Copenhagen Jazz Festival, 2018

It’s the 40th annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Greetings from the jazz capitol of the world! Although that lofty designation has been perennially awarded to Manhattan, after much research and consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that Copenhagen is a wonderful city steeped in the diverse history of jazz and worthy of the title. The annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival, then, offers a representative sample of a vibrant music scene with much to offer.

The 40th Copenhagen Jazz Festival just concluded after running July 6-15, providing an array of music, performance and celebration with more than 100 different venues hosting more than 1,400 performers. While most big music fests operate from a more centralized location, the CPH Jazz Festival is well distributed all across the city, with events found in hotels, museums, federal buildings, theaters, concert halls, corner cafes, regal parks, outdoor stages, record stores and, of course, authentic jazz clubs.

This crazy quilt patchwork of entertainment is due to the festival organizers’ cooperative approach, relying on a syndicate of independent programmers, club owners and musicians to book and help promote the festival. High-profile concerts by international acts like the Brad Mehldau Trio, Jeff Beck and the Roots as well as veteran saxophonists like Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders insured some well-deserved attention and publicity for the 10-day celebration.

The creative interaction between Danish and American jazz musicians is something of a tradition going back to the 1960s when expatriates like saxophonist Dexter Gordon lived in Copenhagen and performed with local sidemen at clubs like the Café Montmartre. These days, celebrated Boston saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone both come to Denmark for extended stays and form deep connections with their Danish counterparts. Bergonzi’s longstanding band is a crack Danish rhythm section (pianist Carl Winther, bassist Johnny Aman and drummer Anders Mogensen), while Garzone is equally ensconced with his resident bandmates (bassist Emil Brun and drummer Niclas Campanol). American trumpeter Tim Hagans was also in the mix, playing in a variety of settings with Bergonzi, including a late-night show at the Christiania Jazz Club.

Speaking of the late Gordon, Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel paid tribute to him, assembling a group of Gordon’s old Copenhagen sidemen to play tunes from his 1962 Blue Note album Go!. With Koppel in place of Gordon, the band included fabled drummer Alex Riel, bassist Bo Stief and pianist Ole Kock Hansen.

Koppel wore many hats during the CPH Jazz Festival, as he directed his Cowbell music series and promoted concerts at two different venues showcasing talents like uber-percussionist Marylyn Mazur, Brazilian legend Hermeto Pascoal and tributes to Gordon, Sonny Rollins and, even, Leonard Bernstein. Cowbell also hosted educational jazz encounters with performers and aspiring musicians, including an open discussion with pianist Uri Caine, trumpeter Ralph Allessi and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. As if that wasn’t already enough, Koppel manages his own record label, which has more than 70 releases.

Standout shows included Jeff Beck’s performance at the stylish DR Concert House. With a stellar band featuring bassist Rhonda Smith, monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith and veteran singer Jimmy Hall, Beck put on a flawless exhibition of virtuoso guitar playing, showing himself, once again, to be a supremely expressive interpreter and a veteran rock survivor who’s found sure footing in his live gigs. Playing instrumentals as well as vocal classics, Beck ripped through a catalog from 50 years’ worth of record making, including “Morning Dew” from his first album as a leader back in 1968. From there, he went on to some heavy rock fusion, some killer blues, a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” two Stevie Wonder tunes (“Superstition” and “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”) and his standout rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.”

Equally impressive was the spiritually uplifting performance of Pharoah Sanders at Brorson’s Church. On the second of two nights, the iconic saxophonist—along with pianist William Henderson, Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo—played to the intimate Brorson’s crowd with great emotion, reaching deep into a holy Coltrane experience, springing forth with stirring tunes like “Giant Steps” and ultimately concluding with prayerful original “The Creator Has A Master Plan.”

Brazilian composer/singer/flautist/bandleader/shaman Hermeto Pascoal made a special concert appearance at the Cowbell headquarters in Provehallen, playing to a packed and sweaty house of about 400 dedicated music lovers. Pascoal’s group made its grand entrance with a procession from the back of the theater, and the 82 year-old Pascoal was consistently energetic and engaging. Playing everything from a DX-7 keyboard to squeaky rubber toys to a rendition of “Round Midnight” on watering can, Pascoal was just the type of celebration the Danes were looking for.

Notable Danish performers that stand at the forefront of their jazz scene would have to include guitarist Jakob Bro, who performed songs off of his new ECM record Returnings featuring Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, American bassist Thomas Morgan and Norse drum legend Jon Christensen. Also of note would be pianist Nikolaj Hess, drumming brother Mikkel Hess and bass stalwart Anders “AC” Christensen, who performed countless times during the festival in various combinations but, as Hess/AC/Hess, hosted a late-night jam at the Cava Bar every night that couldn’t be beat. Add to that the ongoing presence of Danish guitar perennial Pierre Dørge, pianist wife Irene Becker and their New Jungle Orchestra, and you get just a glimmer into the wide world of Danish jazz. And the beauty of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

—photo by Kristoffer Juel Poulsen