Snowy scenes, big expanses, beautiful nature everywhere… Scandinavia is often described by the same old clichés. Jazz is no exception. We tend to talk about Scandi jazz like it’s one big genre. However, each country has its own distinct style; Denmark’s scene rivals traditional North American jazz, Norway tends to get experimental and Sweden treads the line between the two. Nordic musicians have been adding their own unique touch to the genre since the 70s and the younger generation continue to sculpt its future. Here, we zoom in on Scandinavian jazz in 10 albums, offering a glimpse into a discography that’s as wide as a fjord.
Keith Jarrett – Belonging (1974)
Ok, no. Keith Jarrett doesn’t have any Viking ancestors. Though, when he formed his famous European quartet in the mid-70s he brought together two Norwegians and a Swede. With Jan Garbarek on saxophone, Palle Danielsson on double bass and Jon Christensen on drums, he recorded Belonging in April 1974 and My Song in November 1977. He then spent 1979 touring with them (documented by three albums: the crazy Nude Ants released in 1980, Personal Mountains in 1989 and Sleeper in 2012). For lots of jazz fans, this spaned the first time they had heard Nordic jazz musicians. It was a true quartet – not just three backing musicians for the Allentown pianist. It was like the opposite of his American quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, being much more attracted to avant-garde sounds and improvisations. On Belonging, Keith Jarrett floats down a melodic river with his Scandinavian partners. Sometimes it’s mystical, sometimes it’s imbued with gospel (Long as You Know You're Living Yours) or lyricism (Blossom). Garbarek’s European essence and playing style blends perfectly with the piano and every soloist is given the chance to show off their virtuosity (there’s an incredible solo from Danielson on Spiral Dance). While it’s rooted in American tradition, this technique gives you a glimpse of the European phrases, expressions and discourses. It’s up for debate whether, in the short lifespan of this quartet, Keith Jarrett was in fact the most European of them all…
Terje Rypdal – Waves (1978)
Terje Rypdal released this eclectic record the year he turned 30. It reflected the style he had already been developing over six albums on the Munich-based label ECM. Recorded in his hometown of Oslo in September 1977, Waves displays the Norwegian guitarist’s electronic language. He juggles his various influences, from pure jazz to rock to New Age. His six string paints vast soundscapes. It’s like an enchanting whale song. Rypdal’s jazz fusion wasn’t solely inspired by his Anglo-Saxon peers (though he was hugely influenced by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew). Surrounded by bassist Sveinung Hovensjø and drummer Jon Christensen, Rypdal plays on your senses. Perhaps in an attempt to crush the cliché of the soaring, mystical Scandinavian virtuoso (echoing the landscape) Terje Rypdal invited Palle Mikkelborg along. The Danish trumpet player was the central figure of the revolution that was taking shape here. After the fairly cheerful intro set to an unexpected drum machine (Per Ulv), the guitarist goes back to his contemplative sound (Karusell) before heading towards rock (The Dain Curse). His work with Mikkelborg was astounding and continued throughout his career.
Last century, well before ECM became obsessed with Scandinavia, a Danish double bassist managed to hypnotise the international jazzosphere to the point of becoming one of the most sought-after sidemen of his generation (scooped up by legends like Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Albert Ayler, Joe Pass, Michel Petrucciani, Tete Montoliu and Oscar Peterson - for whom he became a regular bassist). Dying from a heart attack at the age of just 58 in 2005, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (or NHØP to his friends and family, and everyone else for that matter) was more than just a safe bet. Legend has it that this bearded giant turned down the offer to join Count Basie’s big band at the age of 17, choosing instead to be a regular accompanist at Café Montmartre - Copenhagen’s most important jazz club - and join the Danish Radio Orchestra. Influenced by Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus, he was an incredibly elegant player. Despite having many influences, his sound was truly his own and he regularly recorded under his own name. His records became more and more daring. This particular album was recorded for the label SteepleChase during the summer of 1979 in quartet with Dave Liebman on the tenor and soprano saxophones as well as the flute, John Scofield on guitar and Billy Hart on drums. With impressively firm base lines, clearly articulated phrases and beautiful harmonies, NHØP wrote four of the five compositions, adding a rare theme originating from Danish folklore (Jeg Gik Mig Ud en Sommerdag). Most importantly, Dancing on the Tables shows off his complex but approachable improvisations and his ability to change his style while always being himself. NHØP was a giant. Literally and figuratively.
Jan Garbarek was without a doubt the first Scandinavian musician to develop a style that clearly stood out from traditional Afro-American jazz. The reverberant, haunting sound of his sax… His hypnotic, unique phrases… The Norwegian musician who was born in 1947 plunged himself into a whole range of musical contexts, rubbing shoulders with musicians as varied as Keith Jarrett, Zakir Hussain, Egberto Gismonti and the British members in the Hilliard Ensemble. It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice exhibits Garbarek’s mercurial, luminous ethno-jazz. He recorded the album in December 1984 for ECM under the name Jan Garbarek Group with David Torn on electric guitar, Eberhard Weber on bass and Michael Di Pasqua on drums and percussion. The saxophone’s lyricism finds a perfect counterpoint with the exuberant, radical guitar (Bill Frisell often comes to mind). Weber and Di Pasqua’s rhythms act as the perfect centre of gravity for the compositions, mixing jazz, rock, New Age and folk. The pieces were inspired by poems written by Swedish Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer. It’s fitting - poetry is probably the closest art form to Jan Garbarek’s music.
Nils Petter Molvær – Khmers (1997)
As a kind of stand-alone record in ECM’s huge catalogue (yes, ECM again), Nils Petter Molvær’s debut album caught the jazz world’s attention upon its release in 1998. Before that, Petter Molvær had been known for his work with the group Masqualero. With a muted tone that brings Miles Davis to mind, the Norwegian explored unchartered territories that mixed jazz, world and electronic sounds. As a big fan of Miles’ electronic period, Molvær said that he wanted to merge Bill Laswell’s productions, Massive Attack’s trip hop, tribal world rhythms and the drum’n’bass/jungle that was big in England at the time. With the help of samples and rhythm boxes, the Scandinavian’s avant-garde compositions still oozed melodic sensuality. And without scratching too far beneath the surface, you can even find some fragments of ECM’s DNA in this innovative album which - despite the extensive electronic sounds – is still a masterpiece of sensuality.