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Bugge Wesseltoft: New Conception of Jazz Box

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Bugge Wesseltoft
New Conceptions of Jazz Box
Jazzland Records
2008

While the Norwegian jazz scene has been pursuing its own course for decades, the period of 1996-1997 represented a significant watershed, a milestone where an entirely new kind of music emerged, linked to jazz but distanced considerably—some might say completely, but they'd be mistaken—from its roots in the American tradition. Three seminal and groundbreaking albums were released within a year of each other: trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer (ECM, 1997); noise improv group Supersilent's 1- 3 (Rune Grammofon, 1997); and, beating the others by a year, keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft's aptly titled New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1996). All three explored the integration of electronics, disparate cultural references, programming, turntables and—especially in the case of Supersilent, the most avant-garde of the three— noise, to create aural landscapes that were innovative, otherworldly and refreshingly new. The three releases created a unified shot across the bow that announced, in no uncertain terms, that something new was happening, something was changing, and that jazz and improvised music would never be the same again.

Of the three releases, New Conception of Jazz was, perhaps, the most user-friendly; a combination of dance floor beats, relentless grooves and solos couched within, at times, accessible but almost subversively challenging changes, Wesseltoft's "New Conception of Jazz" (NCOJ) became an imprint that spawned a series of albums— Sharing (1998), Moving (2001), Live (2003) and Film Ing (2004), all on the keyboardist's burgeoning Jazzland label. Over the course of these albums, Wesseltoft gradually expanded the purview of his NCOJ. While the electronica-drenched grooves of songs like "Somewhere in Between" and "Change" may have mistakenly pigeonholed Wesseltoft's music as sacrilegious to the jazz police, looking under the covers revealed an unmistakable sound that was, at least in part, influenced by pianist and icon Herbie Hancock's electric music—Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) updated, perhaps, for an approaching and ultimately occurring new millennium.

But NCOJ was always about something more, and New Conception of Jazz Box—a generous three-CD set, with an additional DVD that features a NCOJ collaboration with oudist/vocalist Dhafer Youssef at Montreux in 2004—demonstrates just how much. It not only sets the record straight on the diversity of the concept, but positions Wesseltoft—alongside Norwegians contemporaries including fellow keyboardists Christian Wallumrød and Ståle Storløkken, trumpeters Molvær and Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset, drummers Audun Kleive and Thomas Strønen, singer Sidsel Endresen and turntablist Pål "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus—as an artist who has gained considerable cachet everywhere but, curiously, the United States. It's time for that to change.

These are but a few of the musicians who have revitalized international interest in Norway's distinctive approach to jazz that emerged in the late-1960s with artists including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen, guitarist Terje Rypdal and drummer Jon Christensen, flowed seamlessly into the 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of pianist Jon Balke and saxophonist Tore Brunborg, through to a new millennium that has seen the emergence of significant artists like saxophonist Trygve Seim, accordionist Frode Haltli, composer/vocalist Maja Ratkje, guitarist Jacob Young, pianists Tord Gustavsen and so many others. Norway's population of less than five million people only makes the vibrancy and diversity of its music scene all the more incredible.

Despite the countless artists who have surfaced and continued to appear on the scene to further expand Norway's intrepid approach to improvised music, few have been as active as Wesseltoft in introducing not just his own musical innovations but, with the growth of his Jazzland label, other electro-centric artists like Aarset, Endresen, Kornstad, Mungolian Jetset, Wibutee and Punkt, as well as acoustic-oriented pianists Maria Kannegaard and Håvard Wiik, and Atomic, Motif and The Core. Between NCOJ and Jazzland, Wesseltoft represents the vanguard of a new kind of music, with the New Conception of Jazz Box a perfect primer that not only features a number of artists who are leaders in their own right, but demonstrates that NCOJ is more than just booty-shaking, hypnotic grooves.

The box contains a representative sampling of music from Wesseltoft's five NCOJ CDs, but more importantly a number of previously unavailable tracks that demonstrate an even broader set of references and musical approaches. "Hope," originally heard with a larger group and more electronics on Film Ing, appears here as a spare, entirely acoustic duet between Wesseltoft and Youssef that's even more moving than the original. Chilluminati's remix of the "Skog," also from Film Ing, couches the original's pulse in Tangerine Dream-like sequences and more ethereal atmospherics, reshaping it in ways that foreshadow the live remixing that would become the defining characteristic of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré's annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway.

Other tracks heard for the first time here are a live version of "Change," from Japan in 2001, which demonstrates Wesseltoft's clear debt to Hancock, though the pulsing groove and the pianist's echo-laden voice give it a distinctive flavor all its own. As Wesseltoft proved in concert with bassist Arild Andersen in Stavanger, Norway in May, 2008, his harmonic concept is as sophisticated as any in jazz and, by taking the music ever so slightly out, creates a compelling tension and release while, at the same time, keeping the music wholly approachable. In fact, one of the most significant accomplishments of NCOJ is how, through use of electronica beats and accessible, at times song-like compositions, Wesseltoft draws in fans to music that they might not have heard otherwise, thus expanding jazz's audience—and NCOJ appeals to a very broad demographic.

