Every music lover who follows Scandinavian jazz and ACT knows the name Nils Landgren. He is one of the most important musicians born and raised in Sweden. It is not possible to fit the genres of music he makes into a single category. Yes, he is first a composer, a trombone master and a singer. But, especially during his days of youth, he was an actor and dancer as well. His professional career is reaching forty years. Looking at the music and albums he has put forth since his youth, he is an artist who has worked with many different genres from pop to rock, R&B to soul and hip-hop, even though he is lately more focused on jazz and funk. Duo and trio projects are Landgren’s important passions. These are mostly embellished with sensitive and romantic ballads, but he is a music person who can surprise his listeners with his experimental searches in special occasions.
This musician celebrated his sixtieth birthday in the February of 2016. Of course, his listeners had some expectations. And the musician just came out with an incredibly surprising and influential album just a few months ago. This wasn’t an album that he recorded solo or with his own band. Siggy Loch, the owner of ACT, wasn’t able to object to his suggestion. This was an album commemorating Leonard Bernstein, who is responsible for bringing popular music into more sophisticated platforms, and has attainted worldwide fame especially through his musicals. So, this was a compilation album consisting of selections from the composer’s musical pieces. Landgren worked in the States to make this album come to life, and was able to convince two musicians after various meetings. One of these was Janis Siegel, one of the vocalists of The Manhattan Transfer, one of the most important groups of the 1970s and 1980s that stood in the point of intersection between jazz and popular music. Janis Siegel, who is also known for her more than ten albums, was one of the guests of the project. The second artist was Vince Mendoza, one of the most important arrangers in the world who is known for his musical accumulation that spans from jazz and pop to flamenco. The artist didn’t only contribute to the album with his re-arrangements on Bernstein’s work. He not only got involved in this album, to be called “Some Other Time”, but he would also end up conducting Bochumer Symphoniker.
Landgren has formed a quartet consisting of some of the most important jazz musicians in Europe, in addition to obtaining these two musicians and an orchestra. The team included Jan Lundgren on the piano, Dieter Ilg on the bass and Wolfgang Haffner on the drums. These musicians made up the rhythm section of the quartet and the album in general. Landgren has worked with them before.
Another important part of this process was picking pieces from Bernstein’s musicals. The team chose twelve pieces for the album from the famous composer’s four musicals. It was unavoidable that half of the collection, meaning six pieces, were taken from his antiquated work “West Side Story” (1957). The rest of the pieces are examples from the famous composer’s musicals “On The Town” (1944) “Wonderful Town” (1952) and “Mass” (1971). Bernstein’s music has always embodied a fundamental diversity. The sound was born from the convergence of classical music, jazz and many different sources of traditional American music. His pieces would occasionally have Latin influences. The composer has created a rather interesting fusion sound. In this aspect, he was the second most important composer after Gershwin. Bernstein graduated from Harvard University and then became the assistant conductor of New York Philharmonic Orchestra at a very early age. He was appointed the musical director of this orchestra only a short time later. He played the role of the orchestra’s conductor during the process of recording many important classical music symphonies as LPs and became a professor during his long academic career.
However, the world knew Bernstein through the musicals he wrote. Especially “West Side Story” (1957) became very popular when it was staged as a musical, and Bernstein became one of the most popular composers in the world when it was adapted to the white screen in 1961. The artist’s first major musical actually was “On The Town”. This musical was adapted as a movie in 1949. Bernstein also wrote musicals for the movies, and was reflecting on a relative sense of socialist sensitivity in his “West Side Story”. The musical revolved around a love story that appears among the gang fight between poor Puerto Rican minority youth and “backstreet” American youth. “West Side Story” embodied an effective politic sensitivity. The topic was the painful clash between lower classes of society. This musical became a symbol of the opposition movement for the youth after it became a film. Of course, the love aspect was the most striking. But the songs also had just as much dramatic elements. It was almost a story of an urban and contemporary Romeo and Juliet. The whole world identified, even if only partly, with the movie and its soundtrack. Many songs from West Side Story, especially Maria, was interpreted by pop, jazz and rock singers and bands and took their places in many recordings. Bernstein’s work did not lose its quality, even though the artist was already a legend because of this musical, and he continued to work as a teacher, pianist and conductor until his death in 1990.
