Malene Mortensen isn’t the first singer to think that entering the Eurovision Song Contest might open doors to wider fame.
She may possibly be unique, though, in hoping that her appearance in the final of this much mocked musical extravaganza would persuade the audience to take an interest in her jazz career.
Back home in Denmark, this apparent long shot actually worked, and there are still people today who turn up to hear the blonde whose singing of Tell Me Who Are (or Vis mig hvem du er, to give it its original Danish title) saw her gain the sorry total of seven points and come last in Tallinn in 2002.
“I liked the song,” says a sleepy Mortensen down the line from Copenhagen, where the jazz festival is in full, almost round-the-clock swing. “When they called me and asked if I would enter the Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, which is the Danish competition from where the Eurovision entry is selected, I thought, this is not my thing. I’ve never liked the music and it’s all too superficial. But the song they wanted me to sing was good and I thought I could use the exposure and the media attention to become better known.”
She had sung in a television talent show before, competing successfully in the Danish equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent the year before – hence the Eurovision invitation. But the material she sang then was closer to the soul and R&B that she got into, along with jazz and blues, as a 12-year-old when a new, older step-sister arrived in the family home.
“My mother was a drummer and music teacher and my father played trumpet, so I was always around music as a kid,” she says. “Then after my mother died, my father married another music teacher and her daughter gave me these compilation tapes with lots of great singers on them, and I loved these tapes. I’d listen to Stevie Wonder and Nancy Wilson and sing along with them. My step-mother also got me into a choir, which I enjoyed, and from then on, singing was really all I wanted to do.”
A mid-teenage fascination with trumpeter and singer Chet Baker hardened her determination to sing jazz, although the grooves inherent in soul and R&B continued to appeal and are reflected in her own songwriting, which takes a roughly equal place alongside jazz standards in her repertoire.
The Eurovision experience certainly didn’t hinder her prospects as a jazz singer as far as her fellow musicians were concerned: her first album, Paradise, recorded the year after her disaster in Tallinn, was produced by and featured top Danish jazz pianist Nils Lan Doky with Denmark’s premier bass and drums team of the time, the now sadly departed Nils-Henning Orsted-Pedersen and the vastly experienced Alex Riel.
“I learned a lot from Eurovision in terms of singing in front of the cameras and dealing with the pressure of having to perform at your peak for those three minutes,” she says. “And that gave me confidence when it came to singing with these great musicians.”
Lan Doky, who is a contemporary and former bandmate of Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, recognised in Mortensen “a vocalist of international class and a talent of the highest order” and surmised that the mass appeal the then 20-year-old had shown in her pop-slanted television experiences would make her career as a jazz singer exciting to follow.
It’s certainly been interesting, with recording sessions taking Mortensen into the company of more top musicians including saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Avishai Cohen, but it hasn’t always been easy, as Mortensen can attest. She has, however, released a series of well-received albums since Paradise and enjoyed success in Germany, France, Spain and especially Thailand, which she’s toured four times now, as well as continuing to be popular in Denmark.
“Work is always a little bit like a feast or a famine,” she says. “But I keep writing and particularly co-writing songs, which I really enjoy, and listening, particularly to instrumentalists like Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker, because I like to learn from the way they phrase melodic lines.”
For her Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival debut, she’ll be bringing her regular group, a Swedish trio, which includes guitarist Carl Mörner Ringström, with whom she sometimes works in a duo.
“I like piano and I still play some piano myself,” she says. “But I really enjoy the range of dynamics you get with guitar. I’ve worked with Carl for quite a while now and I always feel that wherever I take a song he’ll be right there with me, and that’s a great thing for a singer.”
Malene Mortensen plays Palazzo Spiegeltent in George Square, Edinburgh, tonight.