Notes of Renewal Resonate at Sweden’s Ystad Jazz Festival

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Vocalist ​Stacey Kent performs at the Ystad Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Josef Woodard)

Internationally, the jazz festival scene has been simultaneously enjoying and struggling through the processes of recovery and returning to regularly scheduled programming after being knocked down or out by the COVID cloud since March 2020. In essence, festivals are now warily blazing paths on a collective comeback trail. That atmosphere of renewal had a special resonance at the Ystad Jazz Festival in southern Sweden, rooted in an idyllic old city on the Baltic known as a resort escape during summer months. Recovery and low-key revelry run through the city’s veins, with worldly jazz as an added bonus and point of focus each August.

This summer’s 13th edition, held Aug. 3–6, demonstrated that the Ystad fest has established itself on the ever-expanding international map of worthwhile jazz destinations.

Though disinclined towards adventurous musical fare, as such, the festival projects a solid musical agenda and vision, this year made manifest in a program with a special spotlight on luminous and original jazz vocalists deserving greater recognition: Stacey Kent with her striking, everything-in-its-right-place eloquence; the wily, witty and soulful Cyrille Aimee; the solid Swede Viktoria Tolstoy; and, in a special post-festival gig, the formidable Dane Sinne Eeg. She appeared with the regional Monday Night Big Band in a renovated “dance rotunda” dubbed Solhällan in the rustically charming agrarian municipality of Löderup, a beautiful drive out of Ystad.

To this already strong list came the late-breaking addition of ethereal musical beauty Ellen Andersson, one of the more impressive new vocalists from the Swedish scene. (Andersson’s opening-night slot was made available when travel snafus forced Kent to perform a revised noontime set on opening day — the best noon concert I’ve ever been privy to.)

Along with a healthy roster of Swedish artists woven into the mix, the festival features marquee artists from America, Europe and elsewhere. To these ears, the strongest of this contingent was master chromatic harmonica player Grégoire Maret, joined by pianist Romain Collin and guitarist Marvin Sewell. Maret, the lyrical virtuoso with singer-like melodic logic and an innate search mode as a player, was in an often introspective frame of mind in a set keying off the distinctive and aptly named 2021 album Americana.

In other musical directions and topographies, oud veteran and longtime ECM artist Anouar Brahem represented an ethnically flavored jazz aesthetic, and Italian accordionist Rosario Giuliani and alto saxophonist Luciano Biondini memorably riffed on “Cinema Italia” at midnight in the ancient Klosterkyrkan (their segment treating Nino Rota’s classic score for Fellini’s 8 1/2 was a festival highlight). The climactic closer of the Yellowjackets handled the populist factor with brio but also folded in a surprising musicality.

A potent cross-cultural exchange and post-Coltrane adventurism arrived when Swedish tenor player Karl-Martin Almqvuist met commanding South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini — a deep history-channeling pact originally arranged via YouTube and social media. Among the several young emerging Swedish artists showcased in the outdoor Hos Morten Café was the refreshingly original guitarist Karin Pilhage, with a flexible, rangy style sometimes echoing early, Enja-era John Scofield.

The friendly charge in Ystad has been led by gifted mainstream pianist and ACT recording artist Jan Lundgren, the festival’s founding artistic director. As pianist, he has a light but sure and flowing touch, and a buoyant presence to match his calm but firm demeanor. To wit: he’s a nice guy and a mean musician, in the nicest way.

Each year, he appears as a reassuring emcee and overseer presence at concerts, and figures into the program in musical terms. This year, he led a tribute to Oscar Peterson in empathetic collusion with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius, mixing taste, heat and conversational ease in a way reminiscent of the Peterson/Joe Pass duets.

On the final day, Lundgren-as-musician returned to lead a mainstream jazz set honoring the 90th birthday of veteran drummer Ronnie Gardiner, who boasts a resume with links to bygone jazz masters but who has lived in Sweden for much of his life and career.

At festival’s end, an unsurprisingly SRO house filled the 1894-vintage Ystad Teater to bask in the Yellowjackets’ ear-friendly post-fusion sound. By this point, 42 years into its history, questions about its commercial-versus-artistic intent and paling comparisons to Weather Report may have subsided and the band’s special chemistry has settled into an accessible — yet also sophisticated — majesty of its own. They play Yellowjackets music, pure and simple.

Tenor saxophonist and sometimes EWI player Bob Mintzer, also pinged as a “guest of honor” at the festival, remains a focal point of the band’s more jazz-rooted expressive aplomb. Young seven-string electric bassist Dane Alderson’s exciting, hyper-dexterous outings may still lack soulful maturity, but that factor is balanced out by founder Russell Ferrante’s ever-melodic and understated approach, while vibrant drummer Will Kennedy keeps grooves fluid and resistant to easy, stock patterns.

As the band launched into the infectious, gospel-tinged power of its hit “Revelation,” we suddenly got the sense of its being an unofficial healing anthem/earworm of renewed optimism after a time of global calamity. It couldn’t have happened in a nicer town than this one. DB



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