ABOUT THE SCANDINAVIAN STANDARDS ALBUM
By Niels Lan Doky , Copenhagen, August 2nd, 2013
Years ago, in 1981 to be exact, I left my native Denmark for the United States of America, to live at first for three years in Boston while studying music there, and subsequently for five years in New York City full time plus many years as a part time resident after that. In those days, New York City was still very much considered THE Mecca of the international jazz world, and as a result, overwhelming amounts of greatly talented jazz artists from all over the planet were constantly pouring into the city non stop! And as you can imagine, the competition among young musicians, such as myself at the time, was fierce – to say the least! And top of that, we were still in an era where jazz musicians were (from the audience perspective) stereotypically black Americans. So being a white European didn’t exactly provide the best odds. However, after moving to New York in 1984, I soon realized that whenever I had the chance to meet a famous or established musician and I told him that I was from Denmark, it would often ease the conversation to a remarkable extent and help open up doors and facilitate my entry into the inner circles of the New York elite of jazz musicians. The reason being that Denmark and Copenhagen in particular had already since several decades been one of the most important hubs for touring American jazz musicians, and as a result many of them had lots of friends there, loved the audience and had great memories of their visits there, and last but not least , they were very aware of the substantial amount of talented local Danish jazz musicians. So that was my stoke of luck, and in this way my Danish side helped me survive and open many doors during my initial efforts to establish myself on the New York jazz scene. For this reason, I started to become very conscious of my Danish roots and began taking them very seriously.
I started to study Danish culture and all genres of Danish music like never before. I really wanted to learn all about my Danish heritage and national identity and used it to my advantage as it inevitably became a fully integrated influence in my own music and became clearly reflected in my compositions as well as in my playing. After a while, some of my fellow New York musicians began referring to my music as a hybrid between Scandinavian lyricism and hard edged New York jazz, and suddenly I found myself having a unique selling point and competitive edge that made me stand out in the crowd and differentiate myself from all the other young emerging jazz artists on the scene at the time, who for the most part were pre-occupied exclusively with the New York style of jazz that was dominating the international scene at the time. Soon I found myself moving up the career later at increased speed, and before I knew I was in the company of such luminaries as Billy Hart, John Scofield, David Sanborn, Bob Berg, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and other musicians who were my idols during my high school days back in Denmark. All of this was just to say that this was there and then (New York City 1984) that my first serious explorations of Scandinavian music began.
I entered my next level of Scandinavian music awareness in late 1985 and early 1986 when I began playing with the Danish bass legend, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Prior to meeting him, he had been a big idol of mine, and he later became a very important mentor in my life. About a decade before I met him, Niels-Henning had had major success with recording jazz renditions of Danish folk songs, and he also introduced me to the pioneering work of Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson who adapted Swedish folks songs into a jazz format on his ground breaking album “Jazz på Svenska”.
After a life long career of playing with the greatest artists in jazz (Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald etc) Niels-Henning had already played The Great American Songbook as extensively as anyone could ever imagine. He was at the time a rare phenomenon: a Non-American international jazz star on a circuit that was pretty much exclusively dominated by Americans. During the numerous tours that I did with him over the years , one of his favorite topics of conversation was centered around questions and comments such as: ”The Scandinavian cultural heritage contains such a vast amount of truly great songs. So therefore I keep asking myself and others, why we are playing all of these so-called ”standards”, which essentially are all American? We should be playing our own music instead!”. Of course he was ahead of his time and his visions were hard to implement to their full extent among his peers. But as a musician of the generation after him, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel early on. Already by the mid-eighties, I was touring around Norway, Sweden, Finland and of course Denmark, and I had begun meeting – and occasionally playing with – great musicians of my own generation, from each of the Scandinavian countries, such as Finland’s Klaus Suonsaari, Severi Pyysalo and Jukkis Uotila, Norway’s Nils-Petter Molvær, Terje Gewelt and Tore Brunborg, Sweden’s Ulf Wakenius, Anders Bergcrantz and Lars Danielsson to name but a few. I was really impressed by their level of musicianship and dedication and I had a strong inner knowing that one day it would become apparent to everyone what impressive jazz talents secretly reside around Scandinavia, all of whom of course are fully aware of their respective National song treasures and have a natural tendency to seek their own identity instead of remaining in the shadows of the art form’s American origins.
The next phase, as I remember it, was the early nineties, when myself and a few other Scandinavian jazz artists began to dramatically increasing our domestic record sales. There was suddenly a shift in consciousness and the audiences began to pay more attention to their domestic talent rather than take it for granted that good jazz could only come from abroad.
Suddenly some of us began selling gold albums and getting record deals on some of the most prestigious labels in jazz, such as Blue Note, Milestone and Verve. A phenomenon impossible to imagine only a decade earlier. By the end of the decade, some of the the most important jazz markets in the world, Japan and France in particular, had started to become very interested in Scandinavian jazz and this interest continued to evolve and expand in the decade that followed.
