Analyzing the status and “map” of the European jazz festival circuit is an inexact science and art, but general impressions and quantifiable statistics help to validate the state of things in the festival world. That said, the 8-year-old Ystad Jazz Festival in Southern Sweden—just a quick hour’s drive over the engineering marvel of the Øresund bridge from Copenhagen—is staking its claim on the expanding and competitive network of jazz festivals across the Atlantic.
Numbers are up and the future looks promising: The festival, led by noted pianist Jan Lundgren as artistic director, broke its attendance record, with over 10,000 tickets sold and several sold-out houses over the five-day stretch of the fest. Awareness of this small but dense and impressive festival is growing among artists, festival regulars and the press.
In general, Ystad is steadily cementing its place on said “festival map” as one of those feisty young newcomers on the scene becoming ever more rooted in global festival consciousness.
As witnessed again in the recent edition, the festival’s appeal starts with the site itself, a lovely, Medieval town on the Baltic with historical attributes and structures (we’ve seen the town as the locale for BBC’s Wallander series and as a location in numerous films). There is charm in hearing concerts in such venues as the courtyard space of Per Helsas Gård, the 17th-century Hos Morten cafe and the reverberant chapel of the 12th-century abbey, the Klosterkyrkan (where pianist Bobo Stenson and saxophonist Lennart Åberg were highlights).
Traditionally, the festival’s ceremonial kickoff involves placing a musician at the top of the St. Maria kyrka (a church built circa the 1240s), replacing the nightly “all is well” horn call of the “Tornväktaren” with a jazz soloist on high. This year, the honor went to gifted Japanese alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato, to the pluming tune of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
By comparison, the central Ystads Teater—ground zero for the festival and its operations—is relatively young, with its 1894 vintage, but is a warming, old-world 400-seat theater. When the music is great here, as with the festival closing set by Joshua Redman’s group Still Dreaming, all feels right with the world.
Ystad is a rare festival lent curatorial continuity through the lead of an artistic director who also happens to be a well-regarded artist (though much better known beyond the U.S., so far). Lundgren brings to the programming some of his own tastes for more melodic, accessible and feel-good elements in jazz (which made the rare “avant-garde” moments, as in the Carsten Dahl Experience set, especially refreshing), as well as a strong showing of fine pianists.
The program included a solo piano series at the Klosterkyrkan, with easy-does-it Norwegian Bugge Wesseltoft, salty-smart Dutch vet Louis van Dijk and the unapologetically sentimental and crowd-pleasing virtuoso from Finland, Iiro Rantala. Lundgren also features numerous acts on ACT, the German label which has released many of Lundgren’s recordings.
His own musical presence is also incorporated into the proceedings each year, with a variety of projects attesting to his versatility. This year, we heard Lundgren in a pleasant Swedish hero confab with witty trombonist Nils Landgren, a show dubbed “Lundgren meets Landgren,” and an appearance by Lundgren’s Potsdamer Quartet, with saxophonist Jukka Pekka, bassist Dan Berglund (formerly of e.s.t.) and the elastic and tasteful young drummer Morton Lund. Playing most music from a new album recorded in Berlin (close to Potsdamer Platz), Lundgren demonstrated his characteristic musical approach, with playing and writing of a clean-burning and neatly-shaped sort, sometimes suggesting the qualities of a Swedish Vince Guaraldi.
Less officially, we also heard the affable and nimble pianist Lundgren burning it up at the vibrant after-hours jam sessions down at the Marina, such as one thrilling, one-upping tete a tete around 2:30 a.m., with the impressive jam session leading pianist, Sven Erik Lundqvist, one of the festival’s secret weapons/treasures. Lundqvist is an excellent, exploratory and sometimes mischievous player who had a chance to stretch out on his own at Has Morten during a set by his group, with impressive Swedish saxophonist Karl-Martin Almqvist. On the subject of Swedish musicians deserving wider recognition, alto saxophonist Klas Lindqvist dazzled with straightahead jazz-aligned intelligence and facility, as did his bandmate, guitarist Erik Söderlind.
Two of the “headliners” fell into the category of Spanish-flavored “fusion” of the acoustic variety—Al Di Meola and pianist Hiromi—both of whom favor hotly machined note barrages and an accent on tight, intense energies, while eschewing introspection or lyricism.
Both of those artists also held true to a perhaps unofficial theme this year—the art of the duo. Di Meola was joined by Sardinian guitar wizard Peo Alfonsi, and the highlight of their set was a beautiful new arrangement of the underrated Beatles gem “Because,” from Di Meola’s Lennon-McCartney tribute project. Hiromi was joined by and engaged in musical gymnastics with the uniquely dazzling harpist from Colombia, Edmar Castañeda, defying our expectations and making new inroads on his instrument.
The list of empathetic duos here—aside from “Lundgren meets Landgren” and the fascinating Stenson-Åberg meeting—included the accordion/bandoneon and cello teaming of Klaus Paier and Asja Valcic (reminiscent of the Anja Lechner and Dino Saluzzi pairing) and the organic Swedish/Danish bass-guitar dialogue of Hans Backenroth and Jacob Fischer (ending with a hypnotically slow take on “Joy Spring”).
From the more mainstream American camp, drummer legend Al Foster’s band summoned up artful energy, and the band led by trumpeter Tim Hagans (who has various Swedish ties, going back to the late 1970s) and 69-year-old tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi (sounding fine and powerful) dealt out some assured, if not particularly adventurous, goods. In other American news, Deborah Brown, better-known in Europe than in her own country, gave us the single-most affecting song of the festival during her Ella Fitzgerald tribute: Her potent and poetic voice-plus-strings take on “Cry Me A River” inspired tears all around the Ystads Teater, including the singer herself (and this crusty scribe).
One clear pinnacle of the festival came when Stenson, truly a national treasure of Swedish jazz musicians and the best pianist in a piano-filled Ystad this weekend, met Lennart in the ancient church. The pair recorded a fine album in 2003, and obviously connect on a deeply musical level, as Stenson meandered meaningfully, though remaining fairly subdued for the occasion and the reverberance of the room. Stenson steered the duo through the domains of Wayne Shorter (“Nefertiti” and “Footprints”) and a twilight-spirited encore of Monk’s “Crepescule With Nellie.” Various originals and spontaneous detours were broached along the unpredictable path, a blast of yearning instability leading to its own musical logic.
From the ACT contingent, the starring “act,” to these ears, was the flexible trio of masterful Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset (whose band played a stunning set at the Ystads Teatre in 2015), seasoned bassist Lars Danielsson and young drummer Lund. Drawing on the fine album Sun Blowing, the trio combined musical heat and plenty of atmospheric and genre-crossing grace, taking poetic advantage of the openness of the “chordless trio” format.
More, please—of the “Sun Blowers” and, more generally, of this lovely, hardy up-and-comer on the festival map. DB