CD REVIEW: Jan Lundgren - The Ystad Concert: A Tribute to Jan Johansson

Jan Lundgren - The Ystad Concert: A Tribute to Jan Johansson
(ACT 9814-2. CD review by Mike Collins)

Aficionados of Swedish crime series Wallander may instantly recognize the name Ystad, the town is the setting for the novels and TV series, but it’s also home to an international jazz festival and the 2015 edition saw a tribute to a seminal artist in Swedish and arguably Scandinavian jazz, pianist Jan Johansson. This release is a recording of that occasion.

Johansson’s 1962 album, Jazz på Svenska or ‘Jazz in Swedish’ was a piano and bass duo recording of his arrangements of Swedish folk songs. It was a huge hit in Sweden and he followed up with treatments of Russian and Polish music. Johansson died in a car crash in 1968, but the blend of folk, the sometimes bitter sweet melancholic reflectiveness of Nordic sensibilities and jazz has become a distinctive element of Scandinavian music and the pianist is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Swedish jazz.

Jan Lundgren is the artistic director of Ystad’s festival and a fine pianist. For this re-visiting of Johannsson’s arrangements with bass partner Mattias Svensson, he added a further dimension, the Bonfiglioli Weber String Quartet who are on much of the set.

The themes are invariably simple and affecting melodies, some signaling their origins as dances others as yearning songs. None are over –extended but many have scope for Lundgren and Svensson to stretch and explore the melody and rhythms. Gånglek från Älvdalen has a throbbing pulse and lively theme that evolves into a loose conversation between piano and bass, before the pulse returns with the strings subtly adding depth to the urgent bass figure with quiet pizzicato. Other pieces, like Polska från Medepad stick close to statements of the melody adding texture and harmony with the strings and allowing the dance’s lilt and structure to work its magic.

There are plenty of changes of pace and Lundgren’s improvising stays close to the spirit of the music whilst artfully stretching it with bluesy inflections and more contemporary twists. The connection between Lundgren and Svensson is instinctive and electric throughout. There is a Lundgren original, an attractive, waltz Lycklig resa and the concert’s closer is greeted by roars of recognition from the audience as they launch into Här kommer Pippi Långstrump the theme from the TV serial Pippi Longstocking that was written by Johansson. It gets a working over with the harmony thickening and twisting after exuberant solos from Lundgren and Svensson, the string quartet’s arrangement distorting the theme and heightening the tension before Lundgren leads a dramtic flourish to finish.

A tribute this certainly is, with much of the material drawn from Johansson’s seminal recordings, but it’s one that inhabits the spirit of his music and brings a contemporary freshness to it. It’s a live recording that made me wish I’d been there.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman

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