To uninitiated American ears, learning that there is such a thing as "Nordic jazz" might seem contradictory — maybe even absurd. After all, is it really fair to wonder about the ability of Scandinavian players to capture jazz's ever-elusive sense of swing?
If you're among the skeptical, then you're in for a hell of a surprise. Groups like Finland's Ilmiliekki Quartet and Norway's In the Country, along with a slew of others, provide an exciting glimpse into the region's surging jazz scene.
While In the Country straddles the lines among jazz, chamber music, and experimental rock, both groups temper their progressive, modernist sensibilities with tight grooves and a sense of energy that has arguably diminished steadily on these shores for several decades. American jazz has evolved from its classic incarnations into other, vital subgenres and hybrids — like electronica, hip-hop, and experimental — but several Nordic acts have managed to marry innovation with swing. As such, Scandinavia may well be the next jazz hotbed, where dozens of ambitious musicians are restoring the music's greatness and carrying the genre forward in ways you wouldn't expect..
Unfortunately, in the States, jazz is still often perceived as a static art form, frozen in the rigid codes of tradition and structure. Hip American audiences, therefore, are left to look abroad for fresh perspectives that break the mold. But where Brazil, West Africa, the Middle East, and India have long been recognized as fertile ground for new fusions, the jazz currently coming out of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway positively sizzles with imagination and verve.
Bob Perry, owner of South Florida's famous jazz label Blue Note Records and who has been employed by jazz divisions at various major labels, points to Scandinavia and Europe in general as places where musicians have long blended abstraction with feeling. In the United States, Perry says, record companies pressure musicians into being more commercial.
"With all respect to a lot of the newer American players," Perry offers, "some of them are playing it safe. They're looking for the crossover appeal. Whereas the Europeans remind me of the early stages of bebop, when it was Monk and Bird and Diz and Bud Powell and those cats. They're playing from their soul and are much more adventurous. Whenever you get some European or Swedish jazz, you know it's going to be a treat."
WHERE TO START
Finnish Music Information Centre (FIMIC) puts out an annual CD compilation that's well-organized, cataloged, and loaded with information.
Take It With Me (Tum)
Yes, the title track is a Tom Waits cover, but when the album gets under way in earnest, Ilmiliekki reveals jazz's future while maintaining a firm grip on its traditions. (www.ilmiliekki.net)
What We Must (Ninja Tune)
A ten-piece ensemble including trombone and electronics, Norway's Jaga Jazzist creates an ambient rush akin to Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada yet has tangible roots in jazz. (www.jagajazzist.com)
In the Country
Losing Stones, Collecting Bones (Rune Grammofon)
As adventurous as it is mournful, sedate, and lovely, In the Country deftly nullifies classifications and proves that, like it or not, jazz is healthiest when it adapts. (www.inthecountry.com)
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Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson, who passed away in June, didn't care for jazz purism, but his trio is thrilling because it radiates elegant finesse with rock intensity. (www.est-music-com)
More Like Us (Stunt)
There doesn't seem to be a single type of jazz that saxophonist and Lounge Lizards alum Michael Blake can't cover, especially with the all-Danish backing musicians in this quartet. (www.michaelblake.net)