A Snapshot of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival

This year the Copenhagen Jazz Festival has celebrated its 40th anniversary.  It’s an amazing festival, surely the biggest in the world.  I couldn’t find a figure for the total number of gigs and I suspect nobody has had the courage to attempt to count them all.  I arrived on the Wednesday around the middle of the 10-day festival, and I counted 161 gigs on that day with an amazing 27 gigs starting at 8pm.

The festival takes place all around Copenhagen in concert halls, clubs, cafes, restaurants, bookshops, museums, chapels, media centres, the open air etc. etc.   Getting to gigs needs to be planned carefully, but it is a wonderful way to get to know the city, including many areas outside the city centre that are off the tourist track.

I was there for just two days, so this is very much a quick impression of the festival with a few comments on the bands I heard.  My main conclusion is that it is vital to plan one’s day, especially as the smaller venues fill up very early.  I was the guest of Jazz Denmark and they had worked out a tight programme focussing on interesting Danish bands, so the planning had already been done for me.

First up was Jeppe Zeeberg with his modestly named band The Absolute Pinnacle of Human Achievement playing at 4pm in BLOX, a large arts and media centre near the waterfront that houses the Danish Architecture Centre.  The band played a kind of free funk, but with excellent compositions from Zeeberg.  The room was large but a good sized standing audience was in attendance.

Then off to the Design Museum to see Sissel Vera Pettersen, a solo artist focussing on vocals and electronics with just the one short outing on saxophone.  This was a beautiful ambient set that I found totally absorbing.  The concert was part of the mini-festival within the overall festival named the Spacehouse Series.  Apparently all participants in that series had been asked to include in their set a version of either What A Wonderful World or Blowing In The Wind.  Sissel chose the latter and gave a beautiful version of it that brought out the full meaning of the words and which I found captivating.

The next gig was some way out of the city centre in the Østre Chapel in the main cemetery.  This was an attractive chapel, but one which has not been used for 70 years; apparently bodies used to be piled up in it before burial!  This was the venue peter bruunfor Peter Bruun’s All Too Human, a quartet with Bruun on drums, Marc Ducret on guitar, Kasper Tranberg on trumpet and Simon Toldam on keys.  This was a fantastic concert with a strong focus on Bruun’s compositions.  The language was essentially that of free jazz, but within the context of a structured approach involving rather more composition than improvised solos.  Bruun gave a fascinating insight into his writing process when he introduced one tune by telling the audience that the composition came directly from his transcription of a solo by Ducret that Bruun had heard at a concert given by Big Satan, the band that Tim Berne leads with Ducret and Tom Rainey.  There had been a certain amount of banter about the tune with Tim Berne claiming – I assume in good humour – that the tune should really be his, and Ducret being unhappy at playing a tune based on a solo of his that he felt had several mistakes.

The final gig of the night took place in a former train or tram station, Lygten Station, now a nicely informal club just right for the heavy jazz rock approach of SVIN.

Day 2 started early with a showcase for the Kutimangoes band at a small venue in the former Meat Packing District, an area which is now dominated by arts venues.  I had heard the band in Poland at the JazzArt Festival in Katowice; I much preferred the Copehagen set in which the band were clearly going deeper into West African music and producing a more unusual and more attractive blend of jazz and African music than many of the jazz + Afrobeat bands.

Back at BLOX Selhventer, a four piece group with two drummers, trombone and saxophone plus electronics really impressed with a groove based improv.  Then The Horse Orchestra in the small and intimate Mellemrummet venue were good fun.

The final gig of my short visit was very much a theatrical performance under the direction of a theatre director, a designer and a stage designer with the aim of breaking away from traditional forms of presentation in jazz.  The project Hess Is More: Apollonian Circles 7 was part of a 10-day series of concerts in the festival involving the musicians, the directors and the designers.  The event took place in a hesssmall room with a large dining table in the middle with places set, candles on the table and everything seemingly ready for a banquet.  The musicians were all dressed in white robes with a black sash; they entered the room one by one and invited several members of the audience to join them at the table and have a glass of wine.   There then followed a series of musical events around the table and then on the table carefully avoiding any contact between the robes and the candles.  The music moved from vocals to passages led by percussion to some free playing.  I loved the approach of creating a situation for music very different from that of the concert hall, but I remained uncertain about the actual music.  Much of it was excellent, but I still felt something was lacking.

This short visit was overall a very rich experience even though I only had two days at the festival.

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