Jet lag is fading. Before memories of the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival do likewise, here are brief impressions of events that I have not yet mentioned.
[New segments of this report were added on August 9]
364 nights a year, wearing his traditional uniform and playing a valveless horn as long as he is tall, Ystad’s municipal trumpeter (pictured right) assures the town that all is well. One night each summer, the honor goes to a musician on the festival’s roster of performers. This year, the Seattle trumpeter and bandleader Bobby Medina sent his tones wafting across Ystad’s rooftops. Rather than repeat himself, Medina did what his jazz nature suggested; he improvised four different trumpet calls and aimed them successively south, east, north and west from windows in the bell tower of St. Mary’s Church on the central square. Among the townspeople and festival patrons listening in the street below were Medina’s wife and her Swedish family. She is originally from Ystad.
The next day in the Per Helsas Gård courtyard Medina played a concert with the band he calls Between Worlds (pictured above). Their extensive repertoire included his original compostions, an Astor Piazolla tango and Luis Bonfa’s “Morning of the Carnival” from the film Black Orpheus. In a flugelhorn solo on his danzón “Forever My Love,” Medina’s eclecticism and wit produced allusions to “Laura,” and “Mexican Hat Dance,” among other quotes. In addition to his solos, there was effective work by the rhythm section of pianist Irving Flores, bassist Pablo Elorza, drummer Santiago Hernandez and percussionist Francisco Medina, the leader’s son. Medina’s composition titled “Paradiso” had intriguing changes of feeling through the song’s three sections. His front-line partner, the Brazilian saxophonist and flutist Guto Lucena, was powerful on both instruments. He played a standout flute solo on “Power Surge,” Medina’s tribute to Sergio Mendes.
In the ballroom of the Ystad Saltsjobad hotel, four other Brazilians, the quartet Bossa Negra, played an hour and a half of the music that in the 1960s moved offshore from Rio, Salvador and Recife to captivate the world. The remarkable mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda and vocalist Diogo Nogueira drew the capacity audience to them by what may seem a simple means—enjoying their work, enjoying one another, and radiating the enjoyment. The apparent ease is deceptive; their level of artistry comes after years of hard work. This was not pop bossa nova, but stuff of the core samba tradition, performed with technical skill and a great sense of fun. de Holanda is a virtuoso of the ten-string Brazilian mandolin known as the bandolim. Nogueira is a Brazilian television celebrity whose exposure has given him millions of fans. As a singer, he has won four Latin Grammys. Bassist André Vasconcellos and drummer Thiago de Serrinha round out the quartet, providing solid support and occasional solos. Their teamwork and mutual admiration played an important part in the success of the concert. Their deftness in a tricky rhythmic treatment of Ary Barroso’s classic “Brazil” made the beat-skipping seem normal. de Holanda’s and Nogueira’s announcements in Portuguese were to an audience primarily of Swedish speakers, but communication was complete—as it was with this Brazilian audience in 2012 (we have no video from the Ystad concert).
With Sweden’s Norbotten Big Band, American singer Diane Reeves covered a range of Great American Songbook standards. Norbotten director Joakim Milder and his musicians supported Ms. Reeves with the sensitivity and flexibility that have made them one of Europe’s most successful large jazz ensembles. The band showed its power in an opening blues with commanding solos by tenor saxophonist Mats Garberg and alto saxophonist Håkan Broström. Broström’s playing stood out in several solo features. Other impressive moments:
—Ms. Reeves’ scatting and the purity of her final high note in “Frenesi”
—her dramatic vocalese in a piece with African and Spanish overtones that incuded an exchange of phrases with flugelhornist Dan Johannson
—her pure diction and control in “After Hours,” sung in tribute to Sarah Vaughan
—the luxurious carpet of sound the band put under her in “The Windmills of Your Mind” that led her to say to them and the audience, “If you ask me to come back, I will.”
Swedish guitarist Ewan Svensson and his Ewan Svensson Project went on as scheduled despite the loss of one of its members. The band’s English pianist, John Taylor, died in July at 73. Stefano Battaglia, a fellow ECM artist, stepped in. Svensson’s music fits the cool, Nordic ECM mold to a degree, but his Ystad Theater concert was less sedate than much music in that genre. Svensson’s carefully crafted arrangements created a distinctive ensemble sound and space for him and the other soloists to generate heat in their improvisations. The great Danish bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Anders Kjellberg helped to create that heat, as did the Swiss-Italian
vocalist Diana Torto. She is a soprano dynamo who sings with absolute pitch and concentrated energy. Beginning the set, Svensson, Battaglia and Vinding soloed on Svensson’s “Silencio.” Ms. Torto was stunning in Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own,” John Taylor’s “Between Moons” and several Svensson compositions. Svensson’s “Before Eleven” featured effective solos by Battaglia and the guitarist, a wild vocal explosion from Ms. Torto and a Kjellberg drum solo to the accompaniment of Svenssons guitar chords.
