Mäkynen (d) also shone.

Apart from his participation in the jam sessions, Lundgren himself appeared twice at the festival: in his “Jan Lundgren invites” spot with harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, bassist Jesper Lundgaard and drummer Alex Riel, and – at the festival's late-night, concluding concert – with the legendary Bengt-Arne Wallin and the Bohuslän Big Band, who complemented Lundgren's current trio with bassist Mattias Svensson and drummer Zoltan Csörsz. The first concert was richly enjoyable, with Lundgren delivering a penetrating solo reading of Monk's Midnight and clearly relishing meeting up again with former trio partners Lundgaard and Riel, while Maret impressed in both full-on Coltrane-ish mode and through the sort of spare and wistful romanticism which informed the delightful encore that was Ponta De Areia from Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer recording.

The second concert, “Swedish Folklore NOW!”, was pure magic, from first note to last. Csörsz and the Bohuslän's drummer Göran Kroon evinced a fine understanding, as did bassists Svensson and Yasuhito Mori, clearly enjoying their interaction as they helped drive folk-touched music of endlessly intriguing rhythmic shifts and subtly layered voicings. Far from a straightforward (!) re-reading of Wallin's long-famous Old Folklore In Swedish Modern recording from the early 1960s (touched on by Brian Morton in his Dear Old Stockholm article in Jazz Journal 06/14), these freshly configured charts had been in preparation all year, with the Ystad set followed a week later by a concert at Skansen, the legendary outdoor venue in Stockholm. Apart from its intrinsic musical value, with Lundgren conjuring many a rhythmically adroit and evocative phrase, the Ystad concert offered the perfect opportunity to pay tribute to a man who has done much to help the festival acquire such considerable prestige, both nationally and internationally, as it has done in its first five years. And so it was with considerable pleasure that, on behalf of the festival, Thomas Lantz made Bengt-Arne Wallin (pictured right) a Lifetime Honorary Ambassador of what is surely one of the best things to have happened on the jazz festival scene for many a year. Here's to Ystad 2015!

Photography by Markus Fägersten (including trailer image of Enrico Rava)

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