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Swinging more than the Swedish

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When the Danish band Phønix (pronounced, roughly, "FooER-nicks") takes the stage at Milestones next week, it will be the second Scandinavian group to play Rochester in a year. Yggdrasil, whose members hail from Norway and the Faroe Islands, was featured at last summer's Rochester International Jazz Festival. But while that incarnation of Yggdrasil (there have been many others) came across as some sort of erudite progressive rock band, freely deploying jazz, classical, and folk devices, Phønix is definitely a folk ensemble, albeit with crossover flourishes.

            Like the Scottish traditional band Old Blind Dogs, a Rochester favorite, Phønix propels its folk music with hand percussion that drives folk hardliners to distraction. The band was together for five years and had issued two albums of traditional Danish dance music before they added a percussionist and began to incorporate their own compositions into their repertoire. Jesper Falch, the current percussionist, has been with the band since 1997.

            Anja Mikkelsen, who plays, rather improbably, the bass clarinet, and Jesper Vinther, a piano accordionist, are the two remaining founders from its origin in 1995. The bass clarinet supplies both the low-end rhythm, often provided by the cittern or the mandola in Celtic bands. Vinther's accordion is the primary melodic instrument in the band. His playing creates a variety of moods --- a cabaret feel, a percussive underpinning, and a surprising fiddle-like sprightliness --- depending on the song.

            When asked about the contribution of each instrument to the band's sound, Phønix vocalist Karen Mose Nørgaard makes an analogy to a rock band. "Instead of a drum set we use the percussion. Instead of a guitar to do the harmonies and the melodic rhythmics, we use the accordion, and instead of the bass we have the bass clarinet."

            Nørgaard feels that Danish folk has something in common with funk and other groove-based music. "The bass clarinet fills out the role of a groove bass. In Denmark it's called 'ostinat'. I don't know if it's the same in the US, but it means a little phrase played over and over again."

It is actually against the odds that the first Nordic traditional band to perform in Rochester should be from Denmark. According to Nørgaard, the Danish folk music scene was virtually nonexistent for several decades until there was a revival in the 1970s.

            "For many years the main purpose of the music was the social part," she says. "It still is, but in the last ten years there has been a greater focus on the music as 'concert music.' The reason, I think, is that the new generation, the children of the folk musicians of the '70s, has another way of looking at this music."

            Unlike the other Nordic countries, where the folk tradition has never faltered, in Denmark "there are not many of the traditional musicians left --- meaning the ones who learned all their stuff from their family," Nørgaard says. "The younger generation doesn't have the same relationship to the music because it is secondhand. But that just calls for another kind of creativity. We can do with the music what we want. We have to invent it all again to find a meaning that works for us."

            Phønix's new album Pigen & Drengen ("The Boy & The Girl"), is its first album to include vocals, supplied by conservatory-trained Nørgaard. Indeed, all but four of the songs have lyrics. They are largely drawn from a compilation called Old Popular Ballads of Denmark with music either arranged or composed by the band members. The stories in these ballads, which may be 600 years old, can be found in traditions throughout Europe.

            The lyrics are nothing like the sentimental prattle that bogs down much of what is now called "folk music." Example: A groom fails to show up for his wedding because he doesn't think it is worth going out in bad weather that day ("Tyge Hermansen"). A dead queen is magically brought to life by the mourning of her bereaved husband only to complain about having her eternal rest disturbed ("Dronning Dagmar"). A knight responds to the wooing of a beautiful woman by cutting off her head because he knows that she is really a hideous mountain troll ("Mangelus").

But where does Phønix fit in with the sprawling Scandinavian traditional music scene? To some extent Phønix resembles Finnish bands like JPP and Troka, in that they are university-trained and play instruments that have been borrowed from other European traditions, like the violin, accordion, and clarinet. But while the Finnish sound often falls somewhere between Baroque and jazz, Phønix never sounds stuffy.

            Some of the Swedish trad bands, such as Hedningarna, bring an aggressive attack associated with electric rock music to entirely acoustic arrangements. Wildly popular in their native Sweden, their heresy may have allowed other Swedish trad bands like Groupa, Hoven Droven, Harv, and Våsen to play with similar headlong intensity. Phønix occasionally approaches this sort of interpretation, but their music always swings more than that of their Swedish counterparts.

            On their album Hildegard von Bingen, Garmarna, another Swedish band, re-imagined the music of the eponymous medieval nun as electronica. All of the albums of the Danish band Sorten Muld (Black Earth) combine programmed beats and keyboards with traditional bagpipes (saekkepibe) and keyed fiddles (nyckelharpa). In contrast, Phønix is an entirely acoustic band and is making no attempt to win over the Ecstasy-and-black-lipstick set.

            The first two Phønix albums were entirely comprised of traditional dance music. Unlike the ancient and universal nature of the ballads, the dance tunes vary more among the Nordic cultures. While the polksa is the single most popular dance in Sweden, in Denmark the hopsa and schottische are also popular. Nørgaard asserts that "the Swedish and the Danish dances have a different character, and, of course, the music as well. In short you can say that the Danish music is more major [key] music and the Swedish is more minor [key] music."

            In Rochester we are perhaps most familiar with the dance music of Ireland and Scotland. When asked if a Celtic music fan would find anything familiar in Danish dance music, Nørgaard admitted, "the [Danish] music of the 17th century is very similar to the Celtic music. We have a lot of jigs and reels like in Scotland and Ireland, but the 17th-century dancing is not really known today. So the music hasn't been played for many years. But there has been a growing interest over the last five years."

Phønix will appear Wednesday, January 14, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 7 p.m. Tix: $10. 325-6490

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