Saturday, August 2, 2014

Interview with Swedish Jazz Pianist Jan Lundgren: "There's a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues"

One of the best and most sought-after jazz musicians in Europe today, Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren has an incomparable sense of swing and an irresistible flair for improvisation. Throughout his career he has played alongside some great names such as Arne Domnerus, Benny Golson, and Johnny Griffin, and his impressive recording output includes solo albums, many projects as a leader, and even an outstanding collaboration with Bengt Hallberg, one of the greats of Swedish piano jazz—the very recommendable 2011 CD Back to Back. He has also successfully infused Swedish folk music with jazz rhythms on his album Swedish Standards, and this year he has released two new discs: Flowers of Sendai, a new trio project on the Beejazz label, with Mattias Svensson on bass and Zoltan Csorsz, Jr., on drums, and All By Myself, a piano solo outing on the Spanish Fresh Sound label, the latter just out a few days ago. Lundgren is also one of the co-founders of the Ystad Jazz Festival, held every year in Ystad, a city in the region of Skane, in the south of Sweden.

Lundgren with legendary pianist Bengt Hallberg
Born in the southern Swedish town of Kristianstad in 1966, Lundgren is a classically trained pianist whose mother and father encouraged his early interest in music. In fact, his father used to sing and accompany himself on the piano, and it was his mother's idea to arrange piano lessons for the five-year-old Jan. His formal training continued at the local music school in Ronneby from the time he was eight, and several years later, when his piano teacher and mentor took a year off to raise her newborn child, an older piano teacher introduced him to jazz. In a recent interview, Lundgren eloquently recalls the life-changing experience of listening for the first time to Oscar Peterson's Night Train album, which this new teacher had almost ordered him to purchase:

"How could this music be kept from me for fifteen years? I'd never heard anything like it, and was happy and angry at the same time. It was like falling in love. A bit like going on a school trip to somewhere like Turkey and meeting a Turkish girl who can't speak English. You don't understand a word she says; you just know you have to learn Turkish. . . . I was fifteen and had played the piano for ten years, but this was a whole new language for me. When I listened to Oscar Peterson for the first time I got the urge to learn this new language. It was then I realized that improvisation was a language—it gave my fingers wings."

And improvisation is definitely one of the most important parts of Lundgren's approach to making music, an aspect which is instantly apparent in my favorite among his many CDs, a tribute to pianist, singer, and songwriter Matt Dennis entitled Celebrating the Music of Matt Dennis: Will You Still Be Mine (Fresh Sound Records, 2003). Produced by Dick Bank, the album finds Lundgren in the company of bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera, and together they celebrate Dennis's impressive songbook by recreating and reinventing some of his most enduring melodies, from the bigger hits ("Let's Get Away from It All," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Everything Happens to Me," "Angel Eyes") to the lesser-known gems such as the track that closes the disc, "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore," a wistful melody that in Lundgren's hands sounds more like a Chopin etude than a jazz number. These are all tunes that were originally written to go along with lyrics (most of them penned by Tom Adair, arguably one of the most underrated lyricists of the twentieth century) and thus they present quite a challenge for Lundgren as he turns them into instrumentals. Yet faced with such a difficult task he comes through brilliantly because of his mastery of improvisation, which makes all the tunes sound as fresh as though we were listening to them for the first time. In the same interview mentioned above, Lundgren elaborates on his personal view regarding improvisation in jazz:

"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. A word can have so many different meanings."

Lundgren at the piano
Through the kind mediation of Mr. Guy Jones, the secretary of Lundgren's fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, The Vintage Bandstand has recently had the chance to converse with Jan Lundgren about his Matt Dennis tribute album, as well as about his life, career, and views on jazz and music in general.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): You are a classically trained pianist, which is apparent on some of your recordings. Did this help you as a jazz performer or was it ever an obstacle in your development as a jazz pianist?

Mr. Jan Lundgren: It helped enormously. You have to know your instrument and develop a good technique early, and that's exactly what a classical training provides.

Arne Domnerus
TVB: At the beginning of your career in jazz, you played with Arne Domnerus, one of the foremost figures of Swedish jazz. What was Mr. Domnerus like as a person and as a musician? What was it like to play with him?

Mr. Lundgren: Arne was one of the finest musicians I worked with and was extremely supportive. As a man, he had a big personality, strong opinions and a lot of emotion. These attributes came through not just in his personal life, but also in his music. To play with him was wonderful. He gave me space and room, and he trusted me: he gave me a lot of responsibility in our work together, which was very developing for a young guy in his twenties.

TVB: Among the great names in jazz with whom you have performed are Johnny Griffin and Benny Golson. How and when did this come about? What memories do you have of working with Griffin and Golson?

