Just last week I met Wexford’s most famous Swede Fred Karlsson on the town. He was in fine form, attentive and courteous as always, and full of stories. One would never have known that Fred was suffering from jet-lag. That’s the thing with Swedes: not only are they among the friendliest people you can meet, they are also paragons of stoicism. So while they may be close to the top of the World table for happiness and life satisfaction, they are also right up there when it comes to keeping the best side out.
One imagines that Swede Jan Lundgren embodies these same qualities, along with a deeply-engrained work ethic and a constant striving towards harmonic excellence. A classically-trained musician, he could have devoted his life to the music of long dead composers. However, listening to records by the likes of Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell took him down a different road. Now, Lundgren is one of the most respected jazz pianists in Europe, renowned for his “gleeful lightness of touch”. That would be the stoicism at work!
Potsdamer Platz, recently released on German record label ACT, is a sumptuously languid and sultry affair. It was recorded in Berlin at the legendary Hansa Studio on Potsdamer Platz with ACT Artistic Director and Producer, Siggi Loch at the helm. The pacing throughout is perfect, the quality flawless.
From the middle ages Potsdamer Platz formed part of an old trans-European trade route becoming, over time, one of the busiest traffic intersections in Europe. It was obliterated in the Second World War. Since German re-unification it has been very much back in the spotlight as it becomes, once again, a vibrant multi-cultural hub at the centre of Europe. So it’s as good a name as any to put on an album which does nothing less than showcase the ongoing coalescing, maturation and accessibility of European jazz.
Lundgren is joined by ace Finnish saxophonist Jukka Perko (alto and sax), Danish drummer Morten Lund and, on bass, fellow Swede, and former member of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Dan Berglund. Such is the sense of relaxed interaction between the musicians that, notwithstanding the unscripted approach laid down by Lundgren, there is a beautiful evolving feel to the music. And, as we have found with more than a few recent Scandinavian releases, there is a strong element of self-restraint and mutual empathy in evidence throughout.
All bar one of the tunes are Lundgren compositions. The eponymously-titled opening track sets the scene for an album which effortlessly marries traditionalism with modernism, propulsive grooves with the melodious interplay of sax and piano. Taken as a whole, the music plays like a slow-meandering river of sound, occasionally rushing forth as it run into rapids. Slow moving it may be, yet so richly embroidered that one is more than happy to give it the time.
The upbeat tempo of Bullet Train best illustrates how well piano and sax handle the harmonies. The jaunty boogie-tinged Twelve Tone Rag sees the boys really getting their mojo working as they tip the hat to the American Songbook. Lundgren’s love of folk music can be heard in the quartet’s treatment of the Swedish folk classic Lycklig Resa. The simple fairytale intro is hauntingly beautiful. Dance for Masja is a Balkan folk dance tune given a Swing makeover. A charming and simple piano intro explodes into life with Lundgren’s left hand working with bass and drums to lay a solid foundation for stunning solos by Perko and Lundgren himself.
If you delve into Lundgren’s back catalogue you’ll be spoilt for choice. The Ystad Concert – A Tribute to Jan Johansson (2016) sees Lundgren and friends honouring the memory of one of the greats of Scandinavian jazz, especially remembered for his ability to breathe new life into folk classics; on Mare Nostrum (2008), and its 2016 sequel, Lundgren joins forces, to stunning effect, with Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and French accordionist Richard Galliano; European Standards (2009) has tasteful re-workings of songs from throughout Europe including Kraftwerk’s Computer Liebe and Kurt Weill’s September Song; Magnum Mysterium, featuring Lars Danielsson (bass, cello) and the Gustaf Sjökvist Chamber Choir, brings together a gorgeous selection of European Renaissance Chamber Music from the likes of Monteverdi and Byrd.
“Improvisation is like us sitting here talking. It’s impulsive without reflection. We just let it spin. It’s like speaking straight from the heart. But to improvise you need to know the language. . . . You have to have a language that you master. If you don’t, then you can’t improvise all the way. It’s about nuances and their shifts.” Jan Lundgren