Landgren’s connection to Bernstein, towards whom he has expressed a special kind of appreciation, must be the richness in both their work. Even though Landgren’s education is on classical music and trombone, his musical vision is more than just fusion music; he experiments on musical variety, wanders around many different genres and takes part in very diverse projects. The fact that Landgren is foremost a composer plays a part in this. The artist positions himself as a musician who doesn’t pay attention to the division between different genres, even though he moves between musical-varietal diversity. He can have an interesting fusion experience with one project, while sticking closely with classical music fundamentals in another. He has worked in many different albums and projects that span from pop and folk to funk and experimental jazz, embodying many different music genres. His collaboration work with other musicians attract much attention, as do his solo and group albums.
Landgren completes his trombone focused education at a music college in 1972-78 and continues on to studying at Arvita University and starts to broaden his musical horizon with one of the leading names of Swedish folk-jazz; Beng-Arta Vallin. He has met with trombonist Eje Thella in this same time period and started to shift from his classical music background to improvisation. His own sound and musical attitude embody this reformist search. He starts performing his own music after moving to Stockholm. The variety in his playing attracts attention. Landgren focuses on the pop music arena and starts forming interesting projects, and he finds himself in the big band project, named “Ball of Fire”, with Thad Jones’s invitation in 1981 when he was only 25 years old. He works in countless projects including funk-rock based pieces and projects as well as folk and jazz ones. He displays his other talents, from his careers in acting and dancing to appearing in TV shows, during this process.
However; music has always been the focal point of his life. Landgren’s musical identity fully forms in the 1990s, especially with the sound of “Funk Unit”, which focuses on funk-rock and embodies countless jazzy elements. The band released twelve albums, including live concert recordings, becomes a favorite of the European, especially Scandinavian, music scene with their tours and festival concerts. This means, his earlier work has found a new body with “Funk Unit”. This expansion is the second most important one in Landgren’s music, first one being his solo albums.
He focuses on a jazz and folk based fusion sound in conjunction with his “The Funk Unit” project. This process involves different experimentations on jazz, and makes Landgren’s unique world of ballads possible. His 1993 album “The Ballads” is his first important point of expansion. This embodies a very different sense of spirituality. The climax of this evolution comes with the 2002 album “Sentimental Journey”. The musician gains a more wide-spread popularity thanks to this album. In the later years, “Christmas With My Friends” (2006) and “The Moon, The Stars and You” (2011) albums reflect a similar approach. However; this inclination doesn’t mean much by itself, because he works with many different musicians in duo, trio and group projects and countless albums in a time period that spans from the 1990s until today. The focus in these experiments undoubtedly is the art of jazz. But he goes back and forth between different tendencies that vary from classical music to experimental jazz. For example, his 1987 album “Miles From Duke” that he recorded with Bengt-Arne Wallin, a mentor who is influential in shaping Landgren’s musical ideas, is the first album that lays the foundation of the musician’s jazz vision. We see Landgren working on expanding his jazz vision instead of his virtuosity while he wanders around the main criteria of European jazz in “Vatikled Sketches” that he records with Tomasz Stanko, who is another master of European jazz. Landgren is one of the creators of an interesting sound that emerges at the intersection point between jazz, folk and improvisation in “Swedish Folk Modern”, the first of the two albums he records with Esbjörn Svensson, who has become a legend of Scandinavian jazz in such a short time and remained so until his untimely death at a young age. This search and experimentation never stops. He has worked with a countless number of musicians during these projects. In addition, there are many esteemed musicians whom Landgren supported, played and recorded with. In this sense, Landgren’s name can be mentioned alongside almost 500 other musicians for his album and project work. It is hard to count all these names, however; aside from those we already mentioned, we can give the musicians he has worked with for the ballad-heavy “The Moon, The Stars And You” as an example: Richard Galliano, Joe Sample, Lars Danielsson and Steve Gadd. When we remember the 2004 album “Funky Abba”, we should also mention one of Abba’s stars, Benny Anderson as an example of innovations Landgren is trying to bring to pop music.
