Nordic Jazz 08 was a classy affair held on the roof of the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, last Thursday and Friday. The House of Sweden is a beautifully modernist structure right on the Potomac River, between the Kennedy Center and the Georgetown waterfront; an idyllic location for a concert, as long as the volume levels are loud enough to drown out the planes flying overhead on landing patterns for National Airport further down the river. I was only able to attend Thursday evening, which featured two bands whose music could be considered “jazz” only in a fringe manner: Wildbirds and Peacedrums and Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil.
The former played first, treating the debatably attentive audience to a brief set of highly rhythmic, swooping, dramatic folk. The band consisted only of a vocalist and a drummer, with the vocalist doubling on kalimba, percussion and some interesting kind of stringed instrument played in the same manner that a pianist might pluck strings inside a grand piano (pictured below). I’d seen offhand comparisons to Björk, but I’m way out of my element here in terms of finding comparisons or a way to describe this stuff. Suffice to say that it was surprisingly captivating, and I’d recommend a visit to their Myspace page for a listen. (That’s the ultimate reviewer cop-out right there.)
Second was Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil, with whom I am familiar through their album Yggdrasil. That album features the considerable vocal talents of Eivør Palsdóttír, but sadly she was not in attendance at this show (and in fact I have no idea if her collaboration with this band on that album was simply a one-shot deal). This was, then, with one notable exception a purely instrumental journey. What this band played — 1982’s eight-movement, album-length piece Ravnating — could hardly be termed jazz; in fact, I’d imagine it has more in common with modern classical composition. Each movement had a unique feel, often led by a different instrument, but always evoking imagery of the oceans and the sky (the field recordings of bird calls towards the end obviously had something to do with this). Given the context of this show, I was pleasantly surprised to find some considerable edge to the composition in places, with a splintered guitar melody in the second or third movement providing some real teeth. For the most part, though, this piece ebbed and flowed peacefully, with long stretches of minimalist quietude punctuated by beautiful melodies elaborated on the lead instruments (sax, flute, guitar, occasionally Blak’s piano). After this lengthy, subtle piece, which succeeded in losing the attention of a dismaying portion of the audience, Blak’s band launched into some more accessible, folk-oriented songs that were enjoyable but somewhat less provocative. The one exception was an interpretation of what sounded like some sort of Native American tune, in which Blak sang with a surprisingly soulful lilt.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this show, purchased a copy of Ravnating, and wish I purchased a copy of Wildbirds and Peacedrums‘ latest recording. The setting was beautiful and the weather perfect, although my sense is that at least half the audience was there for the scene as much as the music; everyone was snappily dressed (cocktail dresses and button-down shirts all around; this is Georgetown after all) and a substantial portion of people were hanging out far from the stage, talking throughout the performances. Thankfully, they were separated enough from the more attentive, seated audience that they were not generally too distracting.
Photographically, not much about this was ideal. The stage was full of clutter, making it difficult (even with a long lens) to isolate performers in a simple, compelling image. The light was great for Wildbirds and Peacedrums, illuminated as they were in the warm tones of the setting sun. For Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil it was a completely different story; the sun was down and the stage was lit solely by a few white spotlights that provided splotchy lighting: brightest on the drummer, who was so far back that I couldn’t get a clean shot of him anyway, dim on Blak and the reedist, and almost nonexistent on the bassist and guitarist. For a setting like this I certainly wouldn’t expect fancy lighting, but this was very challenging indeed. I got some usable shots but nothing particularly compelling.
As always, a full selection of photos are contained in a photoset over at Flickr.