Swedish pianist/composer Mattias Nilsson had recently paired up with American vocal powerhouse Sharón Clark [NOTE: feature article on Ms. Clark coming shortly!] to tour throughout Europe right before live performances came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic. Having to pivot, they realized that a future collaboration is inevitable; the joy must go on and people need their live music.
Together, their talents combine to provide a fresh take on some classics while setting a strong mood that embraces a commitment to clear, pure notes and a warm, welcoming spirit. Mattias not only knows when to pull back and let Clark carry the song, but also when to get deep in the weeds and extract every ounce of emotion, letting fly every color possible. In “Theme from ‘Hotel’” which is dedicated to the memory of vocal great Nancy Wilson, Clark conveys the precise pain of a heartfelt story and is complemented by Nilsson who uses a delicate touch to paint a fuller picture. “In a Sentimental Mood” shows off Nilsson’s intuitive ability to embroider a melody like the craftsman that he is and Clark turns the typically energetic “Fly Me to the Moon” into a sweet song of longing. (Special love goes out to sax player Paul Carr whose solo on “For All We Know” was a blistering success.)
In what ways do you incorporate or are you inspired by music of your Swedish heritage?
Since I play a lot of Swedish music in my solo concerts such as more classical pieces, hymns and folk songs I think that I unconsciously get some elements which show in my playing, unaware of what exactly they might be. When composing, I sometimes use a form of a folk melody or the polka in which the emphasis of the beat lies on 1and 3 and with that in mind I would add a more advanced harmony but still try to keep a folk feeling as a foundation. My song “Spirea” from the solo album “Dreams of Belonging” is an example of this. Shifts from major to minor in melody or vice versa is also very common in the Swedish folk songs and is something I like a lot and use when improvising. You get close to the blues but through the Swedish heritage.
Why did you decide to collaborate with the vocalist Sharón Clark and how does her sound match your vision for the music?
Meeting and working together with Sharón Clark is a true blessing for someone like me who grew up listening to mostly Afro-American artists. I believe she is one of the few true authentic jazz voices out there today, at least from growing up listening to my dad’s mix tapes. Ms. Clark and I are on the same wavelength which makes our vision and direction match. She’s a real storyteller and she can really swing too. She also grew up singing in church and with me playing a lot of gospel, it can’t get any better. Well, actually it can, if she just could get the recognition she really deserves back home in the US. That would make me really happy.
We haven’t done an album yet but are planning to do so very soon.
Talk about your ensemble and how did you meet them; why did you choose to work with them as artists?
As far as the ensemble is concerned, we’re trying out different players from the countries where we are performing which keeps the group versatile and interesting. Last gig we did in Feb 2020, at the legendary Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, we brought in London-based (originally from Washington D.C.) drummer Rod Youngs and had Jimmi Roger Pedersen (former student of NHOP [Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen]) from Denmark on bass. So at the moment we’re calling musicians we would like to work with rather than having a fixed ensemble. But there’re so many fantastic players in Scandinavia and Europe which we really admire so it’s very hard to choose.
It also depends on where and when we´re touring, but so far they’ve all done amazing work, really listening to the material adding their own personality to the music. They also dress up and look good on stage which unfortunately you can´t say about all European jazz musicians these days.
Where is your tour taking you and what songs are you doing?
So far we’ve performed in Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Belgium, France, Taiwan and South Africa. A tour in Poland and Spain was confirmed when the pandemic broke out. The selection of songs is mainly from the Great American Songbook but the ones that are not so often heard. I know Sharón has a scrapbook somewhere with lyrics written down, so I hope we can put some music to that in the near future. I´m also introducing her to some Swedish music.
With the huge success of our gospel concerts we’ve also started to incorporate some of those tunes, going back to the roots and foundation.
Highlights of producing your three previous CDs, “Dreams of Belonging.” “Peaceful in Dreams” and “Silent Nights”?
“Dreams of Belonging” is my debut album after 11 years as a professional pianist. For me it represents the culmination of a long journey and the discovery of an individual voice. I’m happy that I was finally able to record and release it, since I was all on my own in the process. I´m also very thankful for the attention it got with 26 reviews in many different countries.
“Peaceful in Dreams” and “Silent Nights” are duo albums with Austrian saxophonist Ray Aichinger where we arranged Christmas songs from all over Europe in a less commercial way, sparser, reflective and contemplative. The idea was music you’ve would listen to in the evening when all the noise and expectations were gone; by the fireplace with a nice drink late on Christmas Eve. People really seem to enjoy both of the albums and say they play them every Christmas. We recorded them in Vienna during very hot summer days so we had to slowly work our way mentally into the Christmas mood.
What inspires you when you write?
I often say that music is not my life, but life is my music. So with all the places I’ve played and visited so far (31 countries), there are so many fond memories, so much tasty food and so many wonderful people that go along with that. Once I start writing something, all of that comes to mind in a nice smorgasbord which serves as my inspiration.
Bill Evans put it so well so I’ll just have to quote him: “Music should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It’s easy to rediscover part of yourself, but through art you can be shown part of yourself you never knew existed.”
What are the differences in audiences around the globe that you have noticed in touring?
In general, I think people are more curious and open when you’re performing outside your own country. Humanity needs live music and I think an audience receives the music in pretty much the same way all over the world, but depending on your culture and background you interact differently. Some audiences are listening more and some are more spontaneous. Both are equally important.
Are there universal truths in jazz; a mission or purpose that is inherent to the music?
Absolutely I would say and not only in jazz. I believe it exists in all kinds of music. If you’re being truly honest with yourself and also trying to play that way I think a lot of universal truths can be communicated and that becomes the mission, at least for me.
Has the pandemic impacted your performance schedule?
I came to Brazil on March 4 for a 2-week stay with some concerts in São Paulo before heading back to Europe. Then, I was supposed to be back in Brazil in April to perform at the Blue Note in Rio and São Paulo with Sharón Clark. Everything got cancelled, I got stuck in Brazil in quarantine and I haven’t touched a real acoustic grand piano since March 10. I had one day home in Malmö, Sweden after coming from a tour in Russia to repack and I haven’t been home since. I only came with one carry-on. But it works fine, since I’m used to not carrying much around.
I think I’ve adapted pretty well since I´m used to structure in my days. I still get up and do my computer work in the morning and during these six month I’ve also been able to go through and clean up a lot of private business and things I hadn’t had the time to do before. I’ve also been listening to a lot of music and studying music as well.
Since I’m in Brazil, which is hit pretty hard by the pandemic, I’m also living with people in the risk group (my pregnant fiancé and her mom), we’re pretty much in lockdown. I know my colleagues at least can do some gigs or well-produced streaming concerts with great sound and quality.
What is on the horizon for the rest of this year and for 2021?
Just keep on working as before, focusing on what’s to come. I’m going to be part of the True Blue Jazz Festival Streaming Live Watch Party on Friday Oct. 16th & Saturday Oct. 17th.
I’m also turning 40 in October and expecting a son on my birthday so I’m sure that will take some of my focus, happily.
Next year I’m planning to record another solo album as well as an album with Sharón Clark, which I want to follow up with concerts. I hope all cancelled concerts will be rescheduled for next year. Can’t wait to hit the road again.
I just want to say thank you for what you´re doing and for doing it so well. I´m very thankful I was given this opportunity to share and express my thoughts.
For more information visit http://mattiasnilsson.com/about
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mattias Nilsson.
(c) Debbie Burke 2020