While the first two discs are largely culled from earlier releases, the third disc is comprised of five tracks from a 2001 performance in Yokohama, Japan, a single track collaborating with French electronica artist Laurent Garnier, and a 14-minute blowout version of "Jazzlandsangen," in collaboration with guitarist John Scofield (who also appeared on one track from Live. Scofield is clearly inspired and egged on by Wesseltoft's quintet, anchored by drummer Wetle Holte and bassist Marius Resksjø (both members of Eivind Aarset's Electronique Noir band, responsible for Connected (2004) and Sonic Codex (2007), both on Jazzland). As well-received as Scofield's two releases with his Uberjam band were—Uberjam (Verve, 2002) and Up All Night (Verve, 2003)—based on "Jazzlandsangen," he may well have chosen better to align himself with the Norwegians in the first place, as he solos with equal fire but greater focus and considerably less meandering than the live work with his own group often demonstrated. It's similar turf—a vamp-based tune with a brief head to give it context—but it smokes in ways his Uberjam band never did.

While the music of NCOJ was largely composed by Wesseltoft, there was also plenty of room for spontaneous invention, an approach clarified on the Yokohama live set on disc three with "Yokohama." Beginning with a combination of Rickard Gensollen's percussion and a variety of odd electronic sounds from Wesseltoft's synth and Jonas Lönnå's turntables, a groove finally emerges, as bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Anders Engen ultimately enter, creating an energetic pulse for Wesseltoft's inside/outside Fender Rhodes solo. Wesseltoft has honed the art of creating real-time sampling and looping on 2007 Jazzland releases Jazzland Community and especially his outstanding solo album, IM, but it's a concept he's been working on for some time, and germinal examples can be heard throughout the three CDs.

A remix of Sharing's "You Might Say," featuring lyrics and singing by Sidsel Endresen, show how a simple two-chord song can become something more, with a combination of Endresen's economical but subtly evocative delivery and the gradual addition of textures to give it weight. "Yellow is the Colour," from Moving, uses acoustic piano as its primary texture and, again, a simple two-chord framework, but Wesseltoft's ability to construct lyrical, at times singable solos give it greater substance. Equally, in a simple trio context with Engen and Håker Flaten, what begins as a simple ballad, with a wash of synth strings cushioning Wesseltoft's simple melody, becomes more fervent as the rhythm section pick up the pace, all the while Wesseltoft remaining in the same spacious place as he was during the song's first half.

While the box set is, ultimately, a broad sampler of his NCOJ, Wesseltoft gives it coherence by linking tunes together from different times and places. The electronics and bass-driven large group "Poem" (from New Conception of Jazz and featuring a strong solo from Molvær), segues—with but the briefest silence between—to Sharing's "Existence," while the title track from the Hammond organ-based soul-jazz of "Sharing" moving seamlessly into the electronica-centric "Spectre Supreme," which turns, just as smoothly, into Live's "Live in Cologne" and, in a more jagged fashion, into Moving's dance-driven title track. The result is a nearly 37-minute experience that's as visceral and compelling as the 50-minute live material from Yokohama on disc three.

Throughout, what's most dominant is that, as much as the electronics and beats define much of the music, this is an ongoing experiment in sound, groove and harmony that's far more detailed and complex than might be expected. Wesseltoft and his label have grown to represent—along with others including Rune Grammofon, Sofa, AIM, and Smalltown Supersound—the complete and utter avoidance of rules that might constrict or constraint the music. The unfettered qualities of the music are at their clearest, perhaps, on the DVD, where it's possible to watch Wesseltoft's group—one that considers the video element and sound engineering to be equal components of the group and its music—take music largely culled from Film Ing, as well as the title track from Youssef's Digital Prophecy (Jazzland, 2003) and a previously unheard track, "Flimmer," and shape it, reshape it and reinvent it on the fly.

Beginning the set with a solo tour de force that combines programmed beats, live sampling and visceral keyboard work, Wesseltoft demonstrates the absolutely seamless integration of electronics into his music. And while there's plenty of knob-twiddling and waiting for the right loop to get recorded and fed back, at the end of the day it's still about playing. When the group joins, it becomes even clearer just how true this is, with a wild and frenzied free opening to "Hi Is" leading to a slightly world beat-driven, Weather Report-like pulse that, with Wesseltoft's orchestral texturing, is an unmistakable reference to the late Weather Report co-leader and Zawinul Syndicate keyboardist Joe Zawinul, with bassist Ole Morten Vågan, normally heard on acoustic bass, kicking up the funk with drummer Andreas Bye and percussionist Rickard Gensollen.

