Award-winning Danish jazz pianist and composer Kathrine Windfeld talks about her new big band project, Orca

The jazz history books tell us that the big bands largely went the way of the dinosaurs and became extinct after the arrival of bebop, a new and advanced type of jazz mostly played by small groups of musicians, in the mid-1940s. While it’s true that the bleak economic realities in the aftermath of the Second World War decimated the big band scene and brought the swing era to an end, a few stragglers lived on; like the large ensembles fronted by jazz aristocrats Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose popularity remained undiminished as jazz trends came and went. 

But though most jazz music after the 1950s was expressed through trios, quartets and quintets, there were still musicians who persisted and experimented with larger ensembles; like Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra, Gil Evans and Maynard Ferguson as well as Don Ellis, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Carla Bley. In more recent times,  Dave Holland and Maria Schneider have kept the flag flying for big band jazz alongside versatile European ensembles like Sweden’s Bohuslän Big Band, Holland’s Metropole Orkest and Germany’s NDR Big Band. Now, there’s an exciting new large jazz ensemble that is making substantial waves on the jazz scene: the Kathrine Windfeld Big Band. 

Kathrine Windfeld, who studied music in Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden, is undoubtedly one of the rising stars of the European jazz scene. The 36-year-old Danish pianist emerged in 2015 with her self-produced big band album, Aircraft, whose seven pieces scored for a fifteen-member ensemble revealed that the young composer/arranger possessed an ear for detail, drama and texture. The album deservedly won an award in Scandinavia and led her to sign with Denmark’s leading jazz label, Stunt, which released her band’s second album, Latency, in 2017. 

Showing greater maturity, Latency brought the young composer international exposure with concerts outside of Scandinavia. More significantly, the album led to her receiving the prestigious Letterone Rising Stars Jazz Award in London in January 2020, which, as part of her prize, would fund her band’s appearance at seven leading European jazz festivals. Sadly, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, those concerts were postponed, though it’s possible they might go ahead at some point in the future. 

In the meantime, Windfeld has found time to record a new album for Stunt: Orca, which is out this month in the UK. The Dane’s two previous albums were mightily impressive in terms of their compositions, performances and arrangements but Orca – whose title refers to the majestic killer whale –  is a suite of eight marine-themed tone poems that proves to be her most compelling opus yet.  

“I tried to tell different stories about the ocean,” explains Windfeld, who was born and raised surrounded by the sea in Svendborg, a coastal town on the Danish island of Funen. “I have a very deeply-felt love and fascination for the ocean and the drama and romantic side of it. I have a deep respect for its power and dark sides but also the very vibrant, happy, lively and positive side of it.” 

Orca is an immersive musical experience that seduces the listener with exquisitely-composed atmospheric soundscapes that capture the sea in all its moods; from tranquil to terrifying. It is, then, not a conventional big band jazz album. “I tried to move a little away from the traditional big band sound because I wanted to focus more on the impressionistic things and try to mix a lot of moods instead of doing what’s expected,” says the composer.  “It’s a little hard sometimes not to follow the traditional ways of composing because the challenge is always that you have seventeen musicians and they all have to have something to do. They are like hungry lions that have to be fed but still, if the music only calls for two instruments playing for a long time, then you have to follow that track instead of forcing all of the musicians into the music all the time. So I try to write in a more modern tone poem way.”

Windfeld has created some evocative ocean-inspired pieces, ranging from the driving title song – which bristles with tension and captures the power of a killer whale – to the richly-textured ‘Dark Navy,’ with brooding slow-moving brass chords, and the more celebratory ‘Harvest,’ which is harmonically simpler and more straight-forward.  

Orca, then, is an album of contrasts; of mood, intensity, as well as melody, harmony and rhythm. “One of the most important and interesting things about the new album is that I really stretch my writing in two directions,” says Windfeld, detailing her approach on the record. “On the one hand, I try to develop my complexity of the chords and their mixture of triads, and on the other hand, I also try to make the music more melodic and simple. So some of the tunes are easy to digest, like ‘Harvest.’ which is very simple and uses a pentatonic theme. In contrast to that, you have ‘Dark Navy,’ with very dense and threatful textures. So I really like to stretch the music in a more melodic and complex way at the same time instead of making everything be in the middle.”

