Copenhagen Jazz Festival

A marvellous, magical experience
Charles Lloyd live at Jazzhouse (Copenhagen Jazz Festival) by Jonas Pryner
The day the Copenhagen Jazz Festival begins its 33rd year, the Danish capital is barraged by two months’ worth of rain in two hours. The big outdoor gigs in the city’s beautiful and iconic amusement park, Tivoli, are cancelled. Cellars everywhere are flooded, ruining countless homes and businesses – you can see piles of dead possessions lining the streets over a week later. Trains are unable to run because water has flooded the tracks and zapped out the electric cables that power the whole system. Buses are cancelled and traffic lights across the city fail. Hotels have no hot water. It feels, nearing midnight on July 1st, rather post-apocalyptic, and you can imagine, were this a high budget Hollywood disaster film, the civilian chaos and panic, framed in cinematic widescreen, that would be spreading through the streets.

But – this is Denmark. And while the city hadn’t seen a downpour as bad as that for at least six decades, despite the need to reschedule the outdoor Tivoli gigs, for the ten day Jazz Festival, the volume of water that fell in those two hours – and sporadically in the days that followed – was more than matched by the live music on offer. Everywhere, from small and intimate club gigs to large free outdoor shows, high profile concerts at the beautifully designed Opera House to a bohemian warehouse venues on the outskirts of the city, Copenhagen was consumed by jazz of all varieties. With over a hundred venues taking part and well over a hundred different artists playing every day it’s important to pick and choose carefully. There’s a hell of a lot – and probably something special, like Sonny Rollins – that you can’t or won’t ever make, so the ones you do really matter. That said, just wandering through the city and hearing music emanating from a bar or in the distance on one of the free stages is one of the joys of the festival, too. Strike a balance between the two of them and you’ll absolutely make the most of what’s on offer.

The overriding highlight of 2011 was surely Charles Lloyd, who played the JazzHouse on the Wednesday, right at the midpoint of the festival. A couple of hundred people packed into the venue – which had just finished its daily session of ‘Unpretenious Swing Dance Lessons’ outside – to watch the saxophonist engage in a mesmerising performance. Aided by pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and the superb drumming of Eric Harland, his experimental, avant-garde but always melodious tunes bristled with an exciting energy that infused the room from the moment he walked onstage to the standing ovation as the second set finished. The interplay between the four was truly exceptional, each disparate part singularly enthralling, but all coming together as a whole to create something that felt truly magical. Lloyd played both tenor saxophone and flute with tenderness and grace, recalling the bohemian haze of his Sixties heyday, something epitomised by the enchating rendition of recent composition Tagi. Sitting at the piano next to Moran, Lloyd recited a meditative mantra based on the Bhagavad Gita, sparse piano note emphasising the spiritual resonance of his words. Not only was it one of the best concerts of the festival, but one of the best that these eyes and ears – usually more focussed on rock/punk/indie/whatever – have seen and heard.

Nothing else quite came close to that epiphanic concert, but the quality of everything else was monumentally high. The next night, at the hip, but rather less salubrious Mayhem – an experimental music venue outside of the city, the Trulofa Trio attempted to reach a similar spiritual plain with their experimental, free-form jazz. It was far off the mark compared to the previous night, but it was interesting nonetheless . Soon after, Swedish avant garde saxophonist Mats Gustafsson reinvented the way in which his instrument was played, using it as a microphone and a drum, screaming into it and tapping it with his hands as well as making the most caterwauling, mindblowing noise in the traditional way. Not, perhaps, something to listen to at home on the stereo, but fascinating to watch in the (very visceral) flesh.

Elsewhere and elsewhen, Gary Burton was mesmerising on the vibes at the JazzHouse on the first Sunday of the festival, while in Greyfriar’s Square, Christina Dahl provided an experimental saxophone soundtrack for the searing sun that was beating down on the crowd on the Wednesday. Just down the road the day before, on the other free, open-air stage at Frueplads, Ok Nok…Kongo, a Danish-based jazz collective, delighted the avid audience, although somewhat disappointingly, star saxophonist John Tchicai made just the briefest of appearances. Still, when he was onstage, his playing was marvellous. Offering up an alternative to the traditional jazz, San Francisco DJ/producer Eskmo played a late night set inside the impressive space of Copenhagen’s central and Japan’s DJ Krush entertained a packed audience at the surreal Vega – a wonderful venue trapped in the Sixties with vague hints of the Overlook Hotel about it. One of the most intriguing performances was on Friday, by drummer Andrew Cyrille at Skuespilhuset, part of the Royal Theatre. His hour-long solo drum performance stripped back to the bone the core of his compositions and revealed the detailed and intricate thinking behind playing the drums. At 3pm the next day, in the beautiful setting of the National Art Museum, septet Anderskov Accident flitted between melancholy sentimentality and freeform experimentalism, ending with an exuberant burst of noise that ricocheted around the huge wide space they were playing in.

The biggest draw of the festival was, arguably, pianist, Keith Jarrett, who played with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette on the Saturday evening at the Opera House. Technical troubles plagued the first set and clearly annoyed Jarrett, whose sour mood infected the entire building and the atmosphere of the gig. He refused to play any ballads, made quips about the venue and left the stage visibly displeased. However, during the interval, the crew changed the piano and he returned in a noticeably relaxed state – so much so that Peacock was even able to crack and maintain a smile. Not only this, but Jarrett played beautifully – thoroughly redeeming himself for the dreary first set. Remarkably, he even returned for two encores, which thoroughly thrilled the crowd.

Really, though, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival isn’t just about individual concerts and performers. It’s about the way in which the city comes thoroughly alive in celebration of a music that has deep roots in the city. That legacy is found everywhere - in late night venues such as La Fontaine and Jazzhus Monmatre, where jam sessions take place into the early hours of the morning, along the canal of Nyhavn, where buskers entertain outdoor diners as they eat, and the many other waterways that give this city its sense of such sublime charm. By the end of the ten days, the rain that had decimated the city at the start had disappeared, but its effects were still clearly visible, as buildings continued to pump out the water and restore some semblance of normality over a week later. The festival may not have been able to provide a solution to the tragic catastrophe, but the music that permeated the city for those ten days certainly helped to soothe the wounds it opened. A marvellous, magical experience.

Words by Mischa Pearlman
Photo by Jonas Pryner

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