Jazz from the chilly Nordic countries often sounds different not because of the temperature, but because of education: Nordic musicians are so well-versed in the mechanics of jazz, the history of classical music, modern pop music trends, and experimental sounds that many incorporate it all into a distinctive sound that is specifically Northern, but universally appealing.
The 6th annual Nordic Jazz Festival, which kicks off this week on the heels of the D.C Jazz Festival, will display the diversity of the Nordic sound. A partnership between the embassies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—-along with Twins Jazz—-the festival is really made possible by two other events: the Rochester Jazz Festival and the Vancouver Jazz Festival, which bring over these great groups and leads to mini-tours that take advantage of the musicians’ time in North America.
Tomorrow, Kuára drops Nordic Jazz’s down beat at the Embassy of Finland. The trio of drummer Markku Ounaskari, pianist Samuli Mikkonen, and trumpeter/vocalist Per Jørgensen (a Norwegian giant) mix Finnish folk songs and Russian Orthodox music for a sound that revels in silence, suggestion, and decay. Kuára’s 2010 ECM album, Psalms and Folk Songs, is so beautiful it will appeal to pagans, Christians and atheists alike. To attend, send your name, affiliation/organization, and e-mail address to email@example.com.
Iceland’s Anders Thor Trio steps to the stage next, first on Friday at Twins Jazz and then as part of the Nordic Jazz on Rooftop night on Sunday. Guitarist Thor plays gently swinging jams in this trio format, but he can also lay down the funk, as in the ASA Trio.
Bassist Dan Berglund is best known for his work in E.S.T., which became one of Europe’s biggest jazz acts because of the trio’s ability to blend deep improvisation with rhythms and structures more commonly associated with electronica. The Swedish trio came to a tragic end when pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a scuba diving accident in 2008, but Berglund regrouped in 2009 with Tonbruket (“Tone Workshop”). That group takes over Twins Jazz on Saturday and will also appear on the House of Sweden’s rooftop the next night. Berglund is joined by guitarist Johan Lindström, pianist Martin Hederos (from psych-rockers Soundtrack of Our Lives), and drummer Andreas Werliin (from experimentalists Wildbirds & Peacedrums), and together they create a pastoral prog-jazz pastiche.
Sunday, Danish pianist Nikolaj Hess brings his brainy, bright, and multifarious compositions to Twins Jazz, but his first set at 8 p.m. starts right in the middle of the big rooftop event across town. At least Hess is back on stage for a 10 p.m. throwdown, giving House of Sweden attendees just barely enough time to high-tail it over to the U Street NW corridor.
Nordic Jazz on the Rooftop is the centerpiece of the festival, and the setting is impeccable: atop the House of Sweden, overlooking the Potomac at dusk. It will sell out, however, so if you missed Berglund and Thor’s prior concerts, you may be out of luck. It will also mean you’ll miss In the Country against a perfect backdrop, but you can catch the band the next night at Twins.
Sometimes jazz works because it feels like someone is lacing fingers behind your neck, yanking your melon to the ground, and driving a knee into your grill. But In the Country’s music is the opposite of violence: As heard and seen on the new Sounds and Sights CD/DVD, the Norwegian trio’s sound is a wine-soaked boat ride through majestic fjords, or a mushroom-laced stroll through the deep forest. Pianist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen, and drummer Pål Hausken sway as one with the swirling surges of sound, creating a kaleidoscope of beauty that caresses your brain, not pummels your face. It’s not always gentle music, but the group is forever gentlemanly: smart, suave, sophisticated, and in the superior class of modern day piano trios.