While searching for a new musical sensation, something a little less mundane, it felt necessary to look beyond the boundaries of pop. In an attempt to find jazz music that could make an emotional connection, I got help from an unexpected source, Danish singer Marie Mørck.
It's true that there are still innovators in pop music. Anyone who says that mainstream pop and rock music is irredeemably terrible just hasn't found something that resonates in a while. Nonetheless, to get a kick from life, we sometimes need to take a holiday and travel somewhere new. The same is true with music; to really appreciate great pop and rock, sometimes it's good to go on a journey into other styles.
Jazz artists had entered and left my Spotify queue in the past, but it's just starting to hit home what makes the musical style so great. Please bear in mind, before you get too critical of what is a true beginner's view of jazz, that this isn't an article that is trying to explain the form. It's just an attempt to connect with it.
What's astounding about jazz is how it's possible to go in directions with a song that pop just doesn't allow. This may be partly because jazz isn't bound by the verse-chorus-verse structure of much of popular music, but also because individual musicians are allowed so much more freedom within a jazz band. While the aim is the same - to form a cohesive whole that engages the listener - how jazz musicians get there is different.
What led to this change of viewpoint on jazz? A lot of great acts have taken to the stage at Philly Joe's, Tallinn's only dedicated jazz club and a place where the best young musicians in the country have all played. These have included The Trump Conception, Janno Trump's good-time traditionalists, and also Gretagrund, the ever-evolving ensemble fronted by singer Maarja Aarma and her co-songwriter, pianist Britta Virves. Seeing musicians attempting new sounds each time they go up on stage is a revelation.
It's also necessary to pay tribute to Kadri Voorand, whose 2016 album Armupurjus, which crossed over into electronica and had surprising hard-rock influences, showed that, even with better-known jazz artists with more to lose from a musical risk, there is still an urge to push the boundaries of both artist and audience.
It was thanks to listening to Gretagrund play new songs at Philly Joe's that the work of Marie Mørck came to the fore for me. Mørck is a Danish singer hailing from Copenhagen, who had met Virves as a student in Skurup, Sweden, and performed with the pianist on a rainy November evening in Tallinn, the Dane's first gig in Estonia.
Truthfully, the aim of attending the concert was to hear something new, and broaden the mind - it didn't even occur to do an interview. Instead, the aim of the interview was would be to get the talented Dane to offer a jazz education. "When you're a fan of pop," she said, "as I am too, you love the feeling of recognising something, like when the refrain comes in, and the words. When it comes to jazz, it's more about getting amazed by that particular musician and what they can do with the song.
Mørck and her bandmates began performing their repertoire - mostly written by Mørck in collaboration with bandmates - this March. The 23-year-old began writing four years ago, and said that "the other band members get the creative energy. There's a lot of playfulness, openness and eye contact, and there's a lot of focus." She began collaborating with Virves by chance. "We were at the school [music academy], and a bunch of us were watching this TV show in Swedish. Britta didn't understand the language, I didn't think it was super fun, and she was grabbing my arm and saying, 'come on, let's have fun and do some music!'"
"She told me to hit her with a few ideas, we started playing, and it just worked out." The result is a band that really 'gets' the aims of Mørck's tonally-diverse setlist, from the romantic As Long As the World Spins, to the bombastic I Still Pray For the Fun to Start. The sound is raw, and will develop with time, but there is a vibrance that only comes from new singers, testing the boundaries of what they can do with their artform.
Mørck was willing to scroll back through her Spotify favourites for examples of jazz artists that might explain her world-view, and introduce a newbie to the best the style had to offer. Esperanza Spalding and her fourth studio album, Radio Music Society, was one of the albums Mørck recommended as an essential choice, describing it as a pop crossover with a lot of heart. When quizzed about the others, the singer looked at her phone. "Does it have to be jazz?" she asked, but it made sense to consider all albums that she found inspirational - the idea being that would bring a better understanding of what excites a jazz singer.
Her next choice was Mingus, an album on which Joni Mitchell, one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters of her era, puts her own lyrics to music composed by bassist Charlie Mingus. The album was released in 1979. "He had a lot of mental issues, a very creative man but a very haunted man too. When he got older, he was very keen to work with Joni, and she was very eager to be respectful to him in how she wrote the songs. The themes are very interesting - she delivers other messages than just love. There's a blues song where she sings about a fruit machine, for example - she takes [her writing] to another level."
Commenting on the thought that it was unusual for anyone to avoid mentioning Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme in a beginner's jazz playlist, Mørck said, "it's not where I started - I got my original inspiration from the vocalists. I've listened to those albums of course, but I figured that you'd probably heard of them anyway." Instead, she chose Smile, by Cyrille Aimee and Diego Figueredo, a Franco-Brazilian duo. "I think [Aimee] was one of my first 'ins' - she's lovely, charming, and has such a crazy way of scat singing. She's guesting in all the big jazz clubs in New York, and singing even better than the saxophonist can play - it's just great."
On the culture clash of Smile, and how it related to her own situation, Mørck said of her own band, "we're playing in a group of Estonian, Danish and Swedish people, and they all bring something unique to the table, but I think Britta has a very distinct sound, and that really shines through. A lot of people in Copenhagen are really talented, but they don't always bring their individual touch." Of the talents to watch out for, coming out of Copenhagen, Mørck pointed to Oilly Wallace, whose father is Scottish, a brilliant saxophonist, and Ellen Andersson, a Swedish vocalist who plays regularly with Wallace.
Copenhagen, Mørck said, had many great jazz clubs, but La Fontaine was "legendary, very cosy, with a jam every night. It's a great way of understanding the jam environment; there's room for everyone, but it's an extremely good level. Montmartre is another place - back in the sixties, there were a lot of jazz musicians, who I heard got banned from the United States due to drug abuse and went to Denmark, many of them getting married. They went to Montmartre, and influenced Danish jazz greatly. It means Danish jazz sounds a lot like the American sound, especially when compared with the Swedish style, for example."
The Esbjörn Svensson Trio was Mørck's next choice of artist. "He was so playful - he would sit at the piano and wait for an idea to come to him. If it didn't he'd go and play with his children or clean the kitchen and it would eventually come. It's such a nice way of looking at things. Sadly he died a few years ago - he was diving and he got sick, but he was superb." She also mentioned Karen Bach - her late piano teacher. "She was inspired by Svensson, but was a great piano player in her own right. They both had the, yes, Nordic sound, but they were both based on basslines and grooves, building up the tunes from those, rather than starting with, say, an E flat-7."
With that, Mørck set to one of NOP's selection of gluten-free cakes, and talked about her flight plans for that afternoon, when she was due to leave Tallinn, but hopefully to return, bringing back her vocal magic, and a century of jazz history for inspiration.