John Scofield and Bobo Stenson Engage Big Bands at Umeå Fest


John Scofield performs with the Danish Radio Big Band on Oct. 24 during the Umeå Jazzfestival, which ran Oct. 23-27 in Umeå, Sweden.

(Photo: Erik Sjöström )

Perched about 400 miles above Stockholm, the cultured university town of Umeå hosted its namesake festival, curated by longtime director Lennart Strömbäck, Oct. 23-27.

Set mostly at the Umeå Folkets Hus, a downtown compound with multiple venues of varying sizes, crowds lingered in-house for hours to get out of the cold and into a vibrant house of jazz and related music. Keeping with festival tradition, however, the event began in the large symphony hall complex, the NorrlandsOperan, with the premiere of Umeå-based drummer Petter Berndalen’s regionally flavored, minimalist folk-rock piece, Umeå Meets Umeå, with the Norrlandsoperans Symfonieorkester.

But the 52nd installment of the festival tended many jazz byways: An American contingent followed convention with Ralph Peterson’s robust but unflinchingly mainstream Art Blakey tribute, the neo-hard bop gusts of trumpeter Theo Croker and a performance by seasoned fusion guitarist Scott Henderson. More avant-garde impulses—and some of the weekend’s best music—filtered into smaller rooms, including engaging free solo piano sets by Sten Sandell and Lisa Ullén, and a jazz-compatible dose of Indian carnatic music by violinist Lalitha & Nandini.

Still, the clear point of focus here was on significant big-band projects, each representing different facets of the scene, which runs deep in European and Nordic countries. The 2019 festival’s trilogy of big band outings neatly reflected various approaches—work written for a guest performer, arrangements of a visiting artist’s music and music built up for a specific project.

Opening night brought a special tribute to eminent Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, 75. The Norrbotten Big Band offered two sets of charts, newly written or arranged for Stenson to take the spotlight. Long considered one his generation’s top pianists, Stenson has been an Umeå fest regular, and this was a poetic homecoming. The pianist explained that the Norrbotten band, based in Northern Sweden, previously had paid homage to important Swedish musicians for milestone birthdays.

“They found out that I was turning 75, and they wanted to do something for me. So, they asked five or six composers to write a piece for this band with me as soloist. That is a special project, you might say,” he said with a laugh.

And so it was, Stenson amid an intricate big-band meshwork, showcasing his unique artistic voice—all strength, subtlety and explorational instincts.

A highlight—and possibly the festival’s peak—on Oct. 24 embodied the venerable practice of placing notable American artists in the embrace of bold big bands. Here, guitarist John Scofield’s original music folded into an impressive collaboration with the ace Danish Radio Big Band in the larger Idun venue.

Scofield’s palette always has extended into various stylistic zones and instrumental contexts, but he truly shines on those rare occasions when he’s in collaboration with big bands. His soulful and smart guitaring interwove beautifully with the NBR’s Sco’ book on arrangements by Jim McNeely, Miho Hazama (NBR’s new 32-year-old director), as well as trombonist Peter Jensen’s chart for “Boogie Stupid,” a tasty treat from the former NBR member.

A few days later, on Oct. 27, the festival’s base went to church—the 13th-century Backens kyrka—for a performance by Norway’s Trondheim Jazzorkester, this time led by composer Alf Hulbækmo, who perched at the church’s pipe organ. Hulbækmo’s 75-minute multimovement work carved an eclectic path through folk, jazz, improvisation and liturgical elements, which included three vocalist and an almost chamber-like grouping, replete with strings, brass and percussion.

Contrasting the festival’s bigness factor, another subtheme addressed the power of adventurous power trios, heard in the smaller venues of the JazzLabbet and a top floor hideout, the SoundGarden. Saxophone leaders were in charge, yet democratically engaged, as Per Texas Johansson headed up the flexitoned Orakel, and Swedish reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist seized the epicenter of a wild, Monk-on-Mars trio.

Vocalist Lucia Cadotsch’s Speak Low trio summoned a bracingly innovative blend of her relatively straight vocalizing on Billie Holiday-linked songs and more, and deconstructionist arrangements by saxist Otis Sandsjö and go-to bassist Petter Eldh. Their inspired inside-outside agenda—respectful of the music’s historical integrity while pushing toward the outer limits—might be a handy metaphor for this impressive festival as a whole. DB

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