There’s a strong melodic tradition in Scandinavian folk music, and I think this is part of the explanation why there has been so much music and so many musicians coming out of these relatively small countries. Some of the biggest pop hits from the past 40 years have regularly come from Scandinavian writers and production teams – some of them sung by Scandinavian groups, but most of them done by working in the shadow of an endless list of international pop stars. These articles on Swedish pop music – here and here – give an idea, and Denmark and Norway have also supplied their fair deal of worldwide pop hits.
As far as the culture of musicianship in these countries goes, the immigration of a large number of American jazz musicians in the 50’s and 60’s, most of them black, had a huge impact on the music scenes. Their influence went way beyond the Jazz circuit, and I think they can be attributed a good deal of the credit for the success that Scandinavian music has enjoyed since the 70’s. A straightforward proof of this is american Jazz trumpetist Don Cherry, who moved to Sweden in the 70’s, and whose children include Neneh Cherry and Eagle Eye Cherry, two internationally successful Swedish acts. But I think the folk music tradition also has a lot to do with why Scandinavian music so easily catches on around the world.
There are some extremely beautiful recordings of these two historic treads intertwining, that are hugely popular in Scandinavia, and that many of you probably know already. One is Jan Johansson’s historic album “Jazz på Svenska”, which consists of minimalist Jazz arrangements of Swedish folk music tunes. Another is the duo album of Kenny Drew, a black American pianist who moved to Copenhagen in the 60’s, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, the world famous Danish Jazz bass player, who learned his trade backing up a lot of the American Jazz expatriates in Copenhagen when he was barely in his teens. While the Drew/NHOP album features a more diverse repertoire than the Johansson record, there are some prime examples of Danish folk tunes getting a jazz/gospel treatment, and both records provide a look into two of the most important trends that in my opinion help explain the success of Scandinavian music since the 70’s: when black American music and Scandinavian folk music meet. The opening tracks from “Jazz på Svenska” and “Duo” are featured below, sharing the minimal instrumentation of Piano and Double Bass: