A Tonic for the Troops are playing a concert this Tuesday October 5th at Trondheim Jazzforum. Read the interview with Ellen Brekken

Photo: Leikny Havik Skjærseth

You have a big musical background with Hedvig Mollestad, Tord Gustavsen trio and others. Why did you decide to found your own band  – A Tonic for the Troops? And where did this touch of the British empire come from?

Well, I studied jazz at The Norwegian Academy of Music from 2006-2010, and after that I started to play improvised rock with Hedvig, different folk music projects, theatre music along with a lot of different styles. After a while I kind of missed playing straight forward jazz, with focus on a good beat and melodic tunes. I also wanted to go back to the more acoustic vibe, where it´s only the instruments and the players themselves that give life to the music, instead of all sorts of boxes and amps. I came over the quote “A tonic for the troops” some years ago, and saved it for a song title – as I often do if I hear or come up with something – but I decided to keep it for myself for a future album title or a band name. I wanted to have a band name instead of something like “Ellen Brekken quartet”, and since “a tonic for the troops” kind of means “the best medicine” or a “vitamin injection” I hope the band can give the audience a positive and powerful vibe. I am also quite interested in history so it was a nice way to incorporate that as well. 

There is a very impressive line-up in this quartet: Magnus Bakken on saxophones, Espen Berg on piano, Magnus Sefaniassen Eide on drums and you on acoustic bass. Have you played together before?

Magnus Eide and I had played together a little bit (we also both studied in Oslo, though not at the same time). He’s an amazing drummer that can play extremely delicate, but he can also put up the biggest bonfire you´ll ever see. You can ask him to play any groove in any particular way, and he will always be on the right side of the music. Magnus Bakken I met in a NRK show right after he returned home from Berkley and I knew about him from freelancing in Oslo, where he is spotless. He knows the jazz tradition very well, but can also go his own way and is for me one of the best up and coming saxophone players in Norway. Espen I´d heard with his own trio and with other bands like Trondheim jazzorkester, so I knew what a force he was. Both harmonically and rhythmically he’s extremely advanced. I just asked all of them if they wanted to join me in the studio, and luckily they said yes! I really dig these players and what they put on the table. They´re open minded but they also know the tradition. And they’re really nice people!

How could you describe A Tonic for the Troops’ music style and could you name some musician who became the inspiration for this project?

For me, energy is the main ingredient of this drink. I feel like we have one foot in the American tradition and one foot in the European tradition. We definitely nod to the swing tradition, someone has mentioned hard bop as an inspiration, so we want it to swing and to be accessible, both when it comes to melodies and grooves. But we´re all children of ECM, I guess, so we have a little bit of that Nordic vulnerability as well, with more open sounds and chords. 

I think we´ve all listened to so much different music and stirred it up really well before putting it into our common mixture, but for me I’ve listened to bass players like Dave Holland, Charlie Mingus, Paul Chambers and Marc Johnson. I wrote a hommage for the latter, called Marc´s lament. 

A Tonic for the Troops’ debut album Ambush was released on April 16 via jazz label Odin (Grappa Musikkforlag AS). Do you have any plans for recording or releasing new music?

Well, since I’m also doing a lot of other projects, “Ambush” was one of four albums I released this year. The other ones were with Falkevik, Hedvig Mollestad trio and Du og jeg og vi 2 – 3 – 4, the latter is music for children. So it’s been quite a busy year in that respect, but my hope is to go in the studio with A tonic for the troops next year again, maybe in the fall. “Ambush” was rehearsed and recorded in four days, so these people are really efficient!

You are playing a concert on October 5th at Trondheim Jazzforum. Do you have more concerts coming?

We have some dates in January, that include Røros, Ørsta/Volda, Molde, Trondheim, Oslo, Nesodden and Bodø. Some of them will be a double tour with the band Franklin, organized by Midt-Norsk jazzsenter. Really looking forward to that!