The idea that the creative centre of jazz has moved from New York to just outside the Arctic Circle is an attractive one, especially if you want to replace the adjective "cool" with "cold". Unfortunately, it's not true. But if Norway's Jan Garbarek is a latter-day John Coltrane, and Sweden's Esbjörn Svensson the new Bill Evans (and they may well be), the conceit does have something going for it. Scandinavian jazz is very hot right now, despite the climate. Jazzland, the Oslo-based record label run by pianist and producer Bugge Wesseltoft, launches four new albums with a gig at London's Cargo on 27 January. The following day, the long-awaited second album by Stockholm's Koop arrives in the shops, preceded this Monday by the single, "Summer Sun".
Waltz for Koop is something special and almost unprecedented: a jazz-meets-electronic-dance-music album that actually sounds like jazz. This is because it swings, with pitter-patter snare-drums and loping bass-lines galumphing along in dreamy waltz-time, overlaid by languid vocals and baritone sax or chirpy flute. There is a retro feel, but the references are a world away from the usual cod-jazz signifiers, with the easy, modal swing of Sixties European bands, such as the Clarke-Boland Sextet, preferred to hard bop, Latin, or cheesy organ combos. Homage to the past also comes from spoken-word samples, including an excerpt from an interview with John Coltrane, recorded in Sweden when he toured with Miles Davis. The present is represented by appearances from Earl Zinger – who used to trade under the name Galliano – and Terry Callier, and by the technology involved: there are more than 100 samples on the recording. Not that you'd notice, as even the electronic beats are unusually subtle.
Koop, which translates as co-operation, is the duo of Oscar Simonsson and Magnus Zingmark, who met as philosophy students at Uppsala University. Their first album, Sons of Koop, was produced in 1997 for the Swedish independent label Diesel. It was then picked up by Columbe d'Or, a new imprint of Universal, which immediately folded when the parent company merged with Polygram in 1998. Sons of Koop, over which Simonsson and Zingmark had laboured for years in their home studio on Dark Island, off the coast of northern Sweden, accordingly got lost.
When I interviewed Koop then, they were resolutely high-minded, preferring to talk of Plato and "the beauty and balance of the parts" rather than any notional similarity to the French group Air, whose success was probably responsible for Universal's interest.
Interviewing them again this week, they come across as slightly chastened by their earlier experiences. "Now, we try not to think too much," says Simonsson. "On the first album we had more concepts, and we listened to everything over and over again. It was a typical debut album; we were trying to make every song the best song ever written, but on an album every song doesn't have to be the best. The new record is more urban, while the first was more rural. It's also more straight, straight from the heart. The key was the track 'Waltz for Koop', which set the standard, as it was the first song we had written in a major key, and it was also very short."
The relative shortness of the tracks – and of the album, which clocks in at an impressively minimal 35 minutes – is part of the appeal. Waltz for Koop is closer to the catchiness of proper pop than it is to electronic dance music, even the type that no one dances to. There's even something of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto's pop bossa nova about it, without the gracelessness that such updatings usually bring to mind.
"We wanted to do a jazz album, not a jazzy album," Simonsson says. "I would say that we define jazz as a rhythm, and that's a swing rhythm. There's a lot of stuff that just puts a saxophone over a house beat, but to us that isn't jazz. The rhythm is the core of jazz in our opinion. It's not only about improvisation and so on; it's about jazz melodies and good songs, and we wanted to write songs in a more traditional jazz form."
"We had a lot of difficulties with the record label after the first album," Zingmark says. "The guys who signed us disappeared and it was kind of depressing. We started making the new album in early 1999, then we took a year off and went back in late summer. The idea was to make a more organic album, more about songwriting than creating sounds. We wanted to use the old jazz form of ABA instead of verse and chorus, like a pop song; just a verse, change the key, and back to the verse, with swing rhythms and walking bass, like a piano trio album only with percussion and electronics again."
Asked whether the Koop philosophy has changed, Zingmark is wary. "I think we are less pretentious now, but beauty is still on the agenda," he says. "We've discovered that beauty can be happy, too."
He's also embarrassed about the new album's cover, in which he and Simonsson are photographed wearing dresses. "It was for fun, one afternoon. Actually, it wasn't my idea." The notion that Stockholm is one of the new capital cities of jazz gets short shrift too. Evidently there's nowhere to play, which is what jazz musicians say everywhere, even in New York.
'Waltz for Koop' is out 28 Jan on JCP RecordsReuse content