Tokyo Sidetracks with Magnus Lindgren
“This is my soul, crying to be free…”
- from Souls, music by Magnus Lindgren
Cool… captivating… curious… like the C notes crawling cautiously out of his tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute, Magnus Lindgren bravely captures all the possibilities in music that were once conceived of as impossibilities, and all the melodic genres that make harmonic sense in one album.
Last February, in between shows at the Blue Note Tokyo with the ever-electrifying Nicola Conte Jazz Combo, Magnus walked steadily across the lobby of what would soon be Japan’s architectural icon washed away in ashes, the 1961-built Hotel Okura Tokyo. Appearing casually fresh and beaming in delight after an exhilarating tennis match and bountiful serving of “gekikara” (hot and spicy) ramen, Magnus proudly exclaims his ultimate achievement of the day, “I just had the hottest ramen ever—‘gekikara’ ramen No. 9. It’s the hottest in the list”.
Hot and spicy, indeed, just like his flaming musical arrangements, which have evolved tremendously in the last fifteen years, Magnus’ eye-catching presence continues to draw the diligent attention of Japanese music listeners. Three powerful nights at the Blue Note Tokyo with Nicola Conte, Pietro Lussu (piano), Teppo Mäkynen (drums), Jukka Eskola (trumpet), Luca Fattorini (bass), and Alison Crockett (vocals) proved Magnus’ natural ease on stage and his innate ability to improvise spontaneously without inhibition. His saxophone’s delicious repartee with Jukka Eskola’s sensational trumpet play was one of the most exciting spectacles ever performed under the spotlight.
“I love this jazz combo,” Magnus remarks. “It has a lot of flavours, and I enjoy working with Nicola. He is a very picky man—with food, wine, musicians—like he knows what he wants to reach. And, I love arranging songs with him, just as I do for the orchestra or the big band. Playing the same thing over and over again can be boring, so I love to improvise, and that is jazz. The combo band has both things: the set pieces, and also the freedom to arrange. I have developed that in this band since I joined Nicola from his album, Love Revolution. Actually, I was introduced to him by Till Brönner, when Nicola asked him to recommend a saxophone player*”.
From the first time Magnus played in Japan around 1996 with the Swedish singer Sophie Zelmanie, to succeeding shows with Nicola Conte’s Jazz Combo, he has always felt the sheer lack of opportunity to indulge more deeply into the Japanese music scene. Yet, he has successfully entwined jazz and Japanese classics during his 2014 performance with the all-male Swedish choir, Orphei Drängar in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Brilliantly integrating the Japanese classic Manyoshu poems into chorus and instrumentation had been one of Magnus’ most challenging arrangement commissions.
Magnus relates, “My tour schedules are always stressful that I have little time to meet musicians in Japan, but I had a jam session with Toku (trumpet) and Koichi Sato (piano). Then, I wrote a special piece for the Orphei Drängar choir and sax based on the Manyoshu poems. I bought the book, translated into English, and I really like the classic poems dating back from the Nara period. It was a nice way for me to learn Japanese history. Originally, I wanted to use the original lyrics but I was told they come from a very old Japanese language that no one could understand, so I eventually used the English translation. I wanted to combine some Japanese classic music with my arrangement. Next time, I would like to explore more traditional Japanese instrumentalists, like a shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player, and work with a chamber orchestra”.
Whether it be Japan, South America, Africa, Europe, or any other corner of the globe, language poses no resistive barrier to Magnus when it comes to transmitting his music to the audience. Like many travelling musicians of his generation, spending merely four days in three months in his beloved Stockholm simply occurs under one’s nose.
“Most of my concerts are outside Sweden, so I live a quite intense life,” Magnus claims. “For example, from Japan, I go back to Sweden for awhile, then soon leave for Germany for a concert, then head to Indonesia for the Java Jazz Festival, Singapore, then to Switzerland, return to Sweden, then go to Cuba, then to Belgium. That is why language is not a very critical element for me in music. If you study jazz history, you find so many naïve lyrics that don’t go so deep, and at the same time, there is a whole range of music with the lyrics in the center, but overall, there is just so much music to grasp that don’t need lyrics; therefore, don’t need language. When I travel, I feel I transmit my language of music just by the experiences I acquire in meeting all kinds of people and cultures. I enjoy encountering many different points of view. I feel very lucky I could travel this much, so I honestly cannot imagine my life not being this way. If I never left Sweden, perhaps I could have become so square… after all it is a country of only nine million people, with very few places to play, but we do have a great tradition in music. Still, I have learned that there are so many different ways to live, and travelling has changed my life so much”.
Stockholm, Sweden is where all the melodies started to hum for Magnus. Raised by a father who was also a musician, he easily stepped into the arena of experimentation with instruments, after acquiring his first guitar at six years old.