Sweden’s oldest movie house, Scala, doubles as an Ystad festival concert hall. Washington, DC, singer Sharón Clark appeared there with a quartet headed by pianist Mattias Nilsson. The band included drummer Rasmus Kihlberg and the formidable Danish bassist Bo Stief. Ms. Clark has a reservoir of power that she holds in reserve, to the benefit of her expressiveness. Scheduling meant that I had to leave before she finished her set, but what I heard convinced me that this is a singer whose ability should make her far better known. She provided “Give Me the Simple Life” with a lift that went to the heart of the song’s optimistic message. Scat-singing, that notorious trap for so many vocalists, enhanced the performance. Scatting again on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” she managed to work the word “bebop” into the scat vocabulary without falling into corniness. Stief, with his huge bass sound, soloed to great effect on the piece. Crediting both Frank Loesser and “Mr. John Coltrane,” Ms. Clark did justice to Loesser’s and Jimmy McHugh’s elegant ballad “Say It (Over and Over Again).” In a Frank Sinatra tribute, she gently swung “The Song is You” and “If They Asked Me, I Could Write a Book.” Nilsson’s piano solo on the latter interpolated bits from several songs, notably and cleverly the “heaven, I’m in heaven” phrase from “Cheek to Cheek.” I was headed for the door as she began “Wives and Lovers” and hated to leave it behind.
In his Ystad concert, pianist Robert Glasper spent several minutes constructing a fantasia on “Stella By Starlight.” It was a work of the imagination employing speed, tempo changes, advanced piano technique with ingenious runs, and melodic diversions that included a bit of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The performance told a story, and it primed listeners for more of Glasper in that inventive frame of mind.
Alas, he devoted virtually all of the rest of the set to vaudevillian schtik in which he engaged in awkward banter and produced disjointed music. Much of the time, he left bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid looking bemused. Glasper presented Prince’s “Sign of the Times” as a set piece tossed off without much interest. He constructed a brief, virtuosic ditty based on a 1-6-2-5 “We Want Cantor” pattern, but did not develop it. He broke into a quick series of Bud Powell impressions, but abandoned it. During a long Archer bass solo, Glasper left the stage, to return during an equally long Reid drum solo. The audience gave the trio a standing ovation and demanded an encore. It was Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” with hints of the earlier “Stella By Starlight” brilliance, but in between was a long dry spell.
Penultimate mention in this series of reports goes to pianist Jan Lundgren. Six years ago he co-founded the festival with Thomas Lantz, who serves as its president. Among his other functions, as artistic director Lundgren chooses the festival’s musicians. For his second 2015 concert at the Ystad Theater, he invited Norwegian singer Karin Krog, American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, Danish guitarist Jacob Fischer, Swedish bassist Hans Backenroth and Danish drummer Kristian Leth—the diversity yet another manifestation of the festival’s international spirit.
In the 100th anniversary year of Billie Holiday’s birth, the concert featured songs from her recorded repertoire. It began with a set of instrumentals in which the horn players and rhythm section made it clear that they had come to swing. It also included Lundgren’s poignant ballad performance of “Lover Man.” Allen long since melded the Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Ben Webster influences of his youth into a distinctive way of playing. His rhythmic drive, Webster gruffness and saxophone whoops of joy in “When You’re Smiling” had Lundgren beaming. Fischer soloed with enthusiasm and humor throughout the evening, reveling in his frequent exchanges of phrases with the others.
At 78, Ms. Krog sang with the taste, musicianship and intelligence she has displayed since her professional debut as an Oslo teenager in 1955. Her versions of “I Must Have That Man,” “How Am I To Know” and other songs bore occasional vocal fillips—a catch in the throat here, the downward manipulation of a note there—that may be inescapable for anyone singing Holiday material. But her canny, straightforward style and knowing interaction with the instrumentalists are what made her Ystad performance memorable. She and Allen were full partners as he played an obbligato behind her on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” In “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” when she sang the line, “If I go to church on Sunday,” Lundgren interjected a perfect set of gospel chords. The key changes in that piece, and the tag ending the musicians developed, highlighted the joy these six people felt in working together.
Ystad was the first stop on a summer European tour by pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland. For 90 minutes, the duo held their audience in concentration so intense that the crowd often forgot to perform the jazz ritual of obligatory clapping after solos.
Introducing “Segment,” a 1949 Charlie Parker tune based on “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” Holland said, “It’s so fresh it could have been written yesterday.” He and Barron each played solos on the piece that lasted several choruses, yet seemed too short. That was the case with one tune after another, whether a standard or one of several original compositions. Barron’s “Spiral” and “Calypso” and Holland’s “In Your Arms” and “Waltz for Wheeler” received the same rapt attention as more familiar works like “Beautiful Love” and “In Walked Bud.” Musicians who find the most interesting notes in—or out of—a chord sequence, both men are likely to opt for the unexpected, as Barron did by ending “Beautiful Love” on a chord that no one, he perhaps included, might have anticipated.