The trombonist, who has recorded about thirty albums firsthand in these inclinations we have mentioned, has reached the album “Some Other Time- A Tribute To Leonard Bernstein” after such an accumulation. He also undertook the production of this album, which could be called his sixtieth birthday celebration. The end result was an entirely different experience. We have already emphasized how he formed his band. This was undoubtedly the result of team work, lead by Landgren. Landgren’s identity as a vocalist was again in the foreground in this selection that consists of pieces from four Bernstein musicals that were the symbols of popular music culture. These examples were mainly and inevitably love songs and Landgren made the vocalist Janis Siegel a partner in the album and showed his respect for her.
He was right in doing so, because Siegel was a singer who showed her affinity to African American musics different from American popular music, and of course to jazz. She really achieves the expected performance as a master vocalist in this album. In this sense, we should take a brief look at Siegel’s music career. Siegel starts singing when she was only thirteen years old as a member of the Young Generation band which emerges in the Broadway scene. Her wide-spread fame of course started after she became a member of The Manhattan Transfer in 1972. Even though The Manhattan Transfer was formed in 1969, they became known with their newer line-up which included Siegel. This was such an unbelievable experience, because the singer stayed as a member of this band for thirty-one years. The Manhattan Transfer brought sizeable innovations to the world of popular music. Many different music genres found their places in this vocal group’s sound. Jazz, R&B, pop and doo-wop were the especially interesting ones. They sometimes shifted to a more fusion sound, and then switched to a nostalgic sound during another period and developed an eclectic approach to music. This vocal group project with countless Grammy awards would culminate very valuable experiences for Siegel. Siegel released her first solo album from Atlantic Records, the same label that signed The Manhattan Transfer, in 1981. The musician has twelve albums, including her latest duo album “Some Other Time”, up to date. The musical variety in The Manhattan Transfer reflected in these solo albums one by one in different ways. She took part in various vocal group projects. For example, she worked with the band “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1985 alongside Jon Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin and Dianne Reeves. The nostalgic approach of The Manhattan Transfer could be felt in her solo albums, and her interesting singing style and individual interpretation always provided her with followers and listeners. Her second album “At Home” was nominated for “The Best Female Vocal” during the Grammy Awards, for example. She worked with pianist and composer Fred Hersch for her 1989 album “Short Stories”. This was an album that was heavy on modern pop songs instead of jazz, and consisted of pieces from stars like Judy Collins, Marvin Gaye and James Taylor. Her eclectic musical attitude draws the attention in her 1999 album “The Tender Trap”. She combines many pop songs from the 1930s to the 1980s in this album. She worked with world renowned musicians for her four Telarc albums that were released in the 2000s. She selected forgotten and overlooked songs for her 2004 album “Sketches Of Broadway”.
Siegel’s experience, which we touched upon, gives Bernstein’s songs an interesting identity in this album. However, there is another artist we should mention; the album’s arranger and the conductor of its orchestra, Vince Mendoza. The artists, aside from his career we briefly mentioned in connection to this album, is maybe more importantly a composer and a music person who put out albums. He has such an intricate accumulation that his experiences span from modern music to experimental music genres. Mendoza worked as an arranger for many popular names including stars like Joni Mitchell, Sting, Elvis Costello and Björk. Joe Zavinul, John Scofield, Charlie Haden and Al Di Meola are a few of the names when the art of jazz is concerned. The musician also has 10 albums under his own name which were released by various labels like Blue Note and ACT. He makes interesting connections between his own ideas and many music genres like flamenco, Latin jazz and classical music and reaches a unique musicality and unique understanding of jazz. This versatile music man really adds an interesting dimension to this Bernstein project. He wanders back and forth at the intersection between classical music and jazz, while attributing an interesting interpretation style to the album’s orchestra Bochumer Symphoniker. For example, he doesn’t use the strings. He only uses woodwinds. The end result is an interesting acoustic sound. An inclination towards jazz is evident in most of the songs, but the role of the singers shouldn’t be overlooked in transforming these into new bodies, and an exaggerated evaluation should be avoided. Mendoza sprinkles the soul of classical music to all the compositions and through this, these old and some of them very popular songs gain new identities. We should remember Bochumer Symphoniker’s role in this as well, conducted by Mendoza.
