FoJL talks to Jan on a pretty regular basis. Many of the subjects we discuss have a rather short shelf-life, in that they’re debriefs about gigs or little pieces of album news; the kind of material, in fact, that appears on this site’s Updates page. But sometimes we have longer conversations about the projects Jan’s involved in, the behind-the-scenes things related to the ‘mechanics’ of performing and recording, and the current state of the jazz and wider music industry. Hence this section.
1 October 2016: Rare and special
Last Friday, 23 September, saw the digital reissue on the Fog Arts label of two Jan Lundgren Trio albums that represent something of a landmark in Jan’s career: [JLT] Plays The Music of Victor Young (2001) and Plays the Music Of Jule Styne (2002). Both records were made in quick succession, and both feature the works of composers whose catalogues are now decidedly overlooked. They also include guest contributions from musicians who, when the albums were recorded, were either already living jazz legends – Johnny Griffin and Mark Murphy – or were on the cusp of becoming ‘big’, like Stacey Kent and Caecilie Norby.
“These albums have a rare and special place in my discography” says Jan. “I’ve never recorded anything else which involved quite as many jazz greats, and I’m unlikely to get the same opportunity again. It was simply wonderful to work with these hugely talented artists in exploring the songs of two such genius composers.”
Jan’s attraction to Young (1900-1956) and Styne (1905-1994) was typically contrarian. “Enormously busy and successful writers in their day, both men had largely faded from view by the early 2000s. I couldn’t unearth any modern sheet music songbooks for either composer, and Young was particularly neglected. I found that curious – and a little bit shocking – given the quality of their music. Yet I also found it appealing, because I wanted to play songs by writers who hadn’t been done to death by everyone else.”
“And we were so fortunate to get contributions from six such outstanding guests. I can’t remember now exactly how that happened, but the American artists who joined us for the recordings at Sun Studio in Copenhagen all had European concert dates that fitted in with our schedule.”
JLT was partnered on the Victor Young album by US singers Deborah Brown and Stacey Kent – both of whom now have very large and enthusiastic worldwide followings – and the late tenor sax legend Johnny Griffin (1928-2008). “I’ll never forget recording When I fall in love with Griffin” recalls Jan. “When we’d finished the take, I noticed a tear in the corner of his eye. ‘I was thinking of Ben’ Johnny quietly told me, referring of course to the great Ben Webster. It was a very emotional moment.”
On the Jule Styne album, JLT’s guests were the equally legendary vocalist Mark Murphy (1932-2015); Copenhagen-based Caecilie Norby, a singer who now fills concert venues throughout Europe and further afield; and American tenor sax player Eric Alexander, whom Jan describes as “one of the busiest, most in-demand musicians on either side of the Atlantic”.
What was it like to work with Murphy? “Mark was a singer who took no prisoners. His style was like no-one else’s, and he was always willing to take big risks. He sings only two songs on the album, What makes the sunset and The things we did last summer, and they’re both overwhelming. In fact, I’d say that the first of these tracks is one of the finest recording efforts I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of – Murphy just blows the whole thing away. He was a unique and astonishing artist.”
And let’s not forget the enormous contributions of Jan’s old friend and bassist Mattias Svensson and, on the Victor Young album, drummer Rasmus Kihlberg. Rasmus’ family commitments at the time obliged him to step down from Jan Lundgren Trio for the Jule Styne recording, where his place was taken by the Danish drummer Morten Lund. Jan still gigs (and sometimes records) with both Rasmus and Morten, while Mattias has now acquired his own legendary status among JLT fans as the one and only Jive Master.
“Recorded 15 years ago when we were all at very different stages in our careers, I look back on these two albums with great pride and affection” Jan says. “It still amazes me that we were able to attract guest artists of such talent and stature. And I think it shows in the listening pleasure that both albums give.”
20 September 2016: Landgren in Lundgren Land
Next week, on 28 and 29 September, Jan joins forces with Nils Landgren in Karlskrona, southern Sweden, for two duo concerts. Sweden’s greatest living (and singing) trombonist and artistic director of the fabulous Bohuslän Big Band, Nils has shared a stage with Jan numerous times before – although, strangely enough given their long friendship, only on three recordings that we know of: most recently, on Nisse’s 2016 Leonard Bernstein tribute, Some Other Time; as a guest on one track (One for Daddy O) of Wolfgang Haffner’s 2015 album Kind Of Cool; and, rather more obscurely, on two tracks of a CD with Ida Sand as leader called Meet Me Around Midnight (2006).
“Yes, I’ve performed with Nils many, many times” says Jan. “Under the auspices of Musik i Syd, for example, we’ve done two ensemble tours in Sweden relatively recently – a Beatles series in 2013, and the 2015 Frank Sinatra centenary celebration. And then there were 10 or more Some Other Time concerts in the first half of 2016. But we’ve only gigged once as a duo, which was in February this year at Illingen in Germany. So I’m pretty excited about the two Karlskrona concerts, both of which are now sold out.”
