Scandinavian Spirit in Jazz: Soulful Story from bass player with an exceptional gift, Viktor Nyberg

Introducing this unique interview with young talent from Sweden, Viktor Nyberg, in our series "Some soulful stories", I have to warn  you... This very interview is better to watch than to read, and hopefully we will publish the video version soon! I'm afraid that this one got to be a case when the text can not transmit the sense of personality in full, i.e. show how charismatic and artistic Viktor is when he speaks: either himself or with his instrument, the contrabass. Same goes for his performance: it is better to experience it live, especially some of his brilliant improvisations that, I think, rejoiced the audience of Jazz Ascona 2019 and met their pursue for musical esthetics. Classical, melodic, noble they give you that very freshness of "Scandinavian spirit", the mentioning of which goes hand in hand with many descriptions, announcements, and interviews done internationally with Viktor Nyberg and his musical colleague, Andreas Svendsen, who amazed us by his brilliant execution of accompaniment on drums and solo parts.

During Jazz Ascona 2019 these guys rocked the stage in a brilliant band with Pablo Campos and Dave Blenkhorn, paying tribute to Nat King Cole on the occasion of his centennial. Hope you join our warm conversation and enjoy the snapshots of those moments. 

T.K.: Bass players play one of the most important roles in the band. Because if bass player takes a wrong note, or another bass line, then everyone will sound wrong, not in tune. In this regard jazz theorist, teacher and musician Mark Levine tells in his book: do not ever let yourself offend bass players; be good to them. What's your opinion, Viktor?

V.N. Yeah, We actually thought of the same thing yesterday with Andreas in relation to sound engineers. If you are rude to them during the sound check - they give you the worst sound.

So, you get what you give.

But I do not think it is the same with bass players, because we are in a group. And if we do a bad gig, then it's...: "Buy, everyone!". You won't get called again.

No matter how you are treated, you have to be as good as you can.

T.K.: Your yesterday's gig was a good one, indeed, also with very nice melodic improvisation. Although I've never perceived bass instrument as capable of producing those highly lyrical melodies but rather as supportive one mostly, you showcased this melodic power of your instrument during the improvisation.

V.N.: Yeah,

bass music has had great soloists for eighty years now. It started with Slam Stewart as a great virtuoso on the bass. My big influence for this is Ray Brown, mostly, and Christian McBride.

T.K.: Do you prefer listening to bass players for inspiration or to other instrumentalists  as well?

V.N.: I listen to a lot of piano trios; not necessarily particularly to the bass soloists.  I really like piano and I am listening a lot to Oscar Peterson trio, Brad Mehldau trio, and other piano trios...

T.K.: What about classical music and its influence on you?

V.K.: Classical music definitely has had a melodic impact on me, I think. Even though I cannot really put a finger on what it is. But I think I have quite good ears for melodies.

T.K.: You also accompanied one Grammy nominated opera singer. Tell us about that experience, please...

V.K.: Oh yeah, that was fun! You really did a great research on me, that's flattering (laughing).

T.K.: That's my job! (Laughing)

V.N.: Well, that's a funny story. It was Belgium Grammy Competition, during which all the artists are supposed to play altogether. We were there as a jazz quartet with piano; bass, trumpet; and drums and we performed with a jazz singer that won Best Vocal Album prize in classical genre, Anne-Catherine Gillet.  I fell in love with her a little bit, although she is way older than me (laughing). I fell in love with the song as well that she chose, that was a lovely piece by the French composer Gabriel Fouré..... It sounds good as a jazz standard, too. And at the same time there were DJs there who did interesting things with chanson français. There're a lot of duets that do things like that, merging classical genre with electronic arrangement. It is a cool trendy thing and there are a lot of duets who work in this style.

So we won Best Jazz Album of the Year award there and also performed with Anne-Catherine Gillet as part of the event. That was a great experience and we were happy that our album got recognition. It got selected as Best album of the Year. Although there isn't my name on the Album, I made it happen and am happy about that. 

T.K.: Congratulations, such a great achievement! Let's also speak about your collaboration with Andreas Svendsen here in Ascona. You were described as Scandinavian duet who bring that "Scandinavian Spirit" into the festival. In fact there is a quote from Paris Jazz Club where you have recently performed, that says : "Their music has been at the border where typically Scandinavian expressions mix with energetic contemporary jazz with some hard bob influences. ("Leur musique a ete a la frontiere ou les expressions typiquement scandinaves se melent le jazz energique contemporain aux influences hard bob.") Can you elaborate on that, please? 

