|Oddjob, with leader Goran Kajfes second from right|
(Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall. 17th Frb 2017. Live review + interview by Rob Mallows)
You don’t often see face-painting and balloons at a jazz gig. But then again, there aren’t many jazz gigs like Jazzoo.
Catch ‘em early seems to be the philosophy behind this jazz primer for tots and pre-teens. Sweden’s Oddjob has performed their award-winning Jazzoo jazz multimedia show since 2013 and brought it to London as part of the South Bank Centre’s Imagine Children's Festival, showcasing Nordic children’s culture.
Oddjob is one of Sweden’s top rated bands, with a career stretching over twenty years of contemporary instrumental jazz, their most recent album being an 2016 E.P. of Weather Report covers.
Comprising Goran Kajfes - trumpet, Per “Ruskträsk” Johansson - sax and bass clarinet, Daniel Karlsson - keyboards, Lars Skoglund - drums and Peter Forss, double and electric bass - plus ‘VJ’ Helene Berg - Oddjob has hit upon a winning formula with Jazzoo that has had the added bonus of boosting interest in their music for adults.
Jazzoo is an adventure about a forest of creatures, each with its own musical motif and animation. Think Peter & The Wolf but with swing.
An elephant walking through the forest trumpets away (literally) to an easy jazz vibe. A woodpecker’s rhythmic hammering is picked up by Skoglund's snare drums and leads into some charming folk jazz bird calls by Johansson. Each animal is accompanied by its own simple story and audience interactions.
Presently, a duck swaggers onto the screen, the king of swingers. But he suddenly loses his swagger as the band drops into free-jazz then switches to a minor key to show the duck is crying, before switching back to up-tempo, major chords and funky piano chops from Karlsson that show the kids that everything is alright with Mr Duck. Phew!
When a thirsty hippopotamus, after a long run accompanied by Brecker Brothers-style funk jazz, jumps into a pool of water to cool down and end the show, it was an emotionally uplifting and fun end to a show that highlighted music's story-telling powers.
Across forty-fives minutes Oddjob entertained young and old with their simple but brilliantly executed musical pictures. The animated illustrations by British artist Ben Javens were delightfully naive in style - think classic Vision-On animation with a hint of Roobarb & Custard - and perfectly matched the sounds on stage.
While the jazz was simple, it was not simplistic: Oddjob never talked down musically to the children. For a generation of youngsters more used to listening to Peppa Pig than Oscar Petersen, the joy of hearing fun new sounds and anarchic visuals was plainly evident.
Rob Mallows spoke briefly to members of Oddjob after the gig:
London Jazz News: Who came up with the idea for "Jazzoo"?
Per Johansson: We developed it on the tourbus, really. Since we started Oddjob we’ve had a pop group-type approach to the band and we’ve always developed everything together. We have kids and we thought we should try and re-make our music for them, maybe a bit shorter, a bit simpler, but still our music. We wanted to create something that stimulated emotions and creativity in children.
Daniel Karlsson: And of course, there are no lyrics, so children can use their imaginations to create their own stories.
LJN: You’ve simplified the music, but it’s not simple - it’s proper jazz.
Goran Kajfes: Absolutely. There’s a tradition in Sweden since the ‘sixties of some of our greatest jazz musicians producing music - sometimes even free jazz - for young children, and we wanted to pick up on that tradition because we grew up with that music.
LJN: And how did the link to the illustrations of Ben Javens come about?
Goran Kajfes: I checked out a cover he’d done of an album I was listening to and I thought his style could work well with the music we were beginning to develop. So I contacted him and asked if he’d consider doing some animations to the musical ideas that were emerging.
Per Johansson What he came back with was great, we though yeah, it was perfect, you know.
LJN: Writing for one year-olds and upwards must be a challenge, perhaps even more so than writing for adults?
Per Johansson: We had to think differently, sure. We didn’t want to make ‘kid’s music’; we wanted to make serious music for children that was also fun. So, we thought a lot about the music we liked, and our kids liked, and that was the starting point.
Peter Forss And we had to think of what theme would tie it all together. Animals and kids always works, but we also thought it was a great hook on which to develop some jazz music; what would a shark sound like, which instrument would play it? Then we had to think about how we could build on the sounds and themes we had. We thought first about having dancers to make it interactive, but when we saw what the animators could do, an animated story became the right way to go.
LJN: Since 2013, what reaction have you had to "Jazzoo"?
Goran Kajfes: It’s been great. We won a Swedish Grammis, but also a French Grammy for best children’s album, and we’re now very popular in France on the back of it. And we’re up for a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, so it’s proving quite a hit.
LJN: And I understand the success of "Jazzoo" has helped Oddjob increase it’s popularity as a group with more mature audiences.
Goran Kajfes: Definitely. When we go to France, for example, it’s mostly on the back of Jazzoo gigs. It’s nice in that we can play for the kids in the afternoon as a way to chill out and prepare for a great gig with the adults as Oddjob proper in the evening.
LJN: And what next for Oddjob?
Peter Forss: Well, we are thinking about doing another Jazzoo album, maybe this time with farm animals!