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Vintage Swedish big band re-release: Bernt Rosengren tries something different

Bernt Rosengren Big Band with Horace Parlan piano, Doug Raney guitar first CD reissue [January 29, 2013 Caprice Records & Naxos of America]

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I felt, however, that I wanted to try something different. I had also started to feel kind of isolated, and wanted a better contact with other musicians in Stockholm. In the mid-1950s, when I started out as a musician, I played with dance orchestras that had the big band characteristics, with arranged ensembles behind improvised solos and everything … so my own band kind of brought me back to where I started.

Swedish jazz musician Bernt Rosengren was already fronting his own quartets when the big band bug bit. Caprice Records captured the moment in May 1980 and, with Naxos of America, re-released it on CD January 29, 2013.
Swedish jazz musician Bernt Rosengren was already fronting his own quartets when the big band bug bit. Caprice Records captured the moment in May 1980 and, with Naxos of America, re-released it on CD January 29, 2013.Gunnar Smoliansky

When Swedish jazz artist Bernt Rosengren turned to big band in 1975, he’d enjoyed a 20-year career mastering the quartet in bop, post-bop, and every fusion known to man. Those who knew him were puzzled by the departure — big band was a lot to take on — but to the experienced bandleader, sharing the wealth was a natural progression.

“I felt, however, that I wanted to try something different,” Rosengren said. “I had also started to feel kind of isolated, and wanted a better contact with other musicians in Stockholm. In the mid-1950s, when I started out as a musician, I played with dance orchestras that had the big band characteristics, with arranged ensembles behind improvised solos and everything … so my own band kind of brought me back to where I started.”

Already well-known for his big sax sound, Rosengren developed his 19-man big band from Swedish musicians he’d known and worked with. These were guys who could work their instruments around jazz like nobody’s business, at the height of their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. Included among them were American ex-pats Horace Parlan on piano, Doug Raney on guitar, and Tim Hagans on trumpet. The Americans played with legends Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton and Wood Herman Big Bands, so they fit right in.

The Bernt Rosengren Big Band was well-received, having landed a prestigious, regular gig at Stockholm’s Bal Palais Dance Hall. Following this seasonal stint, Caprice Records execs made the wise decision to capture the best of the big band’s repertoire on vinyl around May of 1980. Rosengren would arrange the music.

On January 29, 2013, Caprice Records and Naxos of America reissued the out-of-print LP as a vintage CD, a part of a series of vintage presses given new life digitally. Listening to the nine solid big band tracks — seven original Rosengren numbers — is like going back in time to the 1930s, the jam-packed dance floor, and Count Basie’s orchestra holding court without feeling the age at all. Exactly as the saxophonist intended even before the recording began. “Big band jazz has to have that danceable swing, and the music has to be soloist-based, just like with the old Count Basie band of the 1930s – you know, I’m not that keen on the more pretentious things, like concert suites for big bands … and so on!” Rosengren said.

Rosengren’s big band is anything but pretentious-sounding, or old fashioned, despite the 1930s inspiration. Every note is fresh, clean, and new, as if rediscovered and re-brandished for a new generation – a credit to the saxophonist/arranger/composer himself.

Rosengren, Parlan, Raney, and Hagans provide the improvised solos over the arranged ensembles, lending their own personalities to each equation nicely.

“How Deep Is The Ocean?” – an Irving Berlin favorite – is brightened considerably with the deeply robust swing of Parlan’s piano and Raney’s guitar strokes. Rosengren ties that bow right around the bend, working in between the horn section’s lines and lending an intimate, romantic vibe.

“Hip Walk” is another intimate, sexy romp heightened with Parlan laying down a funky blues swagger that would remain the talk of the town throughout as the horn section weaves accordingly in sync and in staggered time. Rosengren follows Parlan’s honky-tonk-jazz-speak and some of Raney’s finger-licking smacks with a few seductive moves of his own. Rosengren’s enticing sax solos and that fabulous horn section make the listener never want the song to end. This is definitely Rosengren’s intimate jazz quartet interplay floating lithely above a firm big band foundation.

Rosengren just stomps through “The Humming Bees” like a boss, with the horn section playing catch up and softening the hard-driving post-bop beat. In most of the songs, the musicians prove they can play with finesse. But in this one, they do a speed showcase without losing their way melodically.

It takes John Coltrane’s “Naima,” the sixth track, to realize Rosengren’s successful incorporation of guitar into what is essentially a traditional big band format. Instead of sticking out like sore thumb, guitarist Doug Raney fits right in, especially before, after, and during his featured soloists, pianist Horace Parlan and the bandleader, Bernt Rosengren.

The rest of the Bernt Rosengren Big Band does the thankless job of holding steady so the soloists can dance and fly. That this big band flexes so vibrantly, with its own flair, is testament to each one of the members, as well as the bandleader’s discernment.

Here they are: trumpeters Bertil Lövgren, Tim Hagans, Maffy Falay, Lars Färnlöf; trombonists Stanislav Cieslak, Lars Olofsson, Nils Landgren, Sven Larsson; flutist/alto and tenor saxophonist Bernt Rosengren; alto saxophonists Lennart Åberg, Peter Gullin; tenor saxophonists Stefan Isaksson, Tommy Koverhult; baritone saxophonist Gunnar Bergsten; French hornist Håkan Nyquist; pianist Horace Parlan; guitarist Doug Raney; bassist Torbjörn Hultcrantz; and drummer Leif Wennerström.

Bernt Rosengren didn’t have to do big band. He could’ve coasted on his tremendous reputation in and outside Europe after having made it big – at age 19. Shortly thereafter, he’d already earned spots in major showcases, including director Roman Polanski’s 1962 film Knife In The Water and rides with trumpeters Don Cherry and Thad Jones, not to mention pianist George Russell. But he couldn’t resist the call of the big band.

Here’s to restless spirits!