I spent my birthday in Trondheim this year. I managed a little record shopping in Copenhagen on the way there too, which was a lovely bonus. In exchange for a little work preparing a keynote presentation for the Europe Jazz Network’s General Assembly at a rather nice hotel, I managed to have a lovely birthday in one of my favourite places on the planet.
As someone who travels a lot, it’s nice to be able to say that there are some places that feel like home to me. Scandinavia is certainly one of those places. I love Norway. I spend a great deal of time in Denmark whenever I can. In fact, I’ve been called an ‘honorary Dane’ on occasion.
Scandinavia just strikes me as incredibly civilised. The food. The cycling. The attitudes. The service. The fact that everything just works. And sure, prices are incredibly expensive there – but I suspect that’s only because I get a salary in a completely different economy.
Mostly I love the music. In many ways, for me, Norway and Denmark in particular have some of the most wonderful music in the world.
People often talk about the sound of Nordic jazz as being reflective of its origins. I agree, but for different reasons. What’s become known as the ‘Nordic tone’ is supposed to convey the sparse, icy terrain, and the introspective isolation of the long, dark winters. Perhaps.
While there is a quiet and contemplative aspect to much of the music (and a recurring glitchy electronica suggestive of ice cracking, if you’re led to that observation), in fact much of that sound comes from the intervention of a particular record label and a particular producer using a particular setting on a particular reverb unit to achieve a particular marketing effect when choosing artists and making records that sound like they fit together in a particular way.
What appeals to me about the jazz (and nearly-jazz) music of Scandinavia is not the fact that it supposedly sounds like the wintry fjords and the expansive, remote and exotic wilderness – though I can happily participate in making that imaginary connection suggested by the record covers and the reviews that make those sorts of suggestions.
Instead, it’s simply the fact that the music is often thoughtful, intelligent, understated, articulate, accessible and experimental all at the same time. That’s not about the place or some apparently inevitable reflection of the geography and climate within the composition and performance. It’s about the people – and it’s about the ways in which those people approach the making of music.
A good deal of that comes from approaches to music education. I met with head of the Jazz course at Trondheim University who talked to me about his method which prioritises musicianship in quite a traditional way – but uses that as the starting point, not the end point. Students are encouraged to use that facility with their own musicality as a springboard into experimentation and exploration.
As a result, some of the musical projects and collaborations are surprising and fascinating. And very clearly audibly part of the same scene.
It’s certainly not just a Trondheim thing either. My friend Petter teaches jazz and improvised music at the University of Stavanger. It all sort of works the same there too, as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, the amount of great jazz music happening in Denmark is just astonishing. I was at a creative retreat for musicians run by Jazz Danmark last year around this time and the calibre was just incredible. World class players and with that melodic, thoughtful and quietly adventurous undercurrent running throughout.
Here are a few examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about. This is Scandinavian jazz:
But while my jazz research colleagues and Scandinavian jazz friends tend to dismiss the whole Nordic tone thing, there’s definitely something in it. Of course, the terrain doesn’t impose itself into the melodies of the region’s inhabitants – that would be absurd. But some inspiration is drawn from lived experience and, more importantly, because people who live near each other are inevitably exposed to each other’s ideas, because they collaborate and share the context of a particular musical scene, some tropes propagate.
In other words, some Norwegian music sounds Nordic – and not simply because some people are trying to find a marketing hook, or selling records based on an artificially created aesthetic. It sounds Nordic because of the Norwegian experience – and that shouldn’t surprise us.
What does constantly surprise is the sheer consistency of high quality music that is often so much more ambitious and thoughtful than much of what happens elsewhere. I’m not saying it literally doesn’t happen elsewhere, but discovering interesting and breathtakingly beautiful music in Scandinavia is an entirely unremarkable phenomenon. Audiences are used to being challenged and engaged, and musicians seem to demand a lot from themselves.
It’s an ecosystem of musicians, venues, audiences, educators, public bodies and industry that makes a sustainable business out of an approach to musical aesthetics that would essentially constitute commercial suicide elsewhere and so wouldn’t thrive in anything like the same way.
To be fair, Denmark’s government spends more on jazz than similarly populated New Zealand spends on music as a whole. Just to put things in perspective…
But Scandinavia seems to have successfully built an audience for a marginal, niche music. An audience that rivals that of some of the more successful independent rock acts in much more densely-populated Brazil, where I’ve been spending a great deal of time recently, studying and making a documentary film about the infrastructure of the contemporary independent music sector there – which is, without wishing to be uncharitable, of greater interest to me than much of the actual contemporary independent music.
Of course, Norway has some historical and geopolitical advantages. Being situated somewhere with an oil-rich economy that has a well-educated population with spare time and disposable income certainly helps. The welfare, healthcare and arts support infrastructure common in Northern Europe don’t hurt either.
But the point is, as much as I’m interested in learning from the solidarity economy movements in Latin America that make independent music sustainable and participatory – I’m also interested in learning from the educational and infrastructural conditions that lead to some of the most incredible, inspirational, cerebral and yet genuinely moving music around – and that’s what I see in Scandinavia.
Of course, I’m a 45… I mean… 46 year-old university professor who happens to like jazz, so I would say that. But I love rock too. And hip hop. And pretty much everything else. This isn’t genre snobbery.
Sharing ideas, methodologies, techniques and philosophies from all of these different places will not just make things better for musicians. It’ll make things better for music. Different people will apply those lessons in different ways, of course. But what’s great about a music scene in one place can inform a music scene elsewhere.
My next project, all going well, will attempt to connect the dots between all of those best practices: economic, educational, infrastructural and promotional. It’s just an idea at this point. Kicking concepts around. But I suspect there’s more to a revolution in music than what I’ve seen in Brazil – amazing and inspirational as that is.
The music itself might not be your cup of tea. That’s not the point. The focus on artistry and personal expression over commercial imperatives or received tradition is what’s at stake here. What has been happening for a long time in Scandinavia is as ‘outside of the axis’ as you’re likely to get. And it’s a different kind of sustainability and value for music.
To me, that’s exciting.