Artists Groove High on the Baltic at 5th Annual Ystad Fest
Gauging the maturation process of a young jazz festival is an inexact art. Take the case of the fledgling but fast-growing new addition to the Swedish and Scandinavian festival scene, the Ystad Jazz Festival, which took place from July 30–Aug. 3 in its namesake city, an idyllic town on the Baltic Sea in southern Sweden. The fifth annual festival left a strong, inspired impression.
With its musical and organizational excellence—plus good vibes from the beauty, antiquity and walkable compactness of the Medieval town of Ystad—this event has reached the exalted ranks achieved by other older, similarly intimate yet worldly jazz festivals.
Ystad’s musical agenda ventured into diverse parts of the world—as with the opening concert’s captivating Argentinian-in-Berlin singer Lily Dahab and Marilyn Mazur’s Celestial Circle, featuring the flexible and engaging Danish singer Josefine Cronholm. Young German saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen asserted a bold, personalized sound, teaming up with the inventive, Toulouse, France-based Rémi Panossian Trio, which also featured fine trumpeter Nicolas Gardel.
Ystad’s fifth-edition program also boasted the requisite, healthy mix of American touring acts: Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, festival “guest of honor” Charles Lloyd (a bit shaky while working in his new quartet, featuring pianist Gerald Clayton) and John Scofield’s Überjam Band, one of the world’s great thinking-person’s party bands. Sco sounded especially on and exploratory at the fest, even venturing into a mutant, ghostly take on “La Vie En Rose,” for transatlantic cred.
The Ystad festival is nestled into its small and inviting host city. First-time visitors could learn first-hand about the city’s culture, history and architecture with music programmed into venues such as a 12th-century church, the Sankta Maria Kyrka, and atmospheric courtyards dating back hundreds of years.
After-hours jam sessions, led by pianist Sven-Erik Lundeqvist, held forth in another vintage locale, the Bryggeriet brewery, where Redman could be heard amid his Swedish musical compadres, working out “On Green Dolphin Street” in the wee hours, following his fine show at the 1894 Ystad Teater earlier that night.
Over at the enchanting Ystad Saltsjöbad—a legendary spa and hotel, which has been in existence for 110 years, and is set right on the dreamy Baltic— Hargrove, fado master Cristina Branco and vocalist Diane Schuur gave afternoon concerts in the large ballroom.
From the Swedish contingent in the program, much of the music leaned toward straightahead and established grooves rather than tapping into experimentation. Notable Swedes over the course of the five-day festival included alto saxophonists Hakan Broström and Fredrik Kronkvist (whose “Afro-Cuban Supreme” concert also showcased the captivating singer Miriam Aïda); a young trumpeter-singer in the Chet Baker mode, Björn Ingelstam; and pianist John Venkiah. Vocalist Hannah Svensson and fluid, fine harmonica player Filip Jers gave fine performances with the XXL Big Band, half in the rain in the Rådhusparken park.
One great discovery at the fest was the fresh, dryly witty and subtle Finnish guitarist Teemu Viinikainen, with the saxophonist Jukka Perko’s Streamline Jazztet, a band that handily snaked around standards with droll style and sharp ensemble work.
Aesthetically, the 2014 program was an admirably varied menu, but lacking in the more avant-garde end. Some of that gap was filled by a performance from veteran trumpeter Enrico Rava’s band with young firebrand trombonist Gianluca Petrella, late on Aug. 2.
One of this festival’s advantages is that, apart from Founder and Executive Director Thomas Lantz’s vision, the guiding force and artistic director is a musician, Jan Lundgren, equipped with informed ears and connections in the jazz world. A long-established pianist blessed with melodic and virtuosic powers, Lundgren is sensitive to the needs and nerves of musicians—in this case, many players who were weary and excited at the tail end of their July Euro-festival circuit tours.
Lundgren’s nimble musical powers and versatility came forth twice onstage, including the touching and intriguing big band context in the festival finale. Lundgren’s trio folded into the rhythm section of the admirably tight Bohuslän Big Band, led by veteran Swedish composer-bandleader Bengt-Arne Wallin, 80 years old and more than fit for retro-cool-big band service.
Lundgren’s riper personal showcase, though, came in a special quartet concert with legendary veterans Jesper Lundgaard and Alex Riel, bass and drums, and very special guest Grégoire Maret, the highly melodic, spirited and technically gymnastic chromatic harmonica wizard who quickly proved why he is positioned to follow in Toots Thielemans’ footsteps. Lundgren and Maret established an organic and palpable rapport, trading riffs and emotional commonalities across cultures and languages. They’ve got to go on meeting like this.
The high point amid the festival’s thicket of options and diversions was a sublime hourlong set by Abdullah Ibrahim, whose solo piano concerts in the shadow of his 2008 album Senzo can be intimate yet epic adventures of the introspective, poetic sort. He sounded more centered here than at Guelph Jazz Festival a few years ago. The 80-year-old South African master’s evening consultation with the muses—and his warm, vast mosaic of alluring melodies—were the stuff of greatness.
Where does the Ystad Jazz Festival fit into the larger framework of the populous jazz festival scene? In the afterglow of the 2014 edition, this gifted and enthusiastic youngster seems to have a very bright future.