Mr. Lundgren: I have great memories of both of them. I first met Griffin in the early ‘90s, having just graduated from the Malmö Academy of Music. The meeting came about because the local jazz society called me up and asked whether I’d like to perform with Griffin as part of a local rhythm section. It was an unbelievable question… did I want to play with one of the legendary figures of jazz?!

I arranged a rehearsal in a room at the Academy the day before the gig. I’ll never forget it: Griffin walks in, takes his sax out of the case, and looks very seriously at me and my fellow Trio members [Lars Lundström on bass and Anders Lagerlöf on drums]. "Can you guys play fast?" he asks sternly. "Er, yes," I nervously reply. Then he counts off an extremely fast-tempo "All Through the Night," by Cole Porter, and when we’ve finished, he laughs and says, "We’re gonna have a great time together!" A while afterwards, someone – I forget who – told me, "Griffin calls you the greatest blues pianist in Europe." What?!

Meeting Golson came later. He was probably the first really big jazz star to perform at the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, of which I’m the co-founder, when we started it in 2010. Getting him there was a fantastic coup for us.

Johnny Griffin

TVB: In some of your albums, particularly Swedish Standards, you play a very interesting mixture of Swedish folk music and jazz. This is something that other Scandinavian musicians (Domnerus, for instance) have tried before. In your opinion, what do Swedish folk music and jazz have in common?

Mr. Lundgren: The tones and melodies help, and there’s a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues, too. The minor mood of some of these songs is also connected to jazz. But my personal view is that you can adapt and transform any kind of music, from any place in the world. Whether that transformation becomes jazz depends on the individual artist.

TVB: Let's talk a little about your Matt Dennis tribute album. Although Dennis wrote songs that were performed by all-time greats such as Frank Sinatra, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker, to name but three, he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. What attracted you to his work?

Mr. Lundgren: The Matt Dennis CD was my idea. I’d been digging around into the music of various songwriters, like Jule Styne and Victor Young, looking for material that hadn’t been widely exposed to a jazz audience. Then I realized that hardly anyone had recorded whole albums dedicated to their work – something that also applied to Matt Dennis. So I contacted Matt and we had a long talk on the phone. He died before the recording took place, but he was kind enough after we spoke to send me dozens of his compositions – songs that practically no-one was aware of. We then included a couple of these tunes on the album.

TVB: Besides this project, if you had to single out one of your own albums as your favorite, which one would it be and why?

Mr. Lundgren: An impossible question… Most artists will tell you that their latest album is the one they’re most proud of because, as musicians, they’re developing all the time. That’s also my answer to this question!

Bassist Tom Warrington
TVB: Scandinavian countries have always had an extremely active jazz scene, and American jazz musicians have always felt very much at home in Sweden. Why do you think that is?

Mr. Lundgren: Sweden had a very strong jazz scene in the 1950s, with a dominant position in youth culture. So it was easy for Americans to come here: people knew about them and their music, they gave them a lot of respect, and they treated them like real stars. Who wouldn’t love that?! They probably got paid pretty well too.

TVB: Could you recommend another Swedish jazz musician that you particularly enjoy to our readers in the United States?

Mr. Lundgren: If your readers aren't already familiar with his work, I’d recommend they listen to Bengt Hallberg. Start with this pianist’s early recordings from the ‘50s, and then see how he develops over the following decades. [Hallberg died, aged 79, in 2013.]

Drummer Joe LaBarbera
TVB: Finally, you will be appearing at the Ystad Jazz Festival in August this year. Could you tell us a little about your future projects?

Mr. Lundgren: In terms of post-Ystad projects, I’ve got a new solo album coming out very soon. It’s called All By Myself, it’s produced by Dick Bank, and it’s on the Fresh Sound label. I recorded it in Los Angeles in January this year. Just last week, I was recording in Copenhagen for another new album due to be released in November. It’s a collection of Johnny Mandel songs, performed with American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, Hans Backenroth [Sweden] on bass, and Kristian Leth [Denmark] on drums. It’s on Stunt Records, who also released the 2013 album I did with Scott Hamilton – another great sax player from the United States! – called Swedish Ballads… & More.

I’m working right now on a series of concerts with the veteran Swedish trumpeter, Bengt-Arne Wallin. The lineup also includes the other members of my Trio [Mattias Svensson and Sweden-based, Hungary-born drummer Zoltan Csörsz], as well as the Bohuslän Big Band. The project’s called Swedish Folklore NOW! Aged 88, Bengt-Arne is arguably the most innovative and important jazz interpreter of Sweden’s folk music that we’ve ever had.


For more information on Jan Lundgren, please visit his homepage and the website of his fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, the latter coordinated by Mr. Guy Jones, for whose help with  this interview we are extremely grateful.

Jan Lundgren's tribute to Matt Dennis, as well as many of his other albums, is available from the U.S. Amazon website here.

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