In the 30’s and 40’s most Swedish jazz musicians did little but attempt to sound like the American forerunners. In the 60’s however, the American free jazz movement, with its radical and new ways of exploring harmony and rhythm, triggered a development amongst European musicians towards finding ways of playing that would reflect more of their own realities and cultural heritages.
From the 50’s and onwards, but with the 60’s as the most defining period, the Swedish local scene produced masterful instrumentalists such as baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin and pianist Jan Johansson, who both beautifully blended the musical language of jazz with traditional Swedish folk music.
But what really constitutes a ”Nordic” sound or tone in modern jazz? This is a tough but valid question, with the answer often being reduced to some kind of vague idea about melancholy and lyricism. The British jazz critic and author Stuart Nicholson has made the connection between Swedish jazz and the films of director Ingmar Bergman.
In his much debated book Is jazz dead? (Or Has It Moved To A New Address), Nicholson suggests that like Bergman and his films, ”…the Nordic tone avoids the ‘external’, the patterns, the favorite licks and extroverted technical display of much of contemporary jazz, and instead zooms in close to deeply felt melody, exposing tone, space, and intensity.”
A slightly wild take on the matter as it may be, Nicholson’s writing is interesting and not without some really good points. Listening to the internationally acclaimed piano player Bobo Stenson, one can certainly recognize some of what Nicholson is describing. This goes for a bunch of other Swedish musicians as well. Saxophonists Joakim MilderJonas Knutsson and , trombonist Nils Landgren, pianists Lars Jansson and Harald Svensson, guitarist Johan Norberg, bass players Palle Danielsson and Anders Jormin, and drummer Jon Fält, to name but a few.
In my writing for the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, I have sometimes referred to the Nordic tone as a partly social phenomenon. I believe it is foremost the specific ways Swedes and other Scandinavians tend to interact in groups that outlines the music, especially when improvised. Thus a given piece played by Swedish musicians naturally may sound less competitive and pushy than the same piece played by Americans, revealing other qualities in the music.
This is even more evident when they play compositions of their own — when the basic blues in jazz is sometimes replaced with another kind of blues, just as melancholic in its tonal description of life, but clearly more reminiscent of a film like Bergman’s Winter Light than, say, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night.