“Nils plays some of the best trombone I’ve heard in my life. He’s very particular about getting just the right sound from his instrument, and I have huge admiration both for his musicianship and for what he’s achieved as an artist. We have rather a lot in common, too – similarities that help to enhance our performances together.”
Like what? “Well, we’re both artistic directors of well-established jazz festivals: Nils at JazzBaltica, and me with Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival…” Jan postulates, a little tongue in cheek. “The main point is that we both love a certain kind of melodic jazz, and we share the same affinity for Swedish folk and traditional music – just listen to those great duo albums Nisse made for ACT with Esbjörn Svensson, Swedish Folk Modern  and Layers Of Light .”
“Above all, Nils is an extremely open-minded musician who’s always looking for new things. I think it’s the quality I most admire about him.”
22 July 2016: The Bonfiglioli Weber’s doppelganger
Look closely at this photo (by Paul von Austria) of last night’s A Tribute to Jan Johansson gig at the Dracula Club in St Moritz, Switzerland. There’s Jan of course, and you can just make out Mattias Svensson on bass but, if you’ve been lucky enough to catch this group at a performance in Sweden over the last 12 months, you’ll notice that the other players are not the Bonfiglioli Weber String Quartet. The line-up here is Joanna Lewis and Emily Stewart on violin, violist Lena Fankhauser and Asja Valcic on cello. Why’s that?
“Three of the four Bonfiglioli Weber members are fully employed by Swedish symphony orchestras” explains Jan. “Claudia Bonfiglioli, for example, has been the leader of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s second violins since 2013. So they each have extremely busy performing schedules with their respective orchestras throughout Sweden, which means it’s practically impossible for the quartet to tour internationally with Mattias and me.”
“I didn’t really think about that when I put this Johansson project together. I saw it then – and I still see it now – as part of my Swedish heritage, something uniquely Scandinavian. After all, along with Bengt Hallberg, Jan Johansson is probably the Swedish pianist and composer who’s had the greatest influence on my musical approach. And yet The Ystad Concert has turned out to be a project with very strong international appeal. Since the first gig at Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival last summer, I’ve performed it across a number of European venues, and there are several more concerts outside Sweden booked for the next nine months.
“The string arrangements are intricate and challenging, and the six of us really need to work as a cohesive entity in order to get the material right. Given that the Bonfiglioli Weber members have so many other commitments in Sweden, I had to create a ‘doppelganger’ quartet for the international gigs. Joanna, Emily, Lena and Asja are the result: four very fine string players – some of the best in Europe, in fact. And all of them are based in Vienna, which makes the travelling relatively easy as well.”
None of the four has any formal orchestral commitments, so their schedules are more flexible. Croatia-born cellist Asja Valcic, for instance, co-founded the highly respected Radio String Quartet Vienna, is a member of the Iiro Rantala String Trio and regularly duos with the Austrian accordionist and composer Klaus Paier. She also works as an arranger and lecturer.
“They’re a hugely talented and professional bunch” Jan adds. “It’s very quickly become a real pleasure to play with them.”
14 June 2016: Why not?
July and August see two rather unusual performances by Jan, both of them at jazz festivals in Italy. They reprise something he’s done only once before at Vicenza in May 2015, when the Italian photographer Pino Ninfa (pictured here) ‘mixed’ pictures of conflicts spanning the period from WWI to Ukraine with solo piano improvisations performed live by Jan. The two concerts – if that’s the right word for them – are at the Ambria Festival in Sondrio on 19 July and Centro Laber on 11 August as part of Berchidda’s annual Time in Jazz festival.
“I’m very excited to be working with Pino again” says Jan. “These performances are 100% improvisational and, as such, probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Pino projects his photos onto a big screen – and I don’t really know which ones he’s going to choose – and then I react with rhythms, melodies and other improvisations. It’s a bit like being a silent-movie piano player in the old days of cinema, although I’m not actually producing any sound effects. The idea is to create a mood, a feeling, that complements Pino’s photographs.”
Jan first met Pino back in 2008 at an early Mare Nostrum performance with Fresu and Galliano in Italy. “We automatically clicked” Jan remembers. “Pino really liked my playing, and I greatly admired his photographs. When he suggested we collaborate, I was immediately attracted to the idea. It struck me as a new and very different concept and, although it took until 2015 for us to arrange a performance, it’s not a million miles away from my collaboration with the Swedish poet, Jacques Werup [see page 7 of Jan Lundgren News Issue 1 at our Newsletter page]. Jazz and poetry, jazz and photography… Why not?”
As you’ll see if you visit Pino’s website (here), Ninfa is a big jazz fan who’s well known in Italy for his photographs of the country’s leading artists – including this great shot of Paolo Fresu. You can also find lots of Pino’s pictures on Facebook.