Aarhus Jazz Festival Is a Danish Haven for Inspired, Virtuosic Jazz


Brian Blade performs at the Aarhus Jazz Festival in Aarhus, Denmark, on July 12.

(Photo: Poul Nyholm)

First-time visitors to Aarhus, Denmark are well advised to first head up to the panoramic perch of the “Rainbow Panorama” ringing the top of the looming Aros art museum. A walk around the circular, shifting spectrum of colored glass walls, designed by Olafur Eliasson, offers an aerial overview of the splendid architecture of this second largest city in Denmark, a harbor city (Aarhus means “mouth of the river”), with a population of roughly 350,000.

Not incidentally, Aarhus also boasts an impressively diverse and fast-growing jazz festival, one worth putting on the map of noteworthy European musical gatherings. The city is a three-hour train ride from Copenhagen, whose massive and well-established international jazz fest ends just as Aarhus begins. There are procedural similarities between the two: Each has a core contigent of programming at the center of a radial program, which incorporates satellite curators from different venues.

A couple of days spent at the Aarhus festival, which came on the heels of my stint at Copenhagen’s fest, made for a fascinating compare-and-contrast experience, not to mention a happy indoctrination into the spirit of Danish jazz—and Danish jazz appreciation.

Now in its 28th year, the Aarhus festival is moving up in the world, and next year’s event comes with the heightened cultural profile of the city’s status as the European Cultural Capitol in 2017. Intrepid festival director Ilse Vestergaard has long nurtured and recently expanded the festival, jumping from 85 events last year to some 300 this year. Shows take place all over the map of the city, with two large temporary tents, smaller rooms and cultural institutions, including the charming 18th-century Helsingør Theater in the “old town” settlement of Dem Gamle By.

This was the inspired site of a concert by the chordless trio KCB—Danish reed player Benjamin Koppel with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade. The trio makes a supple, tasteful and virtuosic noise, with a conversational ease. Their stylistic range encompassed Blade’s musing take on “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” to a tribute to veteran jazz arranger Sy Johnson.

In a touching moment, Colley expressed his honor in playing in this historic space, as well as his gratitude for the opportunity to play on a bass given to him by the late Danish bassist and jazz scholar Erik Moseholm (The instrument, manufactured in the year 1750, made it ten years older than the historic theater.) Colley then speculated that the bass had performed in this room many a time.

In the major, upscale “Musikhuset Aarhus” venue, acts including saxophonist David Sanborn and vocalists Lizz Wright and Melody Gardot brought in large crowds, if not always scoring large artistic points. Gardot’s show demonstrated how far she has drifted from her early jazz roots. She still commands her strong, inviting voice, but shamelessly slides into distracting show biz tricks—excessive singalong schemes, a Rahsaan Roland Kirk-esque double horn solo by reed player Irwin Hall. But she belongs to that category of “superstar” bookings for jazz festivals, an important asset for the survival of modern jazz fests.

Over at the tiny but hip Ambassaden venue, tucked on a side street close to the massive Domkirke, a late afternoon set found Alex Jønsson’s Spy On Your Friends trio dispensing intriguing variations on the guitar trio format. Jønsson, a lyrical and refreshingly twisted player, interacted empathetically with acoustic bassist Jens Mikkel Madsen and drummer Andreas Skamby, on material with some intriguing harmonic and metric side trips from tradition.

Later that night, one of the late-night jam sessions burnt the midnight oil in the rustic Ny V58, in a hip part of the city, with a steady flow of good and mostly Danish players keeping some of us up too late.

My vote for most bracing show of my too-short visit to Aarhus goes to the solo performance by Danish alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, a mostly free improvisational player whose dynamic intensity and sonic exploratory instincts make for an experience at once captivating, cathartic and enigmatic. She framed her set with wild, bursting energy waves, using different mouthpieces to produce screams from the soul or other points of her being.

Piercing, cranium-shaking tones were made more intense by the intimacy of the space. Elsewhere, she deployed unorthodox accessories—including a paper cup on the bell— to explore subtler harmonics and overtones.

Her mighty performance took place in the Udshillingsstedet Spanien. It’s a long-standing, hard-to-find-but-worth-the-effort gallery/experimental music space down by the harbor, a setting suitable for a film-noir set. When in Aarhus, for the festival or otherwise, do stop by.

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