V.N.: Well, hearing Andreas and me, I don't think we have Scandinavian sound. But maybe it's not up to us. If people say it is there, it is probably so, why not?  Scandinavian spirit in general is something very light, kind, calm, cool. No judgement. We are nice and breezy people. Very polite and civilized. So Andreas and me, we are Scandinavians but we originate from two very different countries. Denmark and Sweden. We look the same but we've been to wars for 300 years!

T.K.: Are you in wars sometimes when playing together?

V.N.: No no! (Smiling) Andreas is the drummer that I feel the most comfortable with. I have zero doubts, no questions. When we play I trust him completely and he trusts me. We sometimes talk about these things at night being sentimental (laughing): "Oh, man..., you are the best drummer in the world!"...

T.K.: I think he is happy to work with you, too.

V.N.: Yeah, and he is really sad to leave Ascona today. I told him: you are an idiot for doing this because there are three more days and he is going back to do some gigs in Denmark. But now having experienced this place, he knows already that this plan was not reasonable of him; actually (smiling). He should definitely stay here for a longer time if we come next year. We'd be happy to be invited for the next year, to share music, to see you and to meet our friends at this great festival!

T.K.: We would be glad to listen to your beautiful music again.

V.N.: Yeah, and see how it evolves because a lot happens in a year and hopefully it will be better.

T.K.: I think when you do something with true passion, sincere devotion, and understanding it goes better. Can you say the same in relation to music? 

V.N.: That's funny that I thought  I was the best when I was younger. With time your comprehension of music gets deeper and you realize something like: "Wow, I wasn't the best. These guys are really killing. I just hadn't heard them at that time before." Now the progress that we make as musicians is so fine and subtle, it is like a "taste" stuff. It is not in a question of "why didn't you play that note" but more in all the details you apply to that note, which define its sound. These details really make huge difference but you cannot tell exactly what's changed when it just suddenly starts to sound better.

T.K.: Do you think that the energy of the person who grows, meets new people, gets new impressions also has its impact on the nature of sound?

V.N.: Yeah, absolutely. I am a bass player so I play a lot of different music, a lot of really modern music with odd meters. I am working for many years with Ari Hoenig, a drummer from New York who is known for complicated rhythms, Avant-Garde music, contemporary jazz. I do that stuff and I have a lot of influences from musicians I play with. But I can still separate these styles and when I am here I won't bring that staff...unless I hear it. 

T.K.: True! Because of the audience, isn't it?

V.N.: We were talking about audience with Andreas actually, and he told that we just give the audience what they want. I didn't agree. It doesn't work. Andreas is not here to defend himself now, which is very good for me. (Laughing)

T.K.: Can musicians define what to give to the audience?

V.N.: I think it's impossible to define that wish. Maybe

in relation to Ascona there is this general atmosphere about the festival.

People here generally like special kind of music but it is not necessarily about what we were talking about... it was more about playing in a certain way, rather than just about style.  Already it is impossible to please everyone in the world. And if you start thinking: "Oh, what does he like? He gave that look, what does it mean?..." then it would be impossible to play. I mean, let's assume that people are there because they wanna here you, right? And really hear who you are. I wouldn't be able to show who I am if adapting to the room all the time. That's what I sound like today, you know...I just have been in a tour with this guy that's why it is how we sound...maybe in a week that will be different.

T.K.: After all, showcasing your personality is crucial because audience wants also to know about that, isn't it?

V.N.: Yeah, and in my case to please the audience I'm trying to be just as charismatic as I can on stage. It can be difficult with this heat: we might look tired, melting, but it is how I am trying to do all the time. Usually trying to turn my head down, to stand not smiling, with my eyes closed, as if I am tired and kind of angry. Even though I  am having a good time. That's a show that I make. But the music does not change that much. Sometimes singers tell me: oh, you have to show off more. I tell them: why?

T.K.: Especially bass players, I guess, have a specific image...not being on the frontline might influence the way they should behave on the stage: reserved but still elegant and supportive...

V.N.: Yeah, I think that it's also because we, as bass players, play all the time. I can tell when people are not let to play that much they get hungry to demonstrate what they can play, so they are overplaying. They play too much. 

In a concert I play all the time, from the first to the last note. Same as drummers.

Piano and guitar have sometimes breaks. But we play constantly that's why we behave in that way. If I play a song comping solos for 10 minutes, let's say, and then they ask you "Do you wanna solo, Viktor?", of course I just tell "Uff, man, I can't do it, I'm tired". Some days I won't even take a solo, there's no need.