Lastly, we should remind the importance of the members of the Quartet that Landgren formed for this project. That is because these musicians form the rhythm section in most of the pieces. Of course, this is an important responsibility. They are, therefore, like the cement that holds the pieces together. Landgren invited some of the most important musicians to play the bass, drums and piano for this project. Drummer Wolfgang Haffner is one of these important musicians, and he is one of the important talents of post-millennium European jazz with his soft style and interesting technique. The drummer has two project albums “Shadows” (2006) and ”Acoustic Shapes” (2008). Therefore, this latest generation jazz musician brings his own contribution to Landgren’s new project.
Bassist Dieter Ilg has worked with many esteemed jazz musicians, including Landgren, and has a valuable classical music accumulation. Using this accumulation, he impressed his listeners with his variations and interpretations in his 2011 ACT album “Otello Live At Schloss Elmau”. Pianist Jan Lundgren, on the other hand, plays his instrument as a diligent rhythm player, while he surprises with his impressionist approach during some pieces. He is a talent who has made contributions to Scandinavian jazz, like the other two musicians.
Speaking of it as a whole, “Some Other Time” album is prepared with utmost respect to the traditions of jazz and classical music. It wasn’t possible to portray the real characteristics of this music without showing the necessary respect to this attitude when Bernstein’s compositions are concerned. It could be said that Janis Siegel is the most successful in expressing this connection they have made with traditional American music in the songs. During Landgren’s vocals, his loyalty to European music is evident. The musical harmony of the orchestra and quartet is in the spotlight. The dramatic web and emotional density that govern the pieces also are reflected in the performance of the pieces. Landgren’s trombone occasionally becomes as expressive as Siegel’s vocals. However, in his expression he works in the themes of love and passion into the pieces with a lyrical approach. The musical colors, given birth by Vince Mendoza with his arrangement and interpretation of the pieces, carefully performed by the orchestra. The orchestra gives the album, and therefore Bernstein’s songs, a new body with the spiritual atmosphere they create, and with the technical abilities of its members. But with a plain and emotional attitude. The love theme of course is a decisive factor in the songs. But while working on this theme, the songs take the listener to the focal point of modern life and the lack of relationships. Yes, these musicals were somewhat abiding by the codes of popular culture when they first emerged. However, this new formation reflects Bernstein’s emotions and observations, even though it doesn’t form a thematic wholeness. Let’s not forget about the writers who wrote the lyrics for these musicals.
Yes, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, the majority of the pieces in the album come from the “West Side Story” musical. This musical embodies a longing for peace, as well as social critique. It questioned the lifestyle and perception of the “lower class” people in the States. This album also starts with the overture of “West Side Story”. Landgren’s trombone solo reflects the musician’s emotional nature right away. Another piece from the same musical, the arrangement of the warm song titled “Cool” brings forth the characteristics of the art of jazz with Landgren’s vocals. The musician’s trombone solos and the different sound and colors created by the rhythm section make way to a classical jazz approach. This is an effective, mid-tempo interpretation. The biggest hit of “West Side Story”, “Maria”, is another piece included in this album. The album Quartet performs this classic piece accompanied by the orchestra. This piece, which reflects the harmony of these two sets of musicians the best, is shaped through the combination of a symphonic approach and a jazz perspective. It seems to carry the emotions of Maria to the youth and problems of our day. The romantic side of Landgren becomes evident through his vocals and trombone-playing during “Somewhere”, an emotional piece from the same musical. The bridges Landgren Quartet builds between the many talents of Bernstein can be clearly felt during the piece called “One Hand, One Heart”. This interesting ballad embodies a musical variety that steers away from exaggeration. The trombone is played in a clean and deep manner. This composition highlights pianist Lundgren’s narritive side. “Something’s Coming” is the last “West Side Story” piece included in the album. The piece starts incredibly with a focus on the wind instruments. Yes, the whole team is at work during this piece. The emotional connection between Landgren and Siegel’s vocals enchants the listener. The orchestration plays an important role in crafting the musical authenticity. The jazzy elements are relatively in the background during this piece, but there are clues throughout. The orchestral nuances transform the song in question to a whole new body. Pianist Lundgren plays an active role in this piece. The whole variety of the talents of the musicians involved in this project meet each other. The musicality overpowers the dramatic nature of the piece, though. But, after all, this is an experimental search. Of course, it doesn’t reflect all of “West Side Story” spirituality or its thematic web. It is evident that this is not their aim. However, the way they expand these antiquated songs fearlessly is striking. Bernstein would celebrate this pursuit if he was alive.