The band now has seventeen members; four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and a four-piece rhythm section composed of piano, guitar, bass and drums. Despite having such a large ensemble of outstanding Scandinavian musicians at her disposal, Kathrine discloses that writing for her band can occasionally be a little problematic. “It’s like Sudoku sometimes and super-hard,” she laughs. “It depends on the tune but the orchestration can be challenging in terms of wanting everybody to play a central or interesting role in the music. Sometimes I’ve written something that I feel satisfied with then I discover the bass trombone doesn’t play at all and I think oh shit, how did that happen?” 

Though composing comes to her naturally – she usually sits at the piano to write – sometimes a piece she’s working on will prove demanding. “The writing can also be super-challenging,” she admits, citing ‘Harvest’ on the new album as an example, which ironically, is one of the set’s less complicated songs. “It’s a very melodic tune and came easily to my mind but it turned out to be the hardest tune to develop because I thought it was far too simple and obvious. I thought, oh wow, this is corny, but it just continued to stay on my mind and now I think it’s a nice tune and very natural. The most simple tunes are more difficult to develop.” 

Though much of her music is scored, her musicians have the freedom to solo at pre-arranged spots in the songs. “Sometimes you have to try it out with the band to see how long it should be,” says Kathrine.  “We mostly find out when we meet and play. I do my best to imagine how it will sound but it also depends on the specific solo players. Sometimes I think this solo should only be 16 bars but when we meet at the rehearsal, I think this should be open and longer.” 

Some big band leaders and writers, like the great Duke Ellington, wrote specifically for the musicians in their band knowing their strengths and weaknesses and Kathrine admits that she also writes some pieces with particular musicians in mind. “I do that more and more, I would say,” she confesses. “Obviously, when it comes to solo players, but also in the small passages and who should play the intro. I know their individual sounds and intonations.”

Having said that, she brought in the Hungarian tenor saxophonist, Gabor Bolla (right), to play on two of Orca’s tracks. “Some of the tunes are specifically inspired by (the late US saxophonist) Michael Brecker’s sound and his power and Gabor had exactly what I was looking for,” reveals Kathrine. “Even though I love my band, it’s nice when you have an album to really show how exactly you want the tunes to sound.  And for two of the tunes, I thought that Gabor was the man who could exactly pinpoint the powerful vibe of these tunes. He was so fantastic.” 

Kathrine was brought up in a musical family – “my dad and mum sang in the choir so we did a lot of singing in my home,” she remembers – but she wasn’t exposed to jazz until much later. Her desire to write music came when she was a teenager. “I started to write my own music because I was not interested in learning to read music,” she laughs. “I thought I can’t be a classical pianist like my mum because I’m not interested in practising scales and reading the notes – I was so bad at reading notes that I got bored and I wanted to invent my own things.”

While she was studying musicology at the University of Copenhagen, she gravitated to jazz, writing and playing in a quintet before trying her hand at composing for a big band. “I took to it when I had to choose another topic for study,” she says. “I just tried out writing for a big band and I thought it was a fantastic challenge.” 

She says she was drawn to the dramatic scope and sheer scale of the sound when writing for a larger ensemble; for her, the music became denser, richer and sonically more interesting. “If you write for three horns, there’s a limit in terms of how high you can go in the register because it gets too thin,” she says. “But when you have 15 horns then you can stretch so the lead trumpet can go very high and the bass trombone can go very low. So there’s a wider spectrum and lots of small details that you can work with. A large orchestra gives you a totally different spectrum of different sounds.”

After writing some large ensemble pieces, Kathrine took the plunge and decided to form a big band in 2014 composed of fellow Scandinavian musicians. “I just called people that I knew as well as some people I didn’t know who were recommended by others,” she explains. “I told them, I can’t promise anything, but I have written some big band scores, so do you want to meet for a rehearsal and see what’s going to happen?” 

The musicians had two rehearsals, which was enough to convince Kathrine that a big band was where her destiny lay. “The rehearsals were fun and then I told them, I think we should make a record before it’s possible to book gigs.”  