T.K.: That's interesting. Sometimes when I observe drummers and bass players , it seems to me that they are in meditation, delving in music so much, feeling the essence of its power - the rhythm, which they have to carry from the beginning till the end. Before this interview today, I told receptionist here: "We're waiting for musicians". He didn't hear me well and asked": "For whom? For magicians?". I laughed, but there was a grain of truth in his words... Indeed, there is something magical about music, the power of vibration and rhythm, when it is swinging and speaking to everyone, and musicians play a great role in making that magic thing happen. Do you believe there is magic in music? Can you share your own perception of such?

V.N.: Oh yes, we have a lot of magicians here, entering the hotel with their special instruments! (smiling) Thinking about music and magic, I like to talk more about energy than about notions of swing. We don't really use the term swing that much, but we often speak about how much energy musicians put into their performance to make that sound. I think music really needs the contribution of energy, even simple pretty ballad can have a lot of energy conceived in it. This is what I try to do all the time: giving 100 percent as much as I can. Even if it is super hard to play, if your hands hurt, you haven't slept much, or the band members aren't good enough altogether, you still have to put inside even more energy to make it happen. That's the magic, for me: it is absolutely the question of the energy. And musician's life is great especially when you can go to places like this, to Ascona, where you can meet great people like you, it's a lot of travelling and it is especially tiring to do that with a bass, you know! But I am 29 years old now and I hope I'll be doing that for another 50 years. (Laughing)

T.K.: But such instrument as contrabass will surely keep you strong! 

V.N.: Oh yeah, but indeed the life in music is absolutely wonderful. We meet a lot of people, we get to work with our friends. I think you have noticed that artists are usually very nice people, sometimes some of them might have "ego" problems, maybe get a bit depressed because it is not an easy activity and it is hard to stay positive all the time, you know...but in general, especially the team I have here, all the guys I've met are so wonderful ! We really liked to hang out with the Shadow Cats, I lent my bass to some other musicians yesterday...we are like a little brotherhood here I think...Yeah, it's a great life, I even lost my track of thoughts while commenting on that! (Laughing)

T.K.: Communication with like-minded people really means a lot.

V.N.: Yeah, I am becoming more and more interested in humans. If someone asks me, what's your hobby, I probably reply: discovering and meeting people. There are a lot of amazing people here, some of them are twice my age, they've been doing this for 50 years, and they're sharing their knowledge... And their jokes...there are so many funny people here! It is what impressed me about Ascona. When I am playing jazz of 60s and modern jazz , the communication with the audience is not the same as what I've seen here. Everyone is such a pro, with lots of charisma and amazing stage presence. People really see you before they hear you: that's important thing, and musicians are all doing that here. I've played a lot with introverts before, they don't talk between the songs, they would just say:  "Thank you, the next song is...". But in Ascona it is a bit of a show and great vibes. I hear a lot of rock and roll staff here, not really what I'm listening to but I appreciate that people have a good time. Great vibes are here, and it is something I experienced in Ascona this week. 

T.K.: You were telling a lot about jokes you've heard here. Can you share some of them with our future readers and viewers? A joke that you liked the most or life credo that keeps you motivated? 

V.N.: Oh, jokes that I 've heard here are more about something said in a moment, you know, by amazing funny people. My Dad is a trombone player, so I grew up around a lot of trombone jokes. I guess it can be also linked with banjo... Anyways, here is a joke: how do you know that a trombone player is knocking your door? It sounds like sheet, the doorbell just drags.

T.K. I think it's a special musicians' joke..  

V.N.: It still continues...(laughing) So you open the door, right? And what do you see? "Oh, thank you for the pizza," - you might say. Because trombone player there at the door is likely to have a hat saying "Domino's Pizza" because they actually like eating pizzas. So there are a lot of jokes about trombone players, actually.

T.K.: Oh, I've never heard of that special privilege revered to trombone players!

V.N.:Yes, there is that another joke about trombone player who left his instrument in the car. And when he comes back he sees that the window is smashed. He says: "Oh, no, someone took my trombone", but instead he has five of them now. So some other trombonists just dumped their instruments in his car to get rid of them....

T.K.: Oh, but in reality they do enjoy playing their instruments, of course?

V.N.: Yeah, of course. (smiling) 

T.K.: Thank you, Viktor, for this sweet conversation, for sharing your insights of Jazz and your perception of Ascona today. 

V.N.: Thank you! It was a pleasure to talk about that. 

Text by Taliya Khafizova

Photography by Almira Khafizova @miralumos