Luckily, jazz has by now finally evolved and matured into becoming a fully integrated international art form. Jazz is about improvisation and the art of being in the moment. Life itself is the ultimate improvisation, and that may be part of the reason why jazz, against all odds, has become such an enduring and constantly expanding art form. It is simply a constant reflection of life itself. I believe that great works of art of any kind and of any era, always have been compelling poetic/abstract reflections of the artist’s life experience. And as Scandinavian jazz artists, the stories we can tell are about our Scandinavian life experiences.
After spending most of my life abroad, I just moved permanently back to Denmark this year and I feel that Scandinavia has become one of the most admirable regions of the world and quite honestly I feel very excited about being back here. In recent years, the Scandinavian region as a whole has gained increased substantial momentum on the global arena in general, with major international acclaim in a wide range of fields, including design, architecture, gastronomy, film making, green tech and music.
Naturally, this Scandinavian Standards album is result of the fact that I feel compelled to share my Scandinavian life experience with my audiences in different countries, now that the world seems open to experience jazz and music in general from new and fresh perspectives. I want to share some themes from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland that can truly be considered Scandinavian Standards and which I have a special connection to or affection for. (See track-by-track list for detailed anecdotes about each song).
In Scandinavia, the countries that make up the region, tend to look as each other as very closely related, like cousins almost. The cultures of each individual country are very linked and very similar, and so are even some of the languages. Danes, Swedes and Norwegians can get by speaking their own language and still understanding each other. Finnish is a different language of different origin but a greater part of Finland are bilingual with Swedish as the second language so they are very closely linked after all.
All of this to say that I felt it was time to do an album that celebrates the heritage of my home region:-) so I came up with the idea for this Scandinavian Standards album where the concept is to take famous or iconic cultural heritage songs from the 4 Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and do jazz trio renditions of them in my own style. So this is what we ended up with and I sincerely hope that my audiences will receive this album well!
The Scandinavian song book is actually very vast. As NHØP used to say: in Denmark we have a song for every occasion. For generations, school children used to gather in the morning and sing 2 songs together with their teachers before starting classes. At my school we used to sing from a book called “555 songs” which is only one out of many such books in Denmark and I am sure the other Scandinavian countries have similar anecdotes on the subject. So that will give you an idea of the extent of the Scandinavian Song book.
And my opinion about these songs is that they are generally incredibly great songs, often very beautiful and poetic and always very melodic and lyrical. And well written melodies and well crafted compositions. And overall very easy to adapt to jazz context, as their harmony, structure, melody and form is never very far from the parameters that jazz musicians are used to from playing the American-based standard jazz repertoire.
I think that now that jazz has become so universal and international, it doesn’t make so much sense anymore for non-American jazz musicians such as myself, to play just American standards. I think it is important to integrate our own cultural heritage into our choice of material and make jazz renditions of our own music just as the Americans did with theirs in the past. So just like I think that French jazz musicians should play French standards, Italian play Italian standards etc I think it is natural for me to play Scandinavian Standards.
This new Scandinavian Standards album is actually my 37th album since my debut album in 1986 (in addition to numerous albums as a sideman or producer). It is also the second album with my current working trio which I have had since early 2011, featuring bassist Jonathan Bremer and drummer Niclas Bardeleben, who are in my opinion the two brightest new stars on the Copenhagen jazz scene and some of the greatest jazz talents to emerge from Denmark in many years. They are both only in their early twenties but are amazing musicians and shockingly mature for their age. I discovered them in 2009 and helped launch their careers in 2010 when I hired them as the house rhythm section of Copenhagen’s jazz club Montmartre, which gave them a window of wider exposure and an opportunity for musical experience and growth. I subsequently hired them as permanent members of my trio in early 2011 and they have evolved at incredible speed ever since then and it is with never ending wonder and awe that I watch them and listen to them play on stage with me every night. They are living examples of the strength and health of the Scandinavian jazz scene and I am very proud of them!
I wrote the arrangements for Scandinavian Standards in December 2012 and January 2013 and we recorded over the course of 2 sessions, one in late January and another in early March (see credits for exact dates). It is a studio recording and we did it at Focus Recording, the studio in Denmark owned by the legendary Danish recording engineer, Mr. Hans Nielsen, with whom I have worked with since 1986 when he engineered my debut album called “Here or There”. I edited and mixed the album myself and then I had Mr. Emil Spanyi do the mastering in Paris at his studio called Studio LDF.
I sincerely hope that many audiences across the world will enjoy this recording of ours and that it will help increase awareness in the collective consciousness, of the fact that there is a vast treasure of songs to be explored throughout Scandinavia and this is just the top of the iceberg.
Niels Lan Doky