Pianist Jan Lundgren is widely known in Sweden but a little less so in the States, though he tours here occasionally. Wowed by his two most recent albums—Flowers of Sendai and All By Myself—I reached out to Jan, 48, for an email chat. His playing is both lyrical and rich with mood, influenced by formal training and extensive listening to Bill Evans and other masters of chord voicings:
JazzWax: Where were you raised in Sweden—and when did you first hear jazz?
Jan Lundgren: I was raised in Ronneby (above), which is a town in the province of Blekinge in south-east Sweden. I first heard jazz at age 15 when my substitute piano teacher, who liked jazz, gave me as a piece of homework—the task of buying an Oscar Peterson LP. I did as I was told and came that home with Night Train (Verve). I fell instantly in love with the music.
JW: Why do you think Sweden has such a strong jazz tradition—not just admiration for the music but vast contributions to the form? England, France and other countries certainly have strong jazz musicians, but Sweden’s always seems a little more intense.
JL: Well, there are several aspects to this. At the time when Swedish jazz really started to develop at the beginning of the '50s, people over here still had a strong connection with Swedish folk songs in general. There's definitely a certain embrace of melody and mood in our folk music that can be applied to jazz. Simply put, there's a natural bridge between jazz and Swedish folk, which has been and still is used by many musicians. This development kind of started when Bengt Hallberg and Stan Getz recorded Dear Old Stockholm—known here as Ack Värmland Du Sköna—and was further developed by musicians like Lars Gullin, Bengt-Arne Wallin, Jan Johansson, Nils Lindberg and other artists. Another factor in the development of Swedish jazz back in the '40s was Sweden's neutral position during World War II. This meant that musicians then could get hold of new recordings from the States more easily than those in other European countries. This enabled Swedish jazz to develop very fast in that period.
JW: What about in later decades?
JL: Jazz became hugely popular during the '50s and on into the '60s. In the bigger cities, it was probably the most popular form of music of the era—and a lot of young and talented people became involved in it. Finally, a large number of American jazz musicians toured Scandinavia on a regular basis for many years and attracted big followings. It's impossible to overstate the massive influence that these frequent and close encounters with American jazz artists had on Swedish jazz. Since jazz has been—and, I hope, still is—a musical style that partly transfers itself from generation to generation, these are all elements that I believe have had an important impact on the strength of Sweden's jazz tradition.
JW: Did you show early promise at the piano? At what age?
JL: I started playing at 5. Yes, people thought I was quite promising.
JW: Who did you listen to most? Did you listen to Swedish jazz pianists as well—and if so, which ones?
JL: At 15, when I started listening to jazz, I listened to Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, Count Basie, Cecil Taylor and others. And, of course, I listened to Swedish ones, too, especially Bengt Hallberg and Jan Johansson.
JW: Sweden seems to have an enormous community of exceptional jazz artists. Is that a good thing for a pianist in terms of competition—or is it hard, since it’s difficult to stand out?
JL: My opinion is that it's very good to have strong competition. Yes, it's hard, but it's important for your artistic development to have strong musicians to compare yourself to and learn from. It works as an inspiration. Also, you learn early on the importance of developing a style of your own.
JW: Is there a Swedish jazz style—and has the style changed over the years, the way American jazz has changed? How so?
JL: I guess some Swedish artists have been more influenced by a certain Swedish style than others. On the other hand, many Swedish musicians haven't actually been influenced so much by it. Instead, most try to sound as American as possible. But there certainly is a Swedish style. In my view, it influences many of Sweden's most important musicians and they are quite open about its impact.
JK: Tell me about Flowers of Sendai. There’s enormous beauty here in chord voicings and how they resolve. It’s impossible not to be moved by the delicacy and beauty. What was the inspiration here for its mood—the countryside in Sweden, the weather?
JL: Thank you very much. The inspiration is always life and all the experiences that come from living it. I use my knowledge of music and jazz to express my feelings and to make my points about the subject being discussed—the subject being the composition. Sendai is a big city in Japan that holds a beautiful annual jazz festival. I've been there twice. Flowers of Sendai is dedicated not only to this city but also to Japan as a country.
JW: On All By Myself, you take on standards. How many versions of these songs did you hear by American jazz players to fully understand the inflections and mood—and how did you avoid trying to sound like them, letting your own identity shine through?
JL: Oh, I started out playing standards at 15, and I've always really loved the Great American Songbook for some time. So it has been a natural thing for me, playing these songs. And they're such a big part of jazz. Having listened to so much great jazz over the years, of course, it's true that I've heard these standards played a huge number of times. But that was something that was important to me in order to understand and to learn the musical language of jazz. To bring out my own personality, I just have to be myself. I don't think about that at all when I record. I just try to relax and focus, and express myself.
JazzWax clip: Here's Jan Lundgren performing The Seagull...
Here's Jan on Feder Rhodes playing A Man and a Woman...
And here's Jan playing Ralph Rainger's Please (I'm unable to embed into this post, unfortunately).