Review: Ystad 2015 first concerts

Halfway through a long weekend of varied jazz, Michael Tucker is impressed by the sense of history and the breadth and depth of the 2015 Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival

It’s been a wet and windy summer season for much of Scandinavia but the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival seems to have a permanent magic touch regarding the weather. The sun was out, the Baltic swimmable, and if the wind occasionally caused the stage awnings to flap a little in the outside venues, that only added an extra touch of atmosphere to a fabulously rich and varied programme.

Like the music of artistic director Jan Lundgren, Ystad programming has always had both breadth and depth, a loving sense of history as well as the most creative awareness of the contemporary. This, the sixth Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, was no exception. The music ranged from the deep blues and mainstream values of a tribute session to Billie Holiday led by Lundgren and featuring Karin Krog (v), Harry Allen (ts), Jacob Fischer (elg), Hans Backenroth (b), and Kristian Leth (d) to the world-ranging Sufi-like invocations of Dhafer Youssef and his Birds Requiem set with Kristjan Randalu (p), Phil Donkin (b) and Ferenc Nemeth (d).

In between these extremes lay all sorts of delights. A strong Latin and Afro-Cuban theme in concerts from e.g. Guinga, and Maria João, Richard Bona (pictured above right by Markus Fägersten), Bobby Medina, and Bossa Negra with Hamilton de Holanda (10-string mandolin) and Diogo Nogueira (v) offered complementary contrast to what for me has been the highlight event so far: Jan Lundgren’s Lycklig Resa (Happy Journey) tribute to his legendary compatriot, the late pianist Jan Johansson. Featuring his regular bassist Mattias Svensson and an excellent all-female string quartet lead by Claudia Bonfiglioli, Lundgren played a variety of classic Johansson pieces from the early and mid-1960s, infused with the spirit of Polska and other folk elements. Like the vast majority of concerts this year, the event was sold out. And as also with the vast majority of these concerts the audience went wild with appreciation. Encores - often two - have been the order of the day. Among the other big hits have been Dianne Reeves (pictured above left by Markus Fägersten) with the Norrbotten Big Band (who also featured in a magical set celebrating Jan Allan at 80) and the Jazz Meets Brazil session led by the much-loved Swedish vocalist and potent performer, Sylvia Vrethammar. 

Ystad marked its sixth year with a lavishly illustrated publication documenting the first five years of what is generally acknowledged as one of the finest festivals around today. The book ends with a fine double-page spread by the legendary Swedish jazz photographer Lasse Seger, featuring the Gunhild Carling Band working the Ystad streets during the 2014 festival. Seger’s predominantly black and white work also features in a well-curated show at the Ystad Art Museum.

A lecture room in the museum has come to function as a great space for some intimate and exploratory concerts. This year the Adam Baldych Imaginary Quartet from Poland offered a brilliant, deeply atmospheric set of now lyrical and reverie-rich, now driving and soaring material. The whole was soaked in the sort of contemporary folk overtones that to my ears seemed as much Celtic as Polish. This was their Swedish debut and ACT producer Siggi Loch, who was in the packed audience, volunteered to me that he thought it one of the group’s best concerts to date. The young Baldych (pictured right by Kentaroo Tryman) surely has a great career ahead of him: his superb technique embraces imaginative pizzicato work and a pleasingly poetic sense of texture, as well as the sort of keening, intensely building lines that remind of such previous Polish violin masters as Zbigniew Seifert and Michal Urbaniak.

Over the years Ystad has done much to profile young emerging talent - both Swedish and international, and often female. This year continued the trend. I have to confess I found much of the great trombonist Nils Landgren’s set with a group of young female artists including Eva Kruse, Malin Almgren and Karolina Almgren (the last a fine soprano saxophonist whose work I very much enjoyed at last year’s festival) somewhat tepid. However, two of the very best sets have come from all-female ensembles. The Worlds Around septet featured plenty of gritty, post-Shorter writing and soloing with many a refreshing rinse of tart chromaticism. Another septet, the Sofia Project, led by German saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen, offered a suite of originals from group members where an ever-unfolding potency of rhythmic drive and atmospheric texture complemented lyricism of the highest order. My enthusiasm for this septet’s work was shared fully by Siggi Loch and Bengt-Arne Wallin, the great trumpeter and arranger who was fêted at last year’s festival and who could be seen relishing many an event this year: "These cats can play man, they really have it down!"

Final day delights to come - and to be covered in a later report - include the Lars Danielsson Group and the Kenny Barron and Dave Holland Art of Conversation set. That fine guitarist Ewan Svensson’s New Project was to have featured John Taylor. The set will still happen with Stefano Battaglio. However John’s untimely death means that, no matter how good the weather continues to be, a sad shadow has been cast.

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