Magazine article The Spectator

Nordic Blues

Magazine article The Spectator

Nordic Blues

Article excerpt

As every American is at pains to insist, jazz is American. And in the sense that America was where it originated and America was where it evolved, it is. But this is only part of the story - a big part in the scheme of things I grant you, but nevertheless a part.

When the recording machine caught jazz's first stirrings as a provincial Southern music in the second decade of the 20th century, the music was immediately exported, courtesy of the gramophone record, around the world. But Americans, rather like parents dropping their teenagers off at university on the first day of term, prefer not to know what their offspring get up to away from home. Yet in recent years it has been developments outside America that have captured the imagination as American jazz has appeared polarised between a dead past and a future not yet born.

One area in particular that has forged ahead is Scandinavia. Sweden, for example, has a long history of engagement with jazz, even recording a 'Cakewalk', an early pre-jazz style, as early as 1899. Subsequently, Sweden hosted a variety of visiting American jazz stars from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington in the 1930s, and from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker in the 1940s/1950s. Swedish musicians quickly passed from plausible imitation to the real thing when Stan Hasselgard, a brilliant young clarinettist, became a member of Benny Goodman's Septet in the late 1940s and Lars Gullin became the first European to win a jazz poll in the United States in 1954.

By the 1960s, the carefully nuanced sound of Jan Johansson's piano and the exquisite gradation of his touch on his 1964 album Jazz pa Svenska captured a unique sound in jazz, something that became known as the 'Nordic Tone', a way of playing that imposed a Scandinavian identity on jazz. The Nordic tonality is in fact a sort of blues, Nordic blues, Scandinavian blues, if you will,' explained drummer Egil Johansen. 'For us jazz musicians it's but a short leap to experience that melancholy as a companion to joy.'

In many ways, the Nordic Tone is analogous to Ingmar Bergman's approach to the cinema. Before Bergman, film mostly depicted the 'external' world, such as situation-comedy, war, costume dramas, westerns, crime and the chase. …

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