Say the name Bent Axen and a phrase comes to mind, spoken by a European musician, perhaps Scandinavian, standing at the luggage complaint counter and reporting that his instrument has been mashed in transit. While every professional musician gets his own "bent axen" at some point, only certain details in this scenario actually ring true. Bent Axen was a musician and he was Scandinavian, Danish to be exact. But since his instrument of choice was piano, that put him in the slim ranks of players whose axes are provided for them by venues. But it is all a Bent Axen in the end, since one of the distinctive things about the pianist of that name is that in the course of playing live gigs with a variety of visiting European and American jazz bandleaders, he wound up being recorded on as many out of tune and otherwise mediocre pianos as any pianist in jazz history.
Visualizing the name Bent Axen in terms of layout, the type faces used by labels such as Prestige would be appropriate. Bloodhounds will come across this pianist without having to go too far into the discographical swamp of performers such as Eric Dolphy and Don Byas, players who are a stark contrast stylistically but similar in their efficient, budget-driven use of European sidemen on tour. Axen's résumé leading up to being hired by such jazz greats begins with commercial bands in the late '40s and in the combo of baritone saxophonist Max Bruel in the mid-'50s. By 1959, he had begun leading his own quintet, simply called Jazz Quintet. This project continued through 1963, overlapping with Axen's activities in the Danish Radiojazzgruppen as well as the arrival of visiting American axemen.
Dolphy showed up in Denmark in 1961, putting Axen to the test in terms of tempos and longevity of expression. Axen survived, one of the Copenhagen venue's pianos didn't. According to one story, an emotional jazz fan broke into the club several years after the live recordings had been released and put the keyboard out of its tuning misery, revenge for all the Dolphy fans past and future subjected to the sound of that old piano. Brew Moore was the guest artist of note the following year, followed in 1963 by elder statesman Byas. In 1967, Axen switched directions and began working as both a music director and composer for theater, This activity largely replaced the jazz career that reached a creative high point on the 1960 solo album entitled Let's Keep the Message. The 1997 Axen CD restored this material to circulation, along with two other albums originally recorded for Debut. ~ Eugene Chadbourne