Ensemble Denada

-I’d like the punch line to be that if you insist on something for long enough, you will prevail. Ensemble Denada has been my vision and objective as a musician and composer; something I have worked towards for many years. Now it is my musical home and playground. Being able to travel Europe with a fifteen-piece band -with the certainty that it is really all I wanted in a project- is a remarkable feeling.

Norske Store 2007 (foto: Andreas Frøland)

Helge Sunde is the fortunate one we are talking to. He is the musical leader of Ensemble Denada; the Norwegian big band that is making jazz headlines across Europe, earning praise as a locomotive in the revival of the big band format.

-In fact we are not a big band in the strict sense of the concept, says Sunde. We are a few people short on horns, and instead we have replenished the sound with electronics and percussion. And I have to say that my focus is not so much with the big band format as such; it is more about achieving a small-band dynamic with thrice the number of people. The notion of a big band is normally related to the sound and arrangements. But in Denada the main feature is that we focus on one composer and explore the ensemble’s instrumental palette and musical possibilities fully on that basis.

To clarify we must retrace a little, for it is not obvious what Denada is, nor how it works.

-Originally it was set up as a contender for the position of a Norwegian National big band, says Sunde. The core of the band already existed, but around ten years ago there were ideas circulating about creating a national jazz champion of big band format. However, that project met with a lot of obstacles, and it all came to nothing. So it is by a different route that Denada has in fact become something akin to a national jazz ambassador. In European eyes we represent something of a Norwegian trademark, you know: Norwegian jazz composers touring Europe with their own bands has always been seen as quite exotic.

It is bands of this kind, several of which Sunde has been part in the past, that have been the template for Denada.

-In my view what really works is an ensemble dedicated to the music of one composer. That is quite different from the concept of professional big bands that take on all kinds of commissions and projects. So it is not the format itself that is important, but the fact of having a large and composite palette available for one composer. That is why Denada is not a big band, but an extended “personal” group, which is financed by the Norwegian Cultural Council to convey a Norwegian brand of jazz music to Europe.

Since the seventies Europe have been conscious of such a Norwegian brand of jazz, so Denada are building on a firm foundation, even if the music is in many ways new and unrelated to the heritage of the “Nordic sound”.

-In Germany and Europe the immediate response to Norwegian jazz is linked to the powerful musical impression that was made by Garbarek and his national contemporaries in the seventies. They really opened the doors to Europe with a special Nordic brand of jazz, says Sunde. And that heritage lives on, at least conceptually. It is of course an important, albeit subconscious, factor in my own music and the ideas that permeate Norwegian jazz in general, but actually I think the notion of a Norwegian or Nordic sound has more to do with pre-conceptions on the part of the audience and critics than it has to do with the actual music we are playing today.

But one thing that Sunde is conscious and happy about is the recognition that there is a lot of humour and wit in Denada’s music, an aspect some international critics also ascribe to a particular Norwegian vantage point.

-Most of all it has to do with an element of surprise I think, says Sunde. We are conceived as exotic, because we do things a little differently and perhaps because we are not so self-important.

The name of the band itself is an indication of this aspect: “Denada” is of course the standard Spanish-language waiter phrase. But it can also be understood on other levels…from nothing

-It was simply the name of a track on our first record, says Sunde. Subsequently it became the record title and the name of the band.

The debut Denada was released in 2006 to fine international reviews. Made up of material that Sunde had written over a long period of time, it was nevertheless hailed for its consistency in combination with its unique flavour. Sunde relates that he was negotiating with several renowned labels to release the album, and that the choice of German label ACT has been a happy one.

-They wanted to move a long without hesitation, says Sunde, which was important. And with ACT’s zeal and reputation we are guaranteed that critics from around the world will actually get our records in hand and review them seriously.

Now Denada’s second album is out, entitled Finding Nymo. -Another humoristic title, but a different record in many ways.

-Finding Nymo is the result of a concentrated writing process, says Sunde. I received funding to sit down and write a whole half-hour of music, which was quite unprecedented for me. It became fifty minutes in the end. In that way the process was the exact opposite of what we did on the debut. The main inspiration in the writing process was simply the band itself, with its wide musical palette and exciting range of personalities. The title refers to the fact that we managed to enrol both Nymo-brothers in the line-up; two fantastic saxophone players with a unique dynamic between them. And then there is that that animation picture of course..

Another source of inspiration for Sunde as a composer is the travelling they do as a group. On Finding Nymo, many of the track titles refer to places they have visited and played.

-It is a fantastic position to be in, to be able to take along fifteen people and play around in Europe. We don’t know how long it will last though, for despite our success it is all up to the funding we are receiving. The situation now is that we have a limited time span for our constitution as a musical project, i.e. a jazz “big-band” dedicated to one composer. Denada is where all my energy and creativity goes these days; it is my musical home and a platform where fifteen people get to explore the true potential of our combined musicality. So in light of that, it would be nice to have more long term predictability of course. I hope there will be more records from us. And I trust there will, but there is no telling when or in what form.

However, the potential worries are a thing of the future. Currently Ensemble Denada is recognized as prime ambassadors of Norway, both from the perspective of the European audiences and from that of the Norwegian government: the November 6th launch of Finding Nymo will take place as a special concert at the Jazz Fest in Berlin in cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy, which will organise a small seminar and a ceremony in conjunction with its jubilee.

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