Hamburg’s Got Groove

Hamburg’s iconic Elbphilharmonie is just as famous for its insane acoustics as it is for its programme, which weaves traditional classical music together with rock bands, festivals, and jazz — like the Scandinavian piano band Rymden, for example.

On the occasion of their concert, we met the jazz trio in the so-called ‘Elphi’, where we delved into the history of the concert hall and considered, among other questions, whether jazz is the classical music of the 21st century.

It’s an uncharacteristically warm afternoon in February and the observation deck at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is teeming with visitors. Open to the general public, the plaza — which boasts a 360-degree view onto Germany’s second-largest city — has drawn over half a million guests since it opened in November 2016. Both of tonight’s performances — the avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson in the Recital Hall and jazz supergroup Rymden in the Grand Hall — have already sold out.Surveying the scene, it’s hard to imagine that the Herzog & de Meuron-designed concert hall was once mired in controversy. But back in 2010, as the scheduled opening date was delayed and costs ballooned from the planned 186 million to an estimated 323 million euros (the final price tag was an eye-watering 798 million), public support for the project dipped to an all-time low. It wasn’t just the city’s financial mismanagement that irritated locals; for many, the Elbphilharmonie had become a symbol of elitism — a place funded by taxpayers for the benefit of a wealthy few. 

Fast-forward nine years and all signs of dissent have disappeared. Not only has the building’s design been widely celebrated by the press, but it has also proven to be a commercial success. The outcome can’t be attributed to the building alone. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the Elbphilharmonie’s programme includes a melange of genres, from singer-songwriters and rock bands to pop acts and traditional folk musicians. 

The Elbphilharmonie has also reached out to other groups in Hamburg who might have otherwise given the concert hall a wide berth; they organised a festival of Syrian music in 2017, and since 2016 have acted as a venue for the citywide Reeperbahn Festival, a mecca for young indie music fans.

This approach is increasingly being implemented in venues across Europe: ‘You’ll find many a concert house with the same policy, from Müpa Budapest to the Philharmonie de Paris, from the Barbican in London to BOZAR in Brussels,’ says Tom Schulz, a spokesperson for the Elbphilharmonie. ‘People of all ages have grown up with a broad variety of music from many different genres and, more often than not, different cultures. There’s a level of excellence in all of these art forms that needs to be cherished and displayed. Jazz, for instance, could be considered as the classical music of the 20th century.’

The Elbphilharmonie is now on its third edition of Jazz at the Phil, which brings together legendary musicians from all over Europe, Africa, and the US who — in typical Elbphilharmonie fashion — mix styles ranging from contemporary hard bop and rock to electronic and bossa nova. Tonight’s performers, the Scandinavian piano trio Rymden — consisting of Bugge Wesseltoft from Norway and Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström from Sweden — are perfect examples of the programme’s spirit. Full of crashing drums and electronic reverb, their debut album, ‘Reflections and Odysseys’, reflects clear influences from outside the jazz canon. Heard live, its tracks oscillate between ambient soundscapes reminiscent of prog rockers Pink Floyd and the stirring melancholia of a Hollywood movie soundtrack.

Although they’ve only released one album together, to play in such a prestigious concert hall as the Elbphilharmonie is by no means a new experience for the band. Individually — Bugge as a soloist and Dan and Magnus as members of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) — the musicians have been pushing boundaries in the European jazz world since the early 90s. ‘When I first went to Stockholm to study, the jazz scene was very much about American jazz,’ explains Magnus, referring to the influence of bebop, a subgenre of jazz developed in the mid-40s which is characterised by its fast tempo and rapid chord changes. ‘It felt like after e.s.t — although it was not only us; it was [more] like a movement — people started to look into their own stuff more, and tried to see what they could do from their own perspectives.’
The result of this shift was that musicians such as Dan, Magnus, and Bugge started to tap into their Scandinavian roots and mine different genres for influences. ‘Our generation was inspired by other types of music than bebop,’ says Bugge. ‘We were inspired by rock elements and lots of different things, and that came to the surface. We went to clubs and played with DJs; there was a very fresh energy. When I look back, I think it changed the perspective of European jazz.’

After years of moving in the same music circles, they’ve finally decided to come together — in part because they wanted to experience what a trio was like. ‘I think it’s about the energy flow,’ explains Magnus, ‘because it’s small enough to turn fast together and the energy goes around. It doesn’t go back-and-forth as you do in a duo. The more people you have, the longer it takes to turn the ship.’ This shared direction shines through both on and off stage; the trio is constantly cracking jokes, clearly delighted to have the opportunity to work together.
It’s also reflected in their mutual stance against genre snobbery. ‘I’m kind of tired with [the idea that] the jazz people play the jazz club and the rock people play rock clubs, because I see more and more audiences who listen to all kinds of music,’ says Bugge. ‘I think it’s great that they can have a variety of genres and music in a place like the Elbphilharmonie.’

That being said, for the members of Rymden, jazz remains their greatest love. ‘It’s one of the very few art forms I know where the audience is being exposed to something [that’s] being created in front of them,’ explains Magnus. ‘You have the chance to go on stage and just try to create something, and you do the best you can. Sometimes it really goes down the drain, but other times it works; you get the audience with you and then it’s this fantastic thing.’
Dan agrees: ‘For me, improvisation is really important, otherwise I would play something else.’ To illustrate his band mate’s point, Bugge sticks out his arm and pulls back his sleeve. ‘Do you know how to tell we’re jazz musicians?’ he asks with mock earnestness. ‘No watches!’


The Jazz Acoustics

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