"Basco is a fiddle-scraping, box-belting, guitar-swinging, trombone-packing folk/roots band with an energy that has been compared to that of a bunch of sixth-graders on camp. It's members met at the Carl Nielsen Academy of music in Odense, Denmark, and now play in all kinds of music of bands, both at home and away from home. So what they play in Basco is Danish music, and yet not..."
This is how Basco, one of Denmark's most exciting roots and folk bands, define themselves on their website, and it's a credible definition. Basco is a happy mix of jazz, folk and classical music, played on violin, viola, cittern, accordion, trombone – sometimes even a 3-piece brass section. Constantly developing, the band is not easy to categorise.
Hal Parfitt Murray, whose father is Scots and mother English, grew up in Australia, lives in Denmark, and plays violin and sings in Basco. Hal founded Basco in 2004, and he composes the majority of the group's material. One summer's day, in a little café in central Copenhagen, I meet Hal and his friend and colleague, violinist Andreas Tophøj, to hear all about Basco.
"We started Basco when we were students at the Music Academy in Odense,” begins Hal. "I had composed some tunes and I wanted to play them with Andreas, Anders and Sigurd." Andreas continues, "We were soon doing concerts and we recorded one of them for a live album. Then I went off to do a year at Berklee School of Music in Boston, so Basco took a break. When I came back, in 2006, we finished the album and released it under the title The Crow in the Walnut Tree, and then we really started doing lots of shows.”
Hal makes it clear from the beginning that it is important that this is not the Hal Parfitt Murray Band, but simply four guys playing tunes. "We were agreed that it should be just like a traditional band, except that we would play new music. In other words, we were not interested in complicated breaks, fancy arrangements and so on: we just play the tune so it swings and rocks. The fact that the tune was written by me, and not some old Irishman or Dane, was less crucial."
Soon the other Basco musicians began to compose for the band, but it is still Hal who provides the bulk of the music. “The name we borrowed from my uncle's dog, a huge bloodhound,” Andreas relates. "The dog fell ill and had to be put down,” he expands, and adds with a laugh, after a minute's thought, “I hope we don't go the same way!"
Recently, Basco have been busy playing concerts at venues and festivals in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, while expanding the line-up. The young Swedish cittern player, Ale Carr, has joined. Lately Basco have been appearing with a brass section when the occasion permitted. They are experts from Odense Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Denmark Big Band: Ulrik Kofoed on French horn, Mads la Cour on trumpet and Jonathan Ahlbom on helicon – or perhaps that should be in helicon, since it's a tuba that winds round the player's upper body. Basco's accordion and trombone player, Anders Ringgaard, arranges the music, and the whole band are ecstatic about the new direction their music is taking. They call it Big Basco.
"When you set these three musicians loose on Anders' arrangements, there is lots of space for the rest of us," explains Andreas enthusiastically. "Mads takes plenty of solos, and Jonathan, who is very familiar with East European music, lays down some groovy bass lines. It may not be fusion, but there are sounds and music from all sorts of styles, different parts of the world, meeting and blending in a new way." Here, Hall breaks in. "In a strange way what happens is like an organic hodgepodge, and I love it totally." "These horn guys are utterly in tune with the band's spirit,” Andreas goes on, and Hal agrees. "We build the sound from many sources: British, American, Scandinavian, Danish. It's a product of all the tunes we have ever heard since we started playing. The music comes out crystallised in a form that really works. It's a lot of fun!"
As mentioned at the start of this article, Hal is the anchor-man in Basco, and he it is who composes most of the band's repertoire. The resultant music is then arranged by the band collectively, as are decisions about how to play it.
"From the start, Basco was Hal's idea, and – although I hate to praise him – it still is. It's his band and he provides the music." says Andreas, and Hal takes over: "That's true, but sometimes I can't get a note out, and at other times 30 melodies spill out in quick succession." Andreas interrupts, "It's perfect, Hal bringing in the music, since he doesn't lift a finger when it comes to all the administrative work!" Andreas laughs, and Hal throws out his arms apologetically. "I'm no use there! If that side of things were up to me, we'd never get out to play concerts. We'd play exclusively in my parent's back garden."
Over and above Hal's music, Basco play arrangements of traditional songs that stem from Hal's British / Australian background. These are songs that Hal, who has Danish as his second mother tongue and English as his first, naturally sings – and sings beautifully – in pitch-perfect English. It's only a couple of years since Hal started singing, and only after a period of intense pressure from the other band members, Andreas in particular. "The others virtually beat me around the head with a baseball bat until I did what they wanted," admits Hal: "... and I am very grateful that they did." Andreas looks over with a smile. "You're welcome!".
Basco are currently hard at work on their second album, this time as Big Basco, with the 3-piece brass section, and the prize-winning Norwegian singer, Kim André Rysstad. They will soon be off again, out into the world with their good humour and their hypermusical blend of styles and traditions. It's Danish music, and yet not!
English translation by Rod Sinclair.
Photo Credits: Basco: (1)-(2) Promo 2011, (3) 'The Crow in the Walnut Tree' (unknown).