What Defines Scandinavian Jazz? An Interview With Denmark’s Spacelab

By Michael J. West

The Nordic Jazz Festival, brought to D.C. each summer by the five Scandinavian embassies (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), presents the hippest jazz artists from each of those countries at U Street’s Twins jazz club. This year, the hippest of the hip is Spacelab, which plays Twins Jazz Saturday night.

Spacelab is a trio featuring pianist/organist Nikolaj “The Champ’ Hess—one of Denmark’s busiest and most acclaimed musicians, and an NJF veteran—and his drummer brother, Mikkel, along with their childhood friend Anders “AC” Christensen on bass. The music is often lyrical, but with an eclectic stylistic palette that includes an endless combination of grooves and an experimental edge.

The Hess brothers spoke to Bandwidth about the band’s lifetime friendship, the musical formulas behind Spacelab and the contrasts between Danish and American jazz.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Bandwidth: Is there a particular concept behind Spacelab?

Nikolaj Hess: Just the fact that we’ve known each other since we were kids, grew up and always played together, shared so many experiences. So we’re drawing from that common background when we’re playing. It’s really not a conceptual band, but I guess you could say there’s a love of melody and good groove, and an open attitude to the moment of the music.

I would also say that we grew up with a lot of jazz music, and improvised music, so that’s a solid foundation for the band. But we also have many other musical backgrounds, like folk music from Scandinavia, classical music, a lot of different pop, electronica, world.

Where did the name “Spacelab” come from?

NH: I was in Africa for half a year, and when I came back we had a little jam session where I played violin, Mikkel played the African drum I brought home and AC played the piano. It was a real “spaced out” jam but it had a very special vibe. And that’s how we came up with the name: “Oh, it’s like a laboratory for spaced out music.” The name stuck, and seems to fit because we also like to explore different spaces.

Mikkel Hess: The record we just made gives it a new meaning, because there is a lot of space between notes. That wasn’t a part of the original meaning necessarily, but when we heard it we thought, “Wait a second, there’s a lot of pauses.” I know Nikolaj has a favorite quote, which is from Miles Davis: “It’s not just what you play, it’s what you don’t play.” So that gave a new meaning, again, because we ended up not playing a lot of things on the new record.

You talked about how you both grew up with lots of jazz. How much of that was American jazz, versus European?

MH: Nikolaj and our oldest brother are eight and nine years older than me, and were very much into music. So I had a very easy choice: I just copied everything they did. As I remember, there were a lot of American records. But I think the first bridging, when I started to say, “Oh wait, people also play jazz music over here!” was the Keith Jarrett [European] Quartet.

NH: There was also Jan Johansson, a [Swedish] piano player who was a very big influence. It has differences, the Scandinavian and American jazz, and I find it interesting to be both places and try to take the things I really love from both worlds into the music we play.

Are there specifics you can point to and say, “This is a characteristic of Scandinavian jazz”?

NH: It has a beautiful simplicity to it. It’s very hard to generalize because you can examples of everything, everywhere—as soon as you say “this is a specific to Danish music,” you find it in another camp—but it’s part of the Danish nature, the Danish architecture, to use this simplicity in a very beautiful way.

Of course it draws from the European classical tradition, which American jazz does, too. But then the New York jazz scene has incredible rhythmic energy, which combines music from the whole world. It kind of has everything in it.

Mikkel, as a drummer, is there less rhythmic emphasis in the way jazz is played in Scandinavia?

MH: [Long pause] Maybe? The tradition is so heavily founded in America, and I think it has a different shape in the consciousness of the American musician—a different idea of what jazz music is. Europeans feel a little more like we’re visitors, in a culture that’s not necessarily ours.

There was a documentary about Beethoven, where another composer said about him, “He took the classical form of writing, and exhausted the subject because he did it so well. We’re forced to start off in a new direction after him.” I think the same is true with a lot of American jazz music—it was so incredible that it also marked an ending and new beginning. So to the question of whether Scandinavian jazz is less rhythmically advanced, it couldn’t get more rhythmically advanced anywhere than Elvin Jones. He exhausted the subject of extremely creatively playing African rhythms in European structures and blues. So what are you gonna do?

NH: And I would add that the American culture is very young compared to European culture. So maybe it’s about not having so heavy a burden of tradition in America. Improvisation is an integrated part of American culture; it is in European, too, but there are also all these sort of old, old, heavy structures that people have a hard time breaking away from.

Nikolaj, how did you come to be “The Champ”?

NH: Ha! Well…

MH: Do you want the real story, or do you want to let Nikolaj invent something?

NH: It’s just a fun nickname. We had this Danish TV series where there was a character called “The Champ,” so all of a sudden everybody was called “The Champ,” and for some reason I got stuck with it.

MH: Yes. It has absolutely nothing to do with the competitive nature of Nikolaj’s personality. That’s for sure.

Spacelab performs Saturday, June 28 at Twins Jazz as part of the Nordic Jazz Festival.

Due to a reporting error, the original version of this post quoted Nikolaj Hess as citing Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson as an influence. In fact, he was referring to Swedish pianist Jan Johansson. The post has been corrected.