The Nordic Tone - the story of four Danish musicians' quest for the tone closest to the heart.
“Tonight, we will find the Nordic tone,” is how pianist Pojken Flensburg presents the evening's programme for the capacity audience in Old Åby church, not far from Århus, the second city of Denmark. Pojken it was who founded the Danish quartet, Nordens Tone, which also comprises saxophonist Hans Mydtskov, bass-player Torben Bjørnskov and the singer Jullie Hjetland.
The four musicians soon bring a smile to the audience's lips, creating a warm, congenial atmosphere in the little church as, with a twinkle in their eye and close contact to their listeners, they persuade folk to tramp their feet in time to the playful medley of melodic and narrative Nordic tunes, songs, hymns and psalms, sung in the original Scandinavian languages by the talented Danish-Norwegian vocalist.
The Song my Grandmother Sang
”I am a jazz musician, jazz music is my world,” says Pojken Flensburg, when I meet them a few days later at a pokey little café in Copenhagen city. ”Five years ago I ended a concert with a single Danish song, one my grandmother taught me when I was small. The audience loved it right away, more than the other tunes I had played that evening, and I realised that it was because, like me, they, too, were familiar with both tune and lyrics. That experience inspired me to seek out the special tone we have in Scandinavia, because that's where I come from. I discussed with the other two musicians how we could find what we call the Nordic Tone, and we have dug down into the detail of the music. We wanted to include songs, and since we play lots of music from all the Scandinavian countries, we had to find exactly the right singer.”
The Right Singer
It's true, the three instrumentalists in Nordens Tone have a jazz background, but it was to be the world of folk music that brought them the right singer. This is Jullie Hjetland, a young Danish-Norwegian woman with qualifications from the folk music department of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts Southern Denmark in Odense, and a master's degree from the Ole Bull Academy in Norway. She has sung and recorded albums in various Scandinavian constellations, among them the inter-Scandinavian band KRYSS, where the Nordic sound and a mix of folk and jazz were on the agenda. In Nordens Tone she was asked from the start to sing in several languages.
”To begin with I was to sing in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, all languages I speak fluently. But when we started to gather material for our first album, we found ourselves playing music from Iceland, Greenland, Finland and the Faroes, too. I decided to accept the challenge and to sing in all these languages. I had coaching in pronunciation, helped by, among others, the Greenlandic artist, Miki Jacobsen, who sang the Greenlandic song for me, until I mastered the sounds. I sing almost perfectly in these languages, although my coaches tease me with my Danish or Norwegian accent.”
Working with the material, the band members are very conscious not to render the music too jazzy, to avoid using all the typical chord patterns and decorations of a jazz arrangement. Pojken Flensburg explains that they have made an effort to keep the music pure and simple, to keep to the original melody, but to add a nuance of jazz improvisation.
”It's fascinating for me, accustomed to playing American jazz standards on the Danish jazz scene, to tackle these Scandinavian tunes and songs. With the two other jazz musicians in the band I have discovered that this music is closer to our hearts. American music is wonderful, but this Nordic music is easier and more natural for us to play, because this is where we are from.”
A couple of years ago, Nordens Tone released an album of more or less well-known songs from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes, and they have just completed another. Jullie Hjetland tentatively sips her hot chocolate with chilli and tells how this new record includes several of their own compositions, as well as tonal and sound experiments influenced by both the Nordic music traditions and the harsh but beautiful Scandinavian countryside. “Since we released the first album we have played a lot together, so now we know each other much better: we can stretch ourselves and find humour and irony in the music”
Applause and Cheers in the Little Church
The atmosphere in Old Åby church is replete with musical delight. The Nordens Tone concert culminates in Jullie singing a medley of Norwegian songs, the final one a saucy wedding song, accompanied by hambone: she claps, snaps her fingers, drums with her hands on her chest, skull, cheeks and mouth. The audience cheer and applaud, and when the band wind up the concert con brio with a New Year song from Greenland about casting out the bad and taking only the good into the new year, then both concert-organisers and audience are more than happy with their evening, and reward the musicians with applause that makes the church rafters ring.
The concert is over, cars packed and the band on their way out into the world with their unique mix of jazz and Nordic folk music. Every evening in the days to come, the four musicians will start their concert in similar style. Pojken Flensburg will look out over the expectant audience from his place behind the piano and invite them to participate in his and the band's great quest: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! Tonight, we will find the Nordic Tone!”.
Translated by Rod Sinclair.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Nordens Tone, (2) Jullie Hjetland (from website).