It’s not often that a musician, especially a jazz musician, reveals as much about themselves as Jesper Thorn does in conjunction with his new project Dragør. The Danish bassist and composer has previously released two critically acclaimed and well received albums, Big Bodies of Water in 2016 and especially Boy, which came out in the difficult first year of Covid, in November 2020. Both revealed him as the creator of deeply personal, introspective music in which he works out more or less in public his innermost conflicts and feelings.
On Dragør he delves even deeper, dredging up his highly conflicted feelings about growing up in the town of that name, an ancient and picturesque fishing village near Copenhagen. To assist him he enlisted the same musicians who played on Boy, Marc Méan on piano and electronics and Tobias Wiklund on cornet, plus Thorn’s wife Mette Damm as producer. This time out he’s also joined by Andreas Bernitt on violin and viola and Cecilie Strange on tenor saxophone. All are longtime personal friends and musical associates, which I’d think would be necessary on such a personal project.
I usually find it easier to perceive the emotions or stories behind folk music than jazz, but Dragør is an exception. Having read Thorn’s detailed notes, the emotional heft of the elegiac “About Fathers And Sons,” and the triumphant “Boy” – in which Thorn reflects on the joys and risks of being a father himself – are palpable. Likewise the expansive “Upside Down” the majestically homespun “Dragør (part 1)” and chaotic part 2.
A highlight is the plodding but insistent “Asthma Breath,” which portrays Thorn’s childhood struggles with asthma brought on by his premature birth with undeveloped lungs. It’s not the best track but perhaps the most finely observed, the wheezing of the horns, especially the muted cornet, suggesting the struggle of parent and son to overcome and not succumb to the illness’ strictures. He was frequently hospitalized with pneumonia during his childhood, and the song, he says, “is about the sensation of trying to breathe normally again after one of those countless admissions, about my father insisting on us going for bike rides in the cold, and sometimes moist, winter air, near the shore in Dragør, to make me stronger, and me always trying to evade going. Today I’m so grateful he insisted.”
The album ends on a strong note, or rather a couple of them. Drawing on the sounds of mass, the darkly mournful “Sweeping It Under The Rug” is his reflection on his guilt-laden Catholic upbringing. The sharply contrasting “About Fathers” is upbeat and optimistic, the pianist Méan channeling a bit of Helge Lien’s playful wanderings and Vince Guaraldi’s block chords, and the horns providing a restful coda.
Dragør is recognizably rooted in Scandinavian jazz, but Thorn’s compositions and their interpretation by this sympathetic ensemble give the date an unusually personal touch. This one’s a grower.
(April Records, 2023)