Two months after the spanking new, modernistic Royal Playhouse was opened beside the harbour in wonderful Copenhagen, Pierre Dørge and the New Jungle Orchestra became the first musical group to play the venue, as part of the Danishcapital’s jazz festival. No better band could have been chosen for this honour as the NJO, soon to celebrate its thirtieth year, is an international brand, known and loved around the globe.
Tickets were sold out in advance for every one of the 700 seats, and for such a significant event for the band, audience and local community, Dørge prepared a special programme of music featuring three special guests from Sweden, India and the Gambia. From just across the Sound in Sweden came singer Josefine Cronholm, whose talent had been spotted by Pierre when he gave an open music course at Copenhagen Conservatory. He had also been impressed by a recording of standards that she made with Django Bates.
Dørge reached back ten years into his past in an effort to find Indian flute player Shashank Subramanyam, whom he had also met in Copenhagen when the young man was giving a master class in Indian music at the jazz conservatory. In the intervening decade Shashank had become his country’s leading classical flautist, recording with guitarist John McLaughlin, and many of the top players in his own country.
Tracking down Shashank proved difficult, and it took Pierre six months to locate him, working through the Internet. They were then able to bridge the vast distance by rehearsing the music together via sound and vision Internet links. Another vital piece of the jig-saw was in place. Shashank arrived in Denmark the day before the concert. The third concert guest was Gambian Dawda Jobarteh, a virtuoso on the West African kora instrument which has a long neck running into a gourd with rings made of antelope hide and strings that are actually fishing lines. Dørge says the kora is the African equivalent of a piano, although its sound is closer to the harp. Jobarteh is also a singer, who contributes the main vocal to “Fode Kaba”. The trio of guests from different continents were added to the usual NJO line-uptrumpet,trombone, two saxophones, guitar, keyboard, bass and two percussionists in a recital that stretched over two sets, but without the luxury of ample rehearsal. Indeed, there was time for only one get-together, the day before the concert, and Pierre was worried about how it would all go over on the night.
“It’s like having no security net underneath. So there has to be concentration, but you also take chances and mostly I’ve been lucky in that kind of situation. I was this time, too. There are always difficulties with location recordings because musicians move around, drop things and are sometimes off the microphone. At this concert something went wrong with the recording equipment on the second set, soactually almost everything on the CD is from the first set,” Pierre explained.
“The concert was filmed and the idea was to make a promotional DVD. It was some months before I listened to the tapes and to my surprise, despite all the problems and doubts that I had about the quality of the music, it sounded good. And then Nils Winther got to work and cleaned up the tapes to achieve very acceptable results. I’m so happy with the way that he was able to improve the overall sound and compensate for deficiencies in the original balance.” The concert was held a month before NJOwent into the SteepleChase studio to record their CD, entitled “Whispering Elephants” which also included versions of the title track and “Malam Lagu”, both of which appear here in original and therefore slightly embryonic guise.
The arrangement of “Whispering Elephants” was modified for the studio take, and the concert performance of “Malam Lagu” includes a vocal. The leader’s composition Mbizo Mbizo is a dedication to the late Johnny Dyani, a South African bassist, who was a member of NJO from 1982 until his death four years later. Dyani’s nickname was “Mbizo” which means “togetherness”. In this piece Pierre recalls fragments of songs that were important to Dyani. “It’s a sort of South African anthem and at the end we chant ‘do you see a rainbow over the bamboo forests.’” There is piquant interplay between saxophonist Morten Carlson and Dørge’s guitar before Cronholm’s very sensitive vocal. Trombonist Kenneth Agerholm’s ruggedness reminds of the great Bill Harris. Jobarteh’s kora adds cute touches, and trumpeter Kasper Tranberg and tenorist Jakob Mygind contribute powerfully. Note how Irene Becker’s synthesizer combines with the kora, and Josefine’s return in scatting mood. Fode Kaba is a traditional Mandinka tribe anthem. Kaba was a noted storyteller, a legendary figure in the tribe’s history. It was arranged by Pierre, who first heard the melody when he visited the Gambia in 1982. The kora is once again in evidence in the introduction, and the lead vocal is also by Jobarteh with responses by Dørge and,later, chants by the whole band. The instrumental chorus gradually swells as the hypnotic performance progresses, and then slowly fades, leaving Jobarteh and his kora with the last words and notes. Swaralaya, written by Subramanyam, is announced by the composer on bass flute before he hastily switches to the higher pitched Indian flute in a controlled display. Thommy Andersson’s bass sets up an ascending vamp for the flute improvisation that follows, as the band provides a richly textured ensemble background.
Percussive and synth effects loom large. The Tranberg trumpet darts about with daring runs and shares in tasty duetting with the flute. Jeg Gik Mig Ud En Sommerdag is a Dørge arrangement of a Danish folk song that he first heard as a child. The lyrics relate that “I went out on a summer’s day to hear the birds and nightingales in the deep woods”, but there is also a romantic element in the story. “It is a bittersweet little story, and unusually for Danish songs this one is written in the minor,” says Pierre. “I found this quite remarkable to hear the Danish words sung with a Swedish accentSCCD 31693 accompanied by a Gambian kora player and an Indian flute player. This is what I like doing all the time, mixing elements.” In fact Dørge’s setting of the piece suggests Middle Eastern influences, and there is even a phrase that is the opening to the traditional English carol “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”. Listen for the unusual melding of taragot, kora and flute. Whispering Elephants in this initial treatment makes interesting use of electronic sounds from the synthesizer - something of a tour de force for Pierre’s wife and musical collaborator of more than 30 years, Irene Becker, who doubles on piano. The composition is an ode to the elephants of the world, and the threat to their survival due to man’s cruelty and irresponsibility. Malam Lagu, written by Irene Becker, was inspired by a visit to Bali. This is an evening song with an absurd text in Balinese all about drinking tea and eating chicken. A subtle drone is maintained as a persistent backdrop to the flute and Cronholm vocal. The effect is of a peaceful, pastoral scene. The vocalist adds her own timbre to the ensemble parts.
The closing Muzun Mun was written quite deliberately by Pierre Dørge in the style of
Bollywood movie themes. “I am a Bollywood fan, and I always tell the audience that this theme is all about a gangster, a beautiful lady and an exciting chase on a Vespa scooter. So here is the soundtrack for the movie. It just needs somebody out there to make the film! “I saw my first Bollywood picture in an outdoor cinema when I first visited the Gambia. This is my idea of a monsoon moon. I love the way that
osefine sings it with the bass.” The rhythmic impetus here is relentless.
A by-product of this amazing concert is that in 2010, Pierre and NJO will be joining up again with Shashank Subramanyam for a tour of India in the band’s 30th anniversary year. As for Pierre Dørge, his focus, energy and interest is devoted almost exclusively to writing, for, performing with and directing this unique global ensemble.
“When you get past 50, you just have to concentrate on what you love and value the
most. Travelling, new ways of expression, exploring different cultures - that is what I’ve been doing all these years. I would not have lived in any other time because while there are downsides to the so called global village, mixing the many strands of music of yesterday and today is very refreshing. We have access to all that went before us and it is there for us to interpret and enjoy in our own way.”
Stand by for Pierre & NJO’s next venture on SteepleChase in which it is planned that each member of the band will be featured on an individual piece. As with the enclosed live concert, a festive feast of invention can be