"Afro Nordic Soul Jazz" Not As Foreign As You'd Think
Journey of the Sledge Dog and the Camel is a witty title for a Danish sextet performing African-tinged jazz. The newly formed Martin Lutz Group's fusion of Nordic and African styles is splendid and seamless. Slow, strong melodies are essential to both traditions so the hybrid compositions sound natural and unpretentious. Sledge dogs and camels are beloved beasts of burden. Likewise, these musicians carry the songs skillfully and selflessly.
Martin Lutz is an accomplished young pianist and composer (classical, popular, and jazz). His neo-romantic choral compositions have received international recognition. He is all over the vibrant Danish jazz scene with a trio, Lutz/Nørgaard/Nielsen, and the aforementioned sextet, Martin Lutz Group. He shares his graduate degrees in musicology and German language by teaching the same subjects at a secondary school in Copenhagen. In addition to his record releases, he has recently published a rhythmic piano instruction book.
All five of Lutz's youthful band-mates are respected jazz musicians, graduates of Danish music conservatories, and teachers at local schools and workshops. On Journey of the Sledge Dog and the Camel, Jacob Rose played alto sax, soprano sax and flute. He received the prestigious Jambazzadeur Award at the age of 28 and remains a first call session player for records, television, and radio. He also produced the recording at ROVA, his own recording studio and label. Mads Ole played tenor sax. He also leads his own Mads Ole Quartet, plays in the Ib Glindemanns Orchestra and other ensembles, and provides music for theater productions. Alto saxman Jakob Skov is best-known for his experimental group Moskus, but also plays in the Saxophone Quartet of Northern Jutland and other groups. Drummer Ricco Kjær has studied under many prominent European percussionists, and is a sideman for the Mads Granum Trio and other diverse bands. Bassist Morten Ankarfeldt has worked with everyone who's anyone in Denmark, leads his own Magnify Quintet, and was part of the Carnegie Hall Professional Jazz Workshop with major coaches David Liebman, Rufus Reid and others.
Lest we forget, jazz (like most American musical forms) began with collaboration between African natives and recently immigrated Europeans. Journey of the Sledge Dog and the Camel is thus a return to jazz roots. It contains beautiful arrangements balanced with intelligent improvisations, swinging all the while. The musicians' timing is so precise it becomes impossible to tell one instrument from the other. You are hearing actual chords, not six instruments playing notes from a given chord. Listeners are surprised by joy, reminded of the possibilities of instrumental jazz.
Musicians have long insisted that slow songs are the most difficult to play. The Lutz Group doesn't let it show, every nuance is intentional and exact. The opening title track is a perfect example. It is really slow and immensely gorgeous, like a slow sail along the Ivory Coast. As they say, "no hurry in Africa". Many listeners claim "Take My Hand" as a favorite, a ballad featuring soprano sax as leader. The players their sweet time setting up the melody, blending perfectly, then take turns breaking down the diverse harmonies. Ankarfeldt's bass solo is particularly heartfelt. Up-tempo songs arrange underlying grooves with soloists soaring above. "Psychonologic" proves the group's ability to cut loose with energy reminiscent of a 1980s TV theme, complete with wah-wah solo. Thankfully, the rest of the record is devoid of such electronic manipulations.
Having grown up in southern and eastern Africa, Lutz's inspiration is drawn from personal experience. On his website, he describes his latest music as "part of a very simple universe. The almost 'naïve' chords.... and accessible melody are the foundation, especially in the scoring of the saxophone group". When blending Nordic lyricism with the simplicity of African melodic roots, he compares the "energetic and groovy" results to American soul music. Perhaps this explains its immediate familiarity, even to brand new listeners. You've probably heard this sort of idea before--Abdullah Ibrahim, Paul Simon, Ry Cooder and so on--but Journey of the Sledge Dog and the Camel possesses a universal truth and beauty.
Speaking of beauty, Mikkel Bech-Petersen's cover design, sans-serif font, and monochrome photography are purely Danish; a brilliant study in simplicity and style. The two-tone artwork shows an igloo's gradual metamorphosis into a pyramid, a visual unification of Lutz's title and musical concept. If only self-produced American jazzmen had half this much taste!
Let's face it, geography has never been a favorite subject of American students, and the term "World Music" is an instant turn-off for many people (sadly). Distance from Nordic jazz and African jazz is a problem for North-American audiences, but we are in danger of missing this important new union. Buy Journey of the Sledge Dog and the Camel now and spread the word. Our greatest hope is that the Martin Lutz Group will be successful enough to launch an American tour.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.