She booked a recording studio, arrived with arrangements for seven compositions, and directed the band, which was augmented on several tracks by noted Danish drummer Mort Lund and Swedish trumpeter Anders Bergcrantz. The resulting album was released as Aircraft, her independently produced debut issued via the Gateway label in 2015. Reflecting on that album, she says: “I love its energy and overall power but it can be a little hard for me to listen to now. I think it’s easy to hear that it was at the very beginning of our time as a band.”  

Even so, it provided invaluable lessons for her, both as a musician and person. “I learned a lot from doing that and instead of just waiting and saying, oh I have to be an accomplished composer before I can do that. I just went for it, which was nice but a little scary as well.” 

Her second album, 2017’s Latency, showed her musical progression as well as conceptual maturity and helped to establish Kathrine’s reputation outside of Denmark. “Musically, it was super-nice to make a second album and prove that the music and the band had developed a lot,” says Kathrine. “It was satisfying to present something new.” 

Latency’s success also brought her a LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award. “The honour was so fantastic,” Kathrine enthuses. “There was an award show in London with 200 journalists so that was totally overwhelming. It changed my career a lot in terms of the media and I got some interviews.”

Despite the accolades, Kathrine’s head hasn’t been turned and she remains grounded. “Even though you get lots of reviews and nice comments, it’s super important to stay humble and go and practice every day,” she says, “because you’re still a tiny, little particle in the universe and you have to check out stuff and develop all your life. So of course, you have to take the energy from your success and use it in your self-criticism. You need that warm feeling that success brings but you still have to stay focused on what you can’t do. So it’s a balance.”

The new album came about through a stroke of good fortune when Covid distancing restrictions were temporarily lifted in Denmark during a few weeks in the summer of 2020. “We should have been recording it in March but there was a lockdown,” she explains. “But later, some of the restrictions were taken away and there was a moment at the beginning of June where the limit of gatherings became 50 instead of ten.” 

At that point, the 18-strong group went into the studio and recorded Orca. Says Kathrine: “We went for five days. It was fantastic that we succeeded in doing it because more restrictions came after summer. We were lucky.” 

Though she writes and scores the music, Kathrine is acutely conscious that it’s her band’s musical passion and conviction which brings the music to life. “I can write as well as I can and do my best but the musicians put the whole attention, power, and energy into it, and that’s so amazing really,” she says. “I’m so happy to feel that the players are so dedicated in their playing – and that’s the most important feature, in my opinion, in the new record.” 

Since the recording of Orca, the band has rarely been together, though the last time was as recently as November. “We played in Sweden but then we had some cancelled dates,” she says. “It’s fantastic to play with them and we have such a good time together. They are great people and so funny. Just the fact that we are 15 people makes it a party every time we meet.”

As far as her arranging influences go, Kathrine cites the Dave Holland Big Band as a major source of inspiration. “Their (2005) album Overtime with the song ‘Bring It On’ was groundbreaking for me,” she enthuses. “It’s a fantastic record.”  

She also listens to musicians whom she describes as “modern power players from New York,” naming guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Aaron Parks. “Those are my idols,” she says.                                

Five years on from her debut album, Kathrine believes she’s continually evolving as a musician. “I think I’ve reached a better understanding of the ensemble and, of course, I’ve had time to practice some more piano – and I know some more about arranging.” 

Kathrine reveals that she has another big band album in the pipeline, though it’s not with her usual group. It captures her playing with Sweden’s Bohuslän Big Band, which she toured with in September. “During the lockdown, I wrote eight new compositions, and next week, I’m going to mix and master that album,” she discloses. It’s not due for release until the autumn of 2021 but in the meantime, Kathrine continues to be in demand as an arranger for other projects.  

Looking ahead, where would she like to be in ten years time? “I just want to develop as a musician,” she says modestly. “It’s super important to me to feel that I’m on the move all the time and that people still think my music is interesting to listen to. So I’d like to get a more solid reputation in Europe and maybe come out and play some more. I’ve had some fantastic collaborations with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Bohuslän Big Band in Sweden. I’d love to do some more of these artists in residence things. So hopefully in ten years, I’ll have a bigger network in Europe, and maybe beyond, but I like to be realistic and not expect too much.”  

Orca by the Kathrine Windfeld Big Band is out now on Stunt Records.