Off the bebop track

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival is a ten-day marathon embracing more than 1,000 gigs under the slogan, “modern jazz and beyond since 1979”. Ironically the first live jazz I heard was “When The Saints Go Marching In” intruding from a touristy strip, but modal jazz reasserted itself from a packed bar round the corner and the strains of a modernist set drifted out of a park as clustered festival-goers tried to cram into scores of venues around the city.

The main concert arena is the gold-leafed Old Stage of the Royal Theatre, where I caught pianist Brad Mehldau and his role-swapping trio, one of the first to place jazz and rock classics on an equal plane. They opened with an original waltz, interlaced Charlie Parker with The Beatles and finished with a sublime reading of the torch song ballad “Since I Fell For You”.

Mehldau plays at an invitingly quiet volume, operates in the middle register – high note trills are a rarity and low notes hardly touched – and is ferociously analytic. But his emotional dynamics allow each solo to achieve gravitas without being po-faced. “When I Love Her” was tender and rich, the bebop angular and swinging and the unaccompanied finale riven with sensuality, desperation and fear. With bassist Larry Grenadier a strong solo voice and Jeff Ballard sensitive and firm in support, the trio functions brilliantly as a unit. Encores of “Still Crazy After All These Years” and a zippy rocker earned the long ovation.

Next, I twinned edgy Americana in the Prøvehallen centre, in the suburb of Valby, with a hard-edged celebration of Wayne Shorter in downtown Copenhagen. The first featured US guitarist Julian Lage, a rising star whose fluency almost beggars belief. Runs fluttered into the upper register at lightning speed and shimmering scrubs exploded into full-chord resonance. Here Lage was part of a disciplined international chamber quintet whose tonalities were set by alto sax and viola. Highlight was a sedate stroll through elasticised dissonance and the superb rhythmic control of percussionist Tupac Mantilla, whose body-as-drum finale was a teasing masterclass of rhythmic control.

Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’s sax and trumpet-led celebration of Wayne Shorter was at the shiny-new Jazzhouse, the longstanding club reopening after a devastating flood wrecked it last September. Lovano and Douglas are inspired by the spirit of Wayne Shorter, but perhaps wisely write their own script. Every number was a root-and-branch original; shorter classics made an occasional oblique reference but there was no attempt at mimicry.

What we got was exhilaratingly tight contemporary jazz that captured Shorter’s free-wheeling spirit and oblique turn of phrase. Lovano and Douglas chased and harried, there were brittle duets, long lost-in-music solos, and a rhythm section on fire: explosive bombs from drummer Joey Baron; nimble trickery and solid walks from bassist Linda Oh. And as with Shorter, you never knew what would happen next.

In contrast, the “Miles Smiles” sextet stuck close to the tried and tested when celebrating Miles Davis at Tuesday’s headline concert. Wallace Roney was Miles Davis’s understudy during the trumpeter’s latter years, and every musician had played in a Davis line-up. Roney has taken on board Davis’s close-argued lines and brooding melodrama, and delivers them with flair. Bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Omar Hakim laid down the crunchy riffs and heavily decorated backbeats of Davis’s last decade, Roney’s pinched stabs and whispered mutters conveying both sorrow and joy.

Organist Joey DeFrancesco was equally exciting, and his time-perfect flight over an agonisingly slow blues was a highlight. As the set progressed, the atmosphere became more jam session bash than tight-knit gig, and the mid-tempo swing of “Bye Bye Blackbird” sagged. The double encore of “Jean Pierre” and “Round About Midnight” was tight and neat, but the long ovation still came as something of a surprise.

Kurt Elling, guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Derek Phillips charmed the pants off a late afternoon audience in the garden of the Christians Kirke. Hunter plays bass, rhythm and lead simultaneously, brilliant at each, and Elling has a vocal range and panache to match. It was a lovely gig, with an unexpected highlight, Del Shannon’s “Runaway” transformed into a menacing account of lost possibilities.

Wayne Shorter was the festival headliner, and the logic and passion of his Tuesday night concert nailed the audience to their seats. Pianist Danillo Perez and bassist John Patitucci have been with the saxophonist for years, and seem plugged deep into Shorter’s unconscious, while new recruit Jorge Rossi on drums is confidently learning the ropes. The performance was a long episodic structure of spectral motifs, stupendous highs and shattered fragments of rhythm bookended by two whistled notes from the leader.

Shorter stood by the piano urging his band to greater extremes. With the brew bubbling nicely, he would add breathy tenor or ethereal soprano, scatter oblique lines and then rampage with controlled intent. A pentatonic dance followed, and then a trace of a riff, and then, too soon despite a long set, the first encore, “Atlantis”. An ovation coaxed a second, a gentle elegy with a thumping crescendo in the middle.

Copenhagen Jazz Festival ends July 15.

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