Review: Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival 2015

Over another long weekend in southern Sweden, Michael Tucker was impressed by the sense of history and the breadth and depth of the 2015 Ystad 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 its artistic director, pianist Jan Lundgren, the programme at Ystad has always had both breadth and depth and so it was this year. Presented in the traditional fine range of both indoor and outdoor venues, with the Continental du Sud Hotel offering a new experience for listeners, 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 Fisher (elg), Hans Backenroth (b) and Kristian Leth (d), to the Sufi-like incantations of Dhafer Youssef and his stirring Birds Requiem set with Kristjan Randalu (p), Phil Donkin (d) and Ferenc Nemeth (d). The sheer energy of vocalist and oud improviser Youssef (pictured right by Markus Fägersten) made him one of three contenders in this year's festival for my personal “ electrifying as Hendrix” award – the others being 10-string mandolin virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda in his set with Bossa Negra, and guitarist John Parricelli, who offered a searing, blues-charged electric guitar solo during a mostly reflective and poetic set from the Liberetto 2 quintet led by bassist and cellist Lars Danielsson and featuring Mathias Eick on trumpet.

The opening day was marked by both the rumbustious fun of the genre-mixing Rad Trads from New York and the contemplative solo moods of Luxembourg pianist Michel Reis, who gave a much-appreciated evening concert in the beautiful St Maria Church. There was also a free outdoor concert from the excellent Norrbotten Big Band from the north of Sweden: their busy festival schedule, under the direction of Joakim Milder, featured a time-twisting concert with Swedish trumpet legend Jan Allan, very much on the lines of their recent double CD together, Jan Allan At 80, and a more generally swinging and crackling session with Dianne Reeves. Ystad has always been about blending the old and the new to fresh effect and it was especially moving to hear Reeves recall her early debts to Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan during a spot-on set which featured plenty of wide-ranging scat from this legendary artist.

Ystad marked the sixth year of what is generally acknowledged as one of the finest festivals today with a book documenting every concert of its first five years. The lavishly illustrated volume ends with a double-page spread by the esteemed Swedish photographer Lasse Seger, showing the Gunhild Carling Band working the streets during the 2014 festival, and Seger's predominantly black and white work could be enjoyed in a well-curated show at the Ystad Art Museum. A lecture room there functions as a great space for more intimate or exploratory concerts and this year, the Adam Baldych Imaginary Quartet from Poland (Baldych pictured left by Kentaroo Tryman) played a compelling set of now lyrical and reverie-rich, now driving material, often with strong folk overtones. This was their Swedish debut and ACT label producer Siggi Loch, who was in the packed house, volunteered to me that he thought this one of the group's strongest concerts to date.

Over the years Ystad has profiled a lot of young, newly emergent talent, both Swedish and international, and often female. If I found trombonist Nils Landgren's “& Friends” set with Rigmor Gustafsson (v), Ida Sand (v, p), Eva Kruse (b), Karolina Almgren (ss, v) and Malin Algren (d) disappointingly tepid, two of the strongest concerts came from all-female international ensembles, both of which showed remarkable élan and togetherness considering the short amount of time they had had to rehearse. The Worlds Around septet, led by Tineke Postma (saxes) and featuring ao Karin Hammar (tb), Simona Premazzi (p) and Sandra Hempel (elg), cultivated post-Shorter, free-flavoured group textures and solos rinsed in a refreshingly tart chromaticism. Another septet, the Sofia Project led by German saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen and with a.o. Ingrid Hagel (vn), Izabella  Effenberg (vib), Ellen Andreas Wand (b) and Dorota Piotrowska (d), interpreted to brilliant effect a suite of lyrical originals from the group, with a flowing potency of both triplet-based and jazz-rock rhythms setting alight an engaging range of unfolding, story-like textures and solos.

I missed Marius Neset's well-received Pinball set, soon tired of the repetitiveness of the over-loud Robert Glasper Trio but loved the following and concluding concert of the festival, the bebop-fired Art of Conversation from the surpassing Kenny Barron and Dave Holland. Played with his regular bassist Mattias Svensson and a wonderful all-female string quartet led by Claudia Bonfiglioli, the tribute by Jan Lundgren (pictured right by Markus Fägersten) to his late compatriot Jan Johansson was my personal pick of the festival: not far behind came superb concerts from Pierre Dørge and New Jungle Orchestra, Richard Bona (in both fired-up Afro-Cuban and ultra-reflective, griot-like mood), Guinga and Maria Joao, Bobby Medina (who presented Lundgren with an Honorary Latino Musician award after he sat in with Medina's excellent band), Viktoria Tolstoy and Mattias Svensson, the sensuous Sylvia Vrethammar and her Jazz Meets Brazil project, Sharon Hall and Mattias Nilsson (with that fine bassist Bo Stief), Swedish vocalist Linnea Hall and her international quartet, and Ewan Svensson. 

Guitarist Svensson's New Project set, with a.o. Mats Vinding (b) and Anders Kjellberg (d), was to have featured John Taylor. Following John's untimely death in France in July, pianist Stefano Battaglio was called in at very short notice and performed well in a set which featured lucid lines from Svensson and some stunning “way out” improvisations from vocalist Diana Torto. Throughout this excellent festival, the weather stayed fine and the music compelling in all manner of register and range. But with the unexpected passing of one of England's finest musicians – who received moving musical tributes from Svensson and Holland – a sad shadow had been cast.

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