Though Umea is one of the key dates in Sweden’s jazz calendar it also shines an indirect spotlight on the cultural riches of the city. Museums are not in short supply. In between gigs a short stroll along the embankment of the Ume River, takes you to the grandiose Bildmuseet where there is an excellent piece of video art by Portugal’s Grada Kilomba that spins Greek mythology, from Narcissus to Oedipus, into a web of deeply enlightening debate about racial politics and colonialism, with a passing nod to Martiniquan intellectual colossus Frantz Fanon. Stroll back from there and you can visit the Guitar Museum, which charts the evolution of the axe beyond the wildest feedback loops of any Fender devotee. There is thus a symmetry to the sight of a Stratocaster-strapped Scott Henderson headlining on the penultimate night of the four-day event at the Folkhuset, around the corner from aforesaid six-string Mecca.
Fans of his beloved Tribal Tech days will know that he is able to rock out, while keeping on the tastefully intelligent side of all things fusion, and a hard-hitting trio that, at its peak, invokes Hendrix and Pastorius in a great jam session in the sky, goes down well. The venue is in fact a multi-purpose cultural center with a number of performance spaces – intimate ‘lab’, large studio, busy foyer, atmospheric basement ballroom and well-appointed concert hall – that loosely recalls the Sage in Gateshead insofar as it allows punters to see a wide variety of gigs without having to hustle from one end of town to another. Audiences seemed to have less fatigue than at other festivals and were generally responsive to the national and international fare on the bill. American trumpeter-flugelhorn player Theo Croker is a highlight for the richness of his material as well as advanced musicianship of his quartet, which handles the deeply soulful, warm, post-Glasper sound with impressive aplomb, especially pianist Michael King and double-bassist Eric Wheeler, both of whose percolating solos, continually pushing harmonic and rhythmic ideas, threaten to raise the roof. Y-Otis, helmed by Swedish saxophonist-composer Otis Sandjo, is another highlight for its zestful, high energy and sharply contemporary take on electric groove traditions, nodding occasionally to Thundercat and Dilla, yet finding a personal creative pocket via the leader’s own choppy, loop-like lines and Dan Nicholls’ technicolour palette of digital and processed sounds. Both Sandjo and compatriot, bassist Petter Eldh also appear with Swiss vocalist Lucia Cadotsch, whose acclaimed Speak Low project sustains its discreetly charming creative growth by way of covers of anybody from Rickie Lee Jones and Randy Newman to Duke Ellington. The contrast between the precisely contained yet deeply expressive delivery of the leader and the focused turbulence the horn and bass create around her is engrossing.
Another trio with a wholly different approach, but equally impressive creative dividend, is Orakel, which is an encounter of different generations of Swedish improvisers. Tenor saxophonist-clarinetist Per Texas Johansson is one of the country’s great soloists and, despite being the juniors in the group, double-bassist Torbjorn Zetterberg and drummer Konrad Agnas are anything but passengers on an interesting journey through enticing eastern-flavoured motifs, sprightly folkish dances and imaginative tone poetry. Attention to detail, not to mention a thoughtful embrace of space and stillness, enables the musicians to create a number of fraught, bewitching ambiances.
If that is an advert for all that is small and beautiful, then Danish Radio Big Band and John Scofield stand proudly at the other end of the spectrum. The veteran American guitarist is on good form, pitting his blues-stamped, cunningly behind the beat approach to a 17-piece unit with soloists of the caliber of trumpeter Gerard Presencer, who also shines when given the nod to step out from the brass section. It’s tidy and presentable as an iteration of the orchestral history of jazz, yet there is nothing to lift the set above the rank of enjoyable to that of essential. No such issues for what is very possibly the best gig of the festival, Magic Spirit Quartet, an international group that comprises two Swedes, trumpeter Goran Kajfes and keyboardist Jesper Nordenstrom, Moroccan guimbri player/vocalist Majid Bekkas, and Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg. All-star affairs of this kind don’t always gel, but there is a match-winning chemistry between the players that enhances their excellent material. Largely modal, with skipping repeated basslines from Bekkas, which have the most beautiful, almost subsonic thickness, the songs leave the audience enraptured for the rousing melodies as well as stealthy solos. There is a polychromatic palette created by the synths, brass and strings that has an ancient-to-future vibe that continues to inspire from Chicago to Tabriquet.