“On The Town”, performed in 1944, is the first shining experience during Bernstein’s adventure with musicals. It was also adapted as a movie in 1949. Three of its pieces were selected for the album. The most critical point that should be emphasized is the fact that Bernstein was only twenty six years old when this musical was performed on stage. The artist’s classical music accumulation is comperatively more in the foreground. “Some Other Time”, which is also the album’s title, is the first piece from this musical that was included. The common vocals of Landgren and Siegel and the different style they contribute to the song draw the attention right away. The trombone almost seems to speak in this ballad-like piece; it has an important narrative power. The interesting colors of Siegel’s emotional nature give the piece a different taste. The listener first seems to question the orchestral interpretation of Mendoza’s arrangement. However, as the minutes pass, he discovers that they are in the pursuit of a new and rich musical integrity. This also brings forth the originality of the arrangement in the pieces that follow. “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to be Me” are two other songs that were chosen to be included from “On The Town”. During the former, Siegel is accompanied by the Quartet and together they express the main themes of the musical—love and loneliness. Landgren’s emotional trombone-playing also plays an important role in emphasizing these feelings. This song is the best example to Siegel’s diligent vocal style. “Lucky To Be Me” puts the talents of the whole team in the limelight. It gives the listeners an idea about “On The Town”. Most importantly, it shows how Bernstein progresses in his new musical ideas, starting with this very early period in his portfolio.
There are two songs in the album from the 1952 production “Wonderful Town”. The first piece is called “The Story of My Life”. It reminds the listeners of Siegel’s nostalgic interpretations during The Manhattan Transfer. This piece highlights the vocals the most. The romanticism takes musicality under siege. The other piece “A Quiet Girl” from the same musical is embellished with the emotions of love, loneliness and longing. Landgren Quertet is acoompanied by the orchestra and the emotive narration of the trombone is highlighted. This piece is again arranged by Vince Mendoza and it puts emphasis on his talents, maybe more so than any other piece in the album. This composition puts the vocalist in the focus with her musical interpretation talents, instead of just accompanying the rest of the team. Dieter Ilg’s bass conversation is striking. “A Simple Song” is the last piece of the album. It is a song from the 1971 production “Mass”, which is a good example to Bernstein’s mature period musicals. An interesting fact is that “Mass” musical resurfaced almost thirty years after “On The Town”. However; even this single song from the musical is enough to prove how Landgren and his team execute an impeccable sense of wholeness in their performance. Piano functions as an incredible rhythm instrument in the strong orchestration of “A Simple Song”.
This album, which is a show of respect to Bernstein by its architect Nils Landgren, is a product of a diligently crafted project. None of the musicians or the orchestra that contributed to the album tried to emphasize their own vocals or personal musical approach. They formed a mysterious consensus. The most important common denominator is their loyalty to the structure built by Mendoza with his arrangements. This structure brought forth a rare kind of harmony by spiralling around musical pieces that are fundamentally different both in setup and composition. That is why we put the focus on the big team behind the interpretations of these pieces. It is one of the hardest things in the world to stay loyal to classic structures while creating something innovative. Despite this, it didn’t surprise us that Landgren contributes a new aspect to this album, maybe due to the special occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Landgren has such an eclectic musical approach that he can easily integrate different musical genres in his compositions without damaging their integrity. “Some Other Time” is an important musical moment in Landgren’s life. However, we have no doubt that it will give birth to many other creative ideas. Siegel contributes as a masterful and experienced vocal artist to Landgren’s project. We should mention the act company’s interest in such projects. I remember Bohuslan Big Band’s 2011 album “Don’t Fence Me In”, to which Landgren also contributed. Famous Colin Towns arranged another American music genius Cole Porter’s compositions for this album and also directed the project.
“Some Other Time” – Nils Landgren/ Janis Siegel