Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

September 22, 2015


With their blend of acoustic and electric instruments and broad range of influences Girls In Airports have developed a sound that is very much their own.

Girls In Airports


(Edition Records EDN 1061)

The Danish group Girls In Airports made a big impression at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival when they performed at a lunchtime showcase event at the Pizza Express Jazz Club. I was fortunate enough to witness and review that performance as part of my Festival coverage and became an instant fan of a band who have already attracted something of a cult following in their homeland and have also toured in China, Brazil, South Korea, Portugal, Germany and the US.

Don’t be misled by the name, Girls In Airports , the band is actually a quintet of five Copenhagen based males including the extravagantly bearded saxophonist Lars Greve. Greve is joined in a twin reed front line by fellow saxophonist Martin Stender and the group is completed by keyboard player Mathias Holm, drummer Mads Forsby and percussionist Victor Dybbroe. “Fables” represents their fourth album and follows their eponymous début from 2011 plus “Migration” (2012) and Kaikoura” (2013), all of which are highly recommended. The unusual group name derives from the title of a tune on the first album and is perhaps a reflection on the touring lifestyle of the contemporary jazz musician.

The music on Fables is in part inspired by the composition “Fables of Faubus” by the late, great bassist, composer and band leader Charles Mingus. It’s an oblique rather than overt reference, the way in which Mingus rehearsed his musicians and liked to write for a specific working band rather than a loose collection of musicians appealed to GIA’s own collective ethos and working methods. Although Stender is ostensibly the group’s chief composer he summarises the group’s writing process thus;
“A tune starts with me playing an unfinished idea on the piano. I am not a pianist so it sounds like a children’s song or very slow ballad. Keyboard player Mathias will immediately sit down and do a much better version without even looking at the notes that I have scribbled down. Then the drummers add a rhythmic layer that changes the whole thing into something else and then saxophonist Lars will make all of us follow him into some third place that we’ve never been before. It is quite easy to write new tunes for this band”.

Most of the group’s compositions are credited to “Martin Stender and Girls In Airports” and the band’s collective approach works very well on all of their albums. The material to be heard on “Fables” is all very new and was presumably written specifically for this album which was recorded at Studio R in Copenhagen in March 2015 - I don’t recall any of this material being played at the Pizza. Indeed one gets the impression that collective improvisation around a basic idea is becoming an increasingly important component of GIA’s sound. 

For British audiences the two saxophone front line will immediately remind listeners of Polar Bear but ultimately GIA sound very different to Seb Rochford’s outfit, Greve plays alto sax and clarinet as well as tenor and although Holm plays electric keyboards they are more conventionally deployed than Leafcutter John’s array of electronics and other devices. Meanwhile Forsby and Dybbroe ensure that this is a highly rhythmic band that draws on world music sources as well as more obvious jazz and rock influences.

That said “Fables” is arguably the band’s most experimental album to date as exemplified by the opening title track with its rich electronic textures allied to the exotic percussive sounds generated by Dybbroe and Forsby. As suggested by Stender’s remarks above the opening sax melodies have an almost childish naivete about them but the mood later darkens with a powerful, almost animalistic solo breaking through the layered keyboard sounds and increasingly animated percussion.

The following “Sea Trail” also builds gradually with the two reeds intertwining sinuously above the shimmer of percussion and the ripple of keyboards. The rhythms subsequently become more metronomic as the reeds continue to sketch fragments of melody. GIA’s music has been described as “filmic” and there’s certainly a pictorial quality about both of these opening pieces. With no composition on the album exceeding six minutes of length it’s perhaps best to view the tunes on this album as exquisite cinematic ‘shorts’.

Next up is “Randall’s Island” which is introduced by insistent, brooding percussive rhythms and layered, funereal keyboards. A sudden gong/cymbal crash takes us into even murkier territory as wisps of sax melody swirl about around ambient keyboard textures. But ultimately the mood is lightened again by the colourful percussive grooves laid down by Dybbroe and Forsby as Stender, Greve and Holm surf above, adding captivating sax and keyboard textures that hint at both space rock and dub reggae.

“Mammatus” seems to continue the space theme with its ambient keyboards, wispy saxophone and unusual but highly imaginative and effective percussion. Meanwhile the similarly impressionistic “Aftentur” conjures up images of the ocean depths with its watery, flute like keyboards, low frequency percussion rumbles and snatches of airy sax melody. 

“Aeiki” begins in a similarly floaty, impressionistic manner but changed with the introduction of a recurring keyboard/sax motif allied to an insistent interlocking percussion groove as GIA borrow from the rhythms of contemporary electronic dance music. The atmospheric coda segues into “Dovetail” which combines impressionism with the kind of accessible melodies and grooves that characterise the band’s earlier albums.

“Yola” develops from a simple keyboard motif and features long, breathy saxophone melody lines and exotic, gently percolating percussion. There’s a ‘library music’ quality about it, one could just imagine the piece being used in a particularly hip wildlife documentary.

The closing “Episodes” continues the impressionistic mood that characterises the album as a whole and, in its early stages at least, sounds archetypally Nordic. Eventually a sparse, rock influenced drum and percussion groove emerges above which the two saxes intertwine sensuously as the tune develops into one of the “very slow ballads” of which Stender speaks. If Coldplay did instrumentals… 

With their blend of acoustic and electric instruments and broad range of influences Girls In Airports have developed a sound that is very much their own, a kind of ‘post jazz’. Although their music seems to set a greater store on improvisation this time round there is little reliance on conventional jazz structures and rhythms and hardly any orthodox individual soloing. Instead the focus is very much on mood, texture, colour and the overall ensemble sound and collective ethos. It’s a style of music that I personally find very satisfying and enjoyable but I can appreciate that it may hold limited appeal to listeners who prefer old school swing and bop.

GIA’s music is likely to find an audience with the kind of listener who appreciates such 21st century jazz acts as Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Led Bib, Sons Of Kemet, GoGo Penguin etc. and is likely to appeal to adventurous rock music fans too. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any immediate plans for the band to play live again in the UK but hopefully the switch to Edition will help to increase their profile in this country. I also predict that they may get played on Late Junction too, this is the kind of music that is very much likely to appeal to that programme’s listenership.   

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