When Youssef joins the group for an acoustic duet reading with Wesseltoft of Digital Prophecy's title track, his plaintive voice is a clarion call of raw emotion. "Hope" begins, much as it does on the version on disc one, as a tone poem, this time with the rest of the group adding color as Youssef's oud both expands the world view of the music and clarifies NCOJ as something that transcends individual references. That the tune ultimately morphs into an extended improvisational groove jam with plenty of interaction amongst the players makes it one of the most exciting performances of the DVD.

After a lengthy workout, Youssef leaves the stage and Wessetloft, Vågan and Bye head into the acoustic "Sunday," which—like so many others from Norway—proves that NCOJ can swing in a more traditional way, but only when it chooses to. A bass vamp supports Wesseltoft, referencing McCoy Tyner and early-1960s modal jazz. It's a relatively brief piece, but it makes its point.

With "Flimmer" and "Film Ing," it's back to NCOJ's more electronica-centric jams, but the music that's come before helps to recontextualize it. NCOJ isn't about any single musical concept; it's about the constant cross-pollination and integration of diverse musical influences, and the integration of acoustic instruments with increasingly sophisticated technology. New Conception of Jazz Box is a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar with Bugge Wesseltoft's innovative approach to jazz and improvised music, but has plenty to appeal to existing fans. Between the unreleased tracks and the opportunity to watch the group in action, it's the perfect summation of New Conception of Jazz to date.

Tracks: CD1: Somewhere in Between; You Might Say; Yellow is the Colour; Hymn; Feel Good (Live); Skog (Chilliminati Remix); Hope (Unreleased Version); South. CD2: Change (Live, Unreleased Version); Existence; Poem; Sharing; Spectre Supreme; Live in Cologne; Moving; Lone. CD3: Change (Live in Yokohama, Previously Unreleased); Sharing (Live in Yokohama, Previously Unreleased); Yokohama (Live in Yokohama, Previously Unreleased); El (Live in Yokohama, Previously Unreleased); Film Ing (Live in Yokohama, Previously Unreleased); Man With the Red Face (Live Version); Jazzlandsangen (Live at Blå). DVD: Bugge Wesseltoft/Dhafer Youssef Live in Montreux 2004: Frik; Skog; Hi Is; Digital Prophecy; Hope; Sunday; Flimmer; Film Ing.



Personnel: Bugge Wesseltoft: vocals, synths, programming, arranging, piano, Fender Rhodes (CD2#1, CD2#6, CD3), Hammond B3 (CD2#4); Anders Engen: drums (CD1#1- 3, CD1#5-6, CD1#8, CD2#1-2, CD2#4, CD2#6-8, CD3); Ingebrigt Håker Flaten: acoustic bass (CD1#1-3, CD1#5-6, CD1#8, CD2#1-2, CD2#4, CD2#6-8, CD3#1-5); Vidar Johansen: bass clarinet (CD1#1, CD2#3-5), soprano saxophone (CD1#2); Sjur Miljeteig: trumpet (CD1#1, , CD2#3, CD2#5); Trude Eick: waldhorn (CD1#1, CD2#3, CD2#5); Håkon Kornstad: tenor saxophone (CD1#3, CD3#6); Sidsel Endresen: vocal and lyrics (CD1#2); Paolo Vinaccia: percussion (CD1#3, CD1#8, CD2#7-8); Jonas Lönnå: vinyl (CD1#3, CD1#6, CD1#8, CD2#1, CD2#6-8, CD3, DVD), rhythm programming (CD1#3), programming (CD1#6, CD2#1, CD2#7, CD3#1-5, CD3#7); DJ Strangefruit: vinyl (CD1#5); Øyonn Groven Myhren: vocals (CD1#6); Rickard Gensollen: percussion (CD1#6, CD2#6, CD3, DVD), programming (CD1#6); Nils Petter Molvær: trumpet solo (CD2#3); Sveinung Hovensjø: bass (CD2#3); Jens Petter Antonsen: trumpet (CD2#3, CD2#5); Olle Løstegaard: vinyl (CD2#4); Erlend Gjerde: trumpet (CD2#4); Audun Kleive: drums (CD2#5), programming (CD2#5); Laurent Garnier: electronics (CD3#6), programming (CD3#6); Per Zanussi: bass (CD3#6); John Scofield: guitar (CD3#7); Wetle Holtle: drums (CD3#7); Marius Reksjø: bass (CD3#7); Dhafer Youssef: vocal and oud (CD1#7, DVD); Andreas Bye: drums (DVD); Ole Morten Vågan: electric and acoustic bass (DVD); Jan Martin Vågan: VJ and lights (DVD); Stig Henrkisen: sound engineer (DVD).

Record Label: Jazzland Recordings

Style: Modern Jazz


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