PREVIEW/FEATURE: Piano trios at Sounds Of Denmark festival - Hess/AC/Hess and Simon Toldam Trio (Sept 16-22)

Mikkel Hess (standing) with Hess is More (*)
Photo by Per Lange 1.jpg

The Anglo-Scandinavian piano trio PHRONESIS - performing a rare London club date -  is the latest addition to a programme of London's inaugural Sounds of Denmark Festival. The power of three will be strongly in evidence when this seven-day showcase for Danish jazz comes to the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in September. There are Danish trios who are infrequent visitors to London: Hess/AC/Hess spacelab and the Simon Toldam Trio. Mikkel Hess and Simon Toldam both spoke to Peter Bacon about their bands and their forthcoming London visits:

Peter Erskine wrote in the liner notes to the recent ECM box set of his trio’s recordings: “Structurally, you can’t design anything stronger than the triangle.”

I wondered what strength that gave to the jazz triangles that drummer Mikkel Hess (Hess/AC/Hess - appearing at the festival on September ) and pianist Simon Toldam are each part of?

Mikkel Hess tossed around a few musings on different triangles - isosceles, equilateral, scalene - before coming to the conclusion: “With spacelab - [Mikkel’s brother Nikolaj on piano, Anders ‘AC’ Christensen on bass] - we tend to approach things collectively with three lead roles - or three supporting roles you might say…”

Simon Toldam responded: “To me, the trio is a format with the perfect balance of sound sources and flexibility. It is too few musicians to get in the way of each other, too many to end up in creative dead ends when playing. When we play music in the trio - [Nils Davidsen is the bassist, Knut Finsrud the drummer] - we breathe together. We hear the same sonic suggestions given by the music itself, and react as one mind.”

Simon Toldam Trio

After discussing how “stepwise” processes can be avoided by this closeness, he concludes: “The trio-format is maybe one of the most suited formats to play with such a degree of flexibility and surprises.”

For Mikkel, Hess/AC/Hess represents a space with a history. He explains: “Growing up together, we have played together for literally 30 years and we know each other extremely well. Our trio is a safety-tested lab or space where we, within the ultra classic instrumentation and format, can focus on listening to each other and allowing the music to come to us. What makes spacelab continuously interesting for us is the interaction and the constant development of communication and shapes.”

And he links this to something he feels is particularly Danish. “Our friend and colleague Tony Scherr recently said that our music has a social quality to it - maybe that’s partly because of how we grew up in this very Danish way. Denmark is a relatively small, safe and supportive society with a tradition of collective efforts and social security - there’s not much to be scared of really.”

He expanded the idea to the Sounds Of Denmark festival in general.

“One common trade across all the acts of the festival could be the focus on the collective effort. It is not so much about the single superstars with backing as it’s about bands that work to have a sound defined by everybody on stage.”

Simon finds it harder to identify the specifically Danish qualities in his trio’s music, but is in general agreement about the nature of Danish jazz:

“I´m sure that walking on a certain soil, growing up in a certain country with a certain culture with its certain mindset, has a big influence on your music. That said, it´s hard for me to look at the trio’s music from an outside perspective, and point out what specifically is the Danish quality.

“I know it´s there, but is it shining through the melodic material, the timbre, the rhythm or is it just there as an overall vibe? What I do know about the trio´s music, is, that it is very versatile and open. There are no taboos, we share the same love for playing a beautiful song/melody, as for playing an abstract improvised part, based on sounds rather than notes. This seems very Danish to me. A lot of the jazz musicians in Denmark, are very open-minded, and play music in various settings.”

I wondered where this open-mindedness came from.

“The geographical placement of Denmark, suggests that the music that comes out from here has threads to many cultures, being the link from Europe to Scandinavia,” Simon tells me.

“Sweden has a stronger culture of folk music, Norway was quite isolated for many many years, and maybe has an even stronger folk music culture. Denmark bears witness of inspiration from these two countries, but also from our southern neighbours. And a very big influence has been the American jazz music. Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Kenny Drew, Bud Powell - to name a few - have all lived in Copenhagen, and had a major impact on the previous jazz generations.”

There is bound to be much to delight audiences in the performances of all three piano trios in the Sounds Of Denmark programme. If Phronesis is the most familiar to UK audiences, what might they expect from the two less familiar bands?

Hess/AC/Hess has strong influences from film - all three members compose for the medium; Simon’s band stretches wide in its explorations and takes in philosophical ideas.

Last year the Simon Toldam Trio inaugurated a Kig Op Dag (Look Up Day - see VIDEO) - the first in world history, they claimed - as part of their album promotion. The pianist reflects further:

“As music artists, we stand on the top step of the music history staircase. We are all in different ways shaped by all music there has been, and it´s our duty and responsibility to continue to challenge this staircase, in order to build the next step.” (pp)


Simon Toldam Trio : Tuesday 20th September (BOOKINGS)
Hess/AC/ Hess: Sunday Lunchtime 18th September (BOOKINGS)
Phronesis: Saturday 17th September (BOOKINGS)

LINK: Sounds of Denmark website with full programme 
NOTE(*) Mikkel Hess's Hess  is More are on Sunday evening 18th September (BOOKINGS

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