Magnus recalls, “My father had a dance and entertainment band. As a young boy, I was so inspired watching his band on stage. From watching television as well I was attracted to own a guitar. I asked my father for a guitar when I was six and learned playing it since then. My father also had a music store. So, when I was around eleven or twelve, I tried playing different instruments—piano, bass, drums, then the tenor saxophone. I was about thirteen then when I felt that the sax suited me very well. When you’re thirteen, playing a lot of notes on the piano was a lot (laughs), and the drums didn’t have notes, so the sax was like something in between. I was also very inspired by a sax player in my father’s band. I borrowed a book in the library about the life of Charlie Parker. I was hooked immediately, and listened to all his recordings. So, Charlie was my first source of inspiration. Later, I was also heavily inspired by Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane… Then, at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, I studied the saxophone and learned also the flute and clarinet, quite a rich and difficult instrument to play. I was thirteen years old when I first encountered jazz, which was natural when you learn to play the sax. Maybe I wasn’t so patient enough to play classical music because I wanted to have fun and play around, and improvise a lot. But, today, I have been producing classical pieces for the orchestra, and last year I worked on pieces on the clarinet and flute with Barbra Hendricks”.
Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane are just a few of the jazz masters that have filled up Magnus’ plate with the perfect ingredients for music inspiration. Growing up in the 80s, however, has also drawn him inevitably to the pop generation, and Quincy Jones ranks as one of the most influential music creators in his life.
“Sure, I listened to pop when I was in my teens, just like all my friends did,” Magnus remarks. “I thought at first some of the hits were not so interesting, but listening to Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson really striked me a lot. I thought what they were doing at that time was really fantastic. Quincy was not afraid to take risks and go beyond the ordinary, just like Miles Davis. I still listen to their music now, and often use their music to translate to jazz. I also met Quincy and played for him. You see, I come from a city one hour west of Stockholm, and when I was seventeen, I had to move to the city to study at the Royal College of Music. During the first year, I remember, playng in a band with Herbie Hancock. He came to Sweden then, and that point of my life was very important to me”.
From his debut album Way Out (1999), nominated for the Swedish grammy and recipient of the Jazz in Sweden award; to the Grammy award-winning and Gold Disc winner big band album Paradise Open (2001); a quartet ensemble, the Game (2004), collaborated with James Ingram; and three more albums between 2005 and 2012, including a special commission to play for the Nobel Prize banquet in 2003, comes the soft and delightful Souls (2013), Magnus’ grand project with bass player and producer Ira Coleman and celebrated artists Gregory Porter and Ivan Lins.
Magnus discusses the concept of the Souls album, “I met Ira Coleman when he was playing for Sting. He challenged me to do a very simple album with vocals, based on simple melodies that can be easily sung and not too complicated, that you can just sit with while playing the guitar. That’s how Ira became my album producer. And I pulled Gregory Porter, Ivan Lins, Rigmor Gustafsson, Marie Fredriksson, Mark Reilly and Anna Christoffersson.
Utter simplicity could be just a tiny dot in Magnus’ constellation of diversity when collating all the various themes of his albums—classics, Brazilian, jazz, pop—but, could there possibly be a Magnus Lindgren music identity?
“There was a writer who called me ‘everything combined,’” Magnus remarks. “I understand that if I do different kinds of albums, it may be confusing. But, music is too strong that it is important for me to learn from it. I haven’t put so much thought on my identity as a musician. In a way, that may be good because it means I am totally free, and I can jump from one thing to another because I love challenges. But, in the future, I do plan to focus more on my specialty, so that when I’m no longer young, perhaps people can remember me for that and all the experiences I received throughout my career”.
And, what does the future of Magnus hold?
Magnus explains, “I would like to continue arranging for the orchestra, yet focusing on jazz at the same time. Jazz is the core of improvisation, and contains all the possibilities to expand chords and different styles. I’m also interested in social work, such as helping unfortunate countries through music”.
As we take time to unfold, embracing all the wonderful notes exchanged from his father’s band to Quincy Jones, Magnus reveals what his ideal one-day-in-Japan would be. “If I had only one day in Japan, I would definitely hang out in the tennis courts and eat more ‘gekikara’ ramen (laughs)”.
Ira Coleman called him “a product of joy.” Barbra Hendricks labeled him as “curious.” Magnus Lindgren is, indeed, a curious product of “everything joyous and combined”. Whether it be classics, bossa nova, jazz, or pop, you can never miss the twist of his knee or bend of his hips as the gripping sounds of his instrument escalate into something more profound… something more magnanimous.
Special thanks to Blue Note Tokyo c/o Yasumada Okada