Lotte Anker
  • Miriam Nielsen
  • Lotte Anker

Since the early 90s the Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker has been a key force in transforming the focus of the sound of jazz in her homeland. For decades jazz in Copenhagen largely replicated the sound of American bop, in large part because heavies like Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, and Ben Webster had taken up residence there for long spells during their careers; their presence had a deep effect on local players. Anker was one of the folks who pushed against that grain, performing an edgier, more improvisational sound. Now 56, Anker doesn’t rest on those laurels—instead, she’s continued to push against the status quo, placing herself in new, more challenging situations. A couple of recordings released late last year reflect that widening perspective with stunning results.

What River is This (issued by ILK, the daring and essential label that’s chronicled the new music created in Anker’s wake) stands as the saxophonist’s boldest, most ambitious album of her career. The music was commissioned by the prestigious Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England—an event that focuses primarily on new classical music—and the cast of musicians represents a true melding of once disparate sensibilities: free jazz, experimental, and contemporary classical music.

The piece deftly merges composition and extended-but-structured improvisation with a top-notch cast largely conversant in both contexts. Much of the ten-part suite includes text—some from the Jorge Luis Borges poem “Heraclitus” and from “The Sleeping and the Awake” by Danish poet Ursula Andkjaer Olsen—delivered by the inimitable British vocalist Phil Minton, who at his most serious and clear sounds a bit like Michael Caine and at his most bizarre and abstract seems to be a jet engine gobbling up a flock of errant geese. He moves easily and swiftly between spoken-word passages and improvisation, just like the rest of his cohorts toggle between composed sections and open ones.

The group includes guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Chris Cutler (longtime figures in the Rock in Opposition movement and old bandmates in Henry Cow), electronic musician Ikue Mori, classical violist Garth Knox (a former member of the Arditti Quartet), and two agile Danish classical musicians new to me—bassist Jesper Egelund and clarinetist Anna Klett. The entire group seems at ease with the tricky, jaggedly winding shapes of Anker’s score, and no one coasts or stumbles during the improvised passages. Below you can listen to “The Sleeping and the Awake/Apx 2,” one of the pieces that uses Olsen’s text and that allows you to experience Minton’s range.

Lotte Anker, “The Sleeping and the Apex/Apx 2”

Anker’s other recent album Squid Police (Konvoj) presents a different side of her work: here she engages in free improvisations with the Danish electronic musician Jakob Riis, a deft improviser who uses electronic tools and his own instincts and skill to avoid the common problems of technological latency. Ever since I got to see Riis improvise with the Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas and the Swedish guitarist Anders Lindsjö at the Perspectives Festival in 2009 I’ve kept tabs on his work, and he sounds as sharp as ever on this recording made around the same time. He’s at his best when processing the sounds of his collaborators in real time, which happens a bunch during the seven tracks on Squid Police in fluid works where he moves from abstract, astringent ambience to wildly fluttering transformations of the craggy, upper-register lines blown by Anker on soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones. Below you can check out “Fluid Mechanics,” an especially harrowing piece where refractions of Anker’s saxophone are surrounded by ominous electronic drones.

Lotte Anker & Jakob Riis, “Fluid Mechanics”

Anker will perform a set of improvised duets with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm at Corbett vs. Dempsey on Tuesday, February 24.

Today’s playlist:

The Grassella Oliphant Quartette, The Grass Roots (Atlantic, Japan)
Alexei Lubimov, Erik Satie: Le Fils de Étoiles (Passacaille)
Mel & Tim, Good Guys Only Win in the Movies (Sundazed)
Royal Band de Thiès, Kadior Demb (Teranga Beat)
Benny Carter, New Jazz Sounds: the Urbane Sessions (Verve)