The great icon of Norwegian jazz

PrintRadka Toneff´s «Fairytales» has sold 100 000 copies and is the country’s best-selling jazzrecord of all times. We still haven´t managed to fill the void after her.

I have translated this article into english for all you Radka Toneff-fans out there.

The Norwegian jazz singer Radka Toneff did not make more than three albums before she comitted suicide in 1982, only 30 years of age. Yet her influence on today’s generation of jazz singers can hardly be overestimated. Many female vocalists in Norway has gone through a Radka-phase in their late teens or early in their career. Jazz vocalist and lecturer at the Academy of Music , Guro Gravem Johansen, was a jazzstudent in Trondheim in the mid-1990s, and she says there was Radka-fever among the students that time. She believes Radka Toneff´s attitude towards jazzsinging has had great influence on the education.
– It was especially her statement «I do everything wrong, and that´s how I like it», that has become a doctrine. Many took to the message that you do not have to sing technically perfect, as long as the expression is strong. In many ways, Radkas style and attitude has been integrated into the curriculum, «says Gravem Johansen.

The interest for Radka Toneff´s music got a boost when the prestigious american recordlabel Verve released her first album on cd in 1990. Three years later the album «Live in Hamburg» was released, witch consisted the recording of a concert Radka Toneff´s Quintet did at the club Onkel Pö in Hamburg in springtime, 1981. For this album she was awarded the norwegian Spellemann-price post mortem.
What was it with Radka Toneff´s voice and style that made her become such an icon in scandinavian jazz? Fellow norwegian jazz singer Live Maria Roggen says that Toneff has had an enormous impact on how she relate to the lyrics and vocals:
– In a sense I feel like she imprinted an imperative into my mind from a very early stage:
«If you must sing: let your voice be honest, don’t fake it, be yourself, be present, give yourself away. The continous emotional dicipline that I’ve practised in singing ever since, can be traced to this impression. It influenced my way of singing, of approaching lyrics, and of writing them. She will never stop touching me so very deeply with her song.

Another famous norwegian jazzsinger, Silje Nergaard, can also reveal her strong relationship to the deceased musician.
– Radka was the first jazzsinger I listened to over and over again, and I was pulled directly into her world. She sang with a delicacy in the voice, and at the same time it was full of strength. You got this desire to hold her in your arms, says Nergaard.

Radka Toneff´s records have risen in reputation over the years, especially «Fairytales» (Odin Records, 1982) which has become a bestseller both in Norway and abroad. It has sold nearly 100 000 copies, which means that this is the best-selling jazzrecord of all times in Norway. When the music site Ballade made its jazz canon of the 20 best Norwegian jazz album in history, Toneff was the only artist with three albums on the list. They wrote: «This is a timeless testament from a singer and artist who left us too early, but that still influences ”everybody” that sings.»

Toneff´s repertoire consisted of both self-composed material and songs written by the musicians in her band, especially Jon Eberson and Arild Andersen. In addition, she played some standard tunes, and songs taken from american singer/songwriters such as Patti Austin, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Carole King and Chaka Khan. Although she felt strong for contemporary pop artists, she preferred the traditional role models when it came to the technical part of singing, like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In the beginning of her career she sat for hours and hours and copied their singing style. But she did not adopt their repertoire though, because she believed that the lyrics of the standard tunes rarely was any good. And with her passion for the lyrics she made a great impact on the Norwegian jazz-tradition. In jazz the instrumentalists have always been the main focus – the words have not been considered as equally important. Radka felt that she failed to sing well without having a strong relationship to the lyrics – then it sounded unnatural, she said. She wrote several of her own lyrics, but just as often she used the poems of contemporary american poets like Robert Creeley and Nikki Giovanni. Both of who she discovered with help from her friend Jan Erik Vold – a famous norwegian poet and artist.

Radka´s strong work ethics and seriousness in life, has also been brought up as one of her strengths.
– In interviews she states that she wants to be a musician amongst musicians. This was a clear message, which I believe might have changed the role of Norwegian singers forever, leading the way for role models like Sidsel Endresen and Elin Rosseland, and many others to follow, says Live Maria Roggen.
Everything Toneff did, she did with 100 percent commitment, whether it applied to household chores or composition. Her ability to focus was great, and on stage she could sometimes seem so concentrated that she would appear cold or distant. But the warmth in the voice offset that impression.
The danish drummer star Alex Riel, who played with Radka in the last years of her career, tells that he never met a jazz vocalist with a better sense of timing than her. He tells about this joke that runs among jazz drummers that goes like this: «How do you know it’s a female singer that’s at your door? She can not find the key and she does not know how to get in. »
What this means that many singers looks like big questionmarks after one of the musicians have played a solo, because they are struggling to get back into the song.
– I remember I tested her once, playing a real mysterious drumsolo. She stood with her back towards me, so we didn´t have eyecontact, and I gave no sign about when I was going to stop, however, she began to sing right that second!  She was incredible! Riel says.

This article is written by Marta Breen, author of the biography «Radka Toneff – Her short life and great voice» (Kagge Publishing, 2008). (only in Norwegian)

5 svar

  1. […] the original here:  The great icon of Norwegian jazz « Marta Breens blogg Share […]

  2. Great post! Thank you so much for taking the trouble to translate this article into English, much appreciated 🙂

  3. Is there any possibility to buy this book written in english?

    1. Hello Jurata
      No I´m sorry, my book has not been translated.
      best wishes, Marta

  4. Thanks for the article!
    Radka Toneff is one of my favorite jazz singers.

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