Valby Summer Jazz: Copenhagen, Denmark, July 6-13, 2013
Part of the success of Valby Summer Jazz has been that Koppel and Werner have consistently been able to deliver great names and living legends and place them in new and often successful constellations, but the festival has also invited groups that have been together for a long time. This was the case at last year's festival where Brian Blade Fellowship played a formidable concert, and this year saw the invitation of the all-star group the Cookers.
It wasn't mentioned in the program, but it was actually a trimmed version of the group and unfortunately, this proved to have a negative impact on the sound. With their brass-heavy lineup that almost resembled a mini big band, the Cookers were a perfect match for this year's theme of "Big Band and Choir," but there was a missing ingredient: Saxophonist Craig Handy, who is an important part of the group's sound, wasn't present, which left Billy Harper as the sole saxophonist.
Normally there is a balance in the horn section between trumpeters David Weiss and Eddie Henderson and saxophonists Handy and Harper, but with Handy left out, there was a fundamental imbalance in the set-up, and the late arrival of the group must have resulted in a less-than-satisfying sound check, because the sound came across as muddy and bombastic. While Harper was buried in the brass, his playing nevertheless stood out, and he provided the compositional highlights in the shape of "Croquet Ballet" and "Priestess" with soulful playing and infectious themes.
With players like pianist George Cables and bassist Cecil McBee, there is certainly no shortage of great players in a group that truly qualifies as an all-star line-up. Unfortunately, bad sound and balance ruined the first set of a concert that felt like a routine performance from a group that didn't live up to expectations. One was inevitably reminded of the proverb that "too many cooks spoil the broth." Nevertheless, the group's records show that it definitely has something to offer together, and this was just a bad day at the office.
While the concert with the Cookers proved to be a disappointment, one of the festival's absolute highlights was the meeting between saxophonists Benjamin Koppel and Joe Lovano playing an entire concert on their mezzo-soprano saxophones made by Peter Jessen, who was also present at the concert.
In a talk before the concert, Koppel emphasized the instrument's connection to the sound of the clarinet and Lovano talked about the air flow and the fact that the instrument takes more air and cannot be played as fast as a soprano saxophone. Both of the artists were clearly in love with the instrument and had engaged in a lifelong journey of finding their own identity on the instrument, and the concert proved that they had come very far.
It might be that the instrument doesn't allow playing as fast as a soprano saxophone, but tempo certainly wasn't the issue at the concert where Koppel and Lovano could play at high speed, but always retain a transparent exquisiteness in the way their melodic lines intertwined. Both of the saxophonists have a deep knowledge of classical music and jazz tradition, and in a chamber setting with Werner and the rhythm section of bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Audun Kleive, they delivered third stream music of the highest order. A perfect example of the merging of the two worlds was Koppel's composition "One, Two, Three, Four" that combined an infectious rhythmical motif introduced on the bass by Danielsson and complex breaks and baroque lines.
Lovano contributed two excellent compositions, "Journey Within" and "Blessings in May," both taken from his recent album Cross Culture (Blue Note, 2013), but there was also room for the advanced "Boss Town" from Flying Colors. However, it was pianist Kenny Werner who provided the highlights with two sublime ballads. On the brooding "Go There and Roam," Danielsson played with bow and Werner raised his hand and chanted wordlessly while pouring out breathtaking harmonies and melodies.
As an encore, the group played the beautiful "Ballad for Trane" with Werner echoing the harmonies of the great saxophonist and, of course, it couldn't have been more fitting that Lovano, one of the best post- Coltrane saxophonists, played on a tribute to the master, but Koppel was certainly also up for the task and engaged in his trademark symbiotic playing with Werner.
On "Ballad for Trane," Lovano switched to his characteristic tenor saxophone. It would have been odd if the tribute to tenor-player Coltrane hadn't been played on that instrument, but overall, Lovano's signature instrument wasn't missed at all. Instead, the warm, woody texture of the mezzo-soprano added new colors to Lovano's musical vocabulary and together with Koppel and the rest of the group, he reached perfection. This was a meeting that deserved to be remembered and hopefully also committed to record.