The Mikkel Ploug Group
featuring Mark Turner
by Howard Lawes
One of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most famous compositions, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) is a serenade composed in the 18th century but, despite the name, is not considered to be a nocturne. In general, a nocturne is a musical form most commonly found in the classical music of the 19th century, and the composer Frédéric Chopin is generally recognised as the master of the genre. Nocturnes are either inspired by or are designed to be played at night and they tend to have a song-like quality with melody and repeated themes.
Jazz music, more often than not, tends to be played later in the day and some of the most famous and most covered songs in the jazz canon feature the night - Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk, 1943), Blues In The Night (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, 1941) and Harlem Nocturne (Earle Hagen, Dick Rogers, 1939). Blues In The Night was written for a film of the same name associated with the ‘film noir’ genre, often epitomised by lonely, dark, wet streets, private detectives and femme fatales. Harlem Nocturne also seems to evoke this kind of scenario, but it wasn't until 1997 that it was used as a theme tune for a short-lived TV series called Mike Hammer, Private Detective. Another classic of nocturnal jazz is Starless And Bible Black, part of the Stan Tracey Quartet's Under Milk Wood Suite with Bobby Wellins’ saxophone evoking the darkness of a Welsh fishing village, late at night.
Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug became something of a night owl during the Covid lockdown and began playing tunes every evening from his apartment balcony. His neighbours, rather than complain about excessive noise, came to look forward to the performances which included popular Danish tunes, nursery rhymes and a couple of well known American standards. Mikkel, encouraged by this enthusiasm, recorded a selection on solo guitar and released them on an album called Balcony Lullabies (2020) which was widely praised for its calmness and tranquillity.
Listen to Sigrids Wiegenlied (Sigrid's Lullaby) from Mikkel's new album here.
Continuing the night-time theme Mikkel Ploug has now released the album Nocturnes but this time the guitarist leads the Mikkel Ploug Group featuring Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Jeppe Skovbakke on bass and Sean Carpio on drums. The album has four compositions by Ploug himself, four by the leading Danish classical composer Bent Sørensen (born 1958) and one each by Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) who was Danish, and Valentyn Sylvestrov (born 1937), who is Ukrainian. It is probably no coincidence that one of Sørensen's most famous piano concertos, composed in 1996-8 is called La Notte (the Night) and Nielsen composed a song called Danmark Nu Blunder Den Lyse Nat (Denmark, now slumbers the Northern night). Sylvestrov's song is called Song Can Tend The Ailing Spirit (originally a poem by Yevgeny Baratynsky) which together with Ploug's composition Peace Chant laments the fact that war has returned to Europe.
Listen to Peace Chant here.
Generally Ploug's interpretations of the music tend towards the traditional form of the nocturne, having a melodious, song-like quality and while there is a little sadness as exemplified by Lacrimosa (Tearful). There are also lullabies, Saenk Kun Dit Hoved, Du Blomst (Just bow your head, you flower) and Sigrids Wiegenlied (Sigrid's lullaby). Two compositions by Sørensen, Mignon, Und Die Sonne Geht Unter (Mignon, and the sun goes down) and Und Die Sonne Geht Auf (And the sun rises) are celebrations of Nordic myths and legends, perhaps fairy stories that might be read to children at bed-time. Ploug's compositions Stockholm Night Lights and Monet are seemingly inspired by nocturnal vistas, Stockholm's magnificent waterfront and Monet's dreamy landscapes in a misty twilight.
Listen to Stockholm Night Lights here.
The provenance and themes of the music create a fusion of old and new, classical and jazz which results in a really charming album. The very welcome, renewed partnership between Mikkel Ploug and Mark Turner treats the music with all the respect that it deserves and along with Jeppe Skovbakke and Sean Carpio, are in great form.
Details of the album are here.