Jazz the Norway

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2005 marks the centennial of Norwegian independence from Sweden. Though you might not know it, Norwegians can, have been, and will be jazzing things up for quite a long time. Some are even among us in NYC!

The field of jazz studies is indebted to jazz historians Bjørn Stendahl and Johs Bergh whose published work on Norwegian jazz history is expertly summarized...albeit in need of some editorial fine tuning...at the Norwegian Jazz Base website, part of the National Library of Norway and The Norwegian Jazz Archives. So far, the material covers the period between the '20s and up to the '60s...although the extant summary covering the 1950-1960 decade only gets to 1959 in detail. Therein, however, one can easily ascertain that in general the origin and development of jazz in Norway doesn't differ much, although the few differences are of importance, from similar processes throughout the world's jazz markets.

Ever since the latter part of the 19th century and just prior to WWI, Scandinavian audiences were already exposed to various black styles of music which contributed to the eventual acceptance and understanding of jazz when it came through en force after WWI. Therefore, just as it happened everywhere, jazz eventually appeared. Of course, the influx of the North American military, during and after both world conflicts, was of paramount importance, too...and not limited to the European theatres as is commonly presumed.

There is, however, no better way to make certain of such historical claims than listening to the jazz produced by Norwegians. Fortunately, The Norwegian Jazz Archives had the wherewithal of producing an excellent series of five CDs entitled Jazz in Norway. There is no better overarching historical introduction to Norwegian jazz than this remarkable digital remastering of recordings from 1920-1980. The collection is quite comprehensive and very well documented. In it, one meets musicians and groups whose speedy and gifted adaptation to a series of complex foreign musical forms deserves as much scrutiny as anyone else's.

Jazz in Norway has always encompassed all known styles. Internationally speaking, for example, the better-known groups and artists were initially represented through ECM releases. Thus, although the label has an extensive historical catalogue documenting Norwegian artists such as Jan Garbarek...who recently issued In Praise of Dreams...and Terje Rypdal (the subject of ECM's :rarum VII series), it also forges on with recent releases by Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra, Trygve Seim, the Christian Wallumrød Trio, the critically acclaimed Tord Gustavsen Trio and Jacob Young...who features veteran drummer Jon Christensen, as does Dino Saluzzi too.

However, the ECM aesthetic doesn't convey the full Norwegian jazz picture, which is quite motley. Take bassist Ole Amund Gjersvik's tango inspired releases, which would be impossible to identify as Norwegian albums. Another bassist's two recent recordings, Terje Gewelt, feature Latinized world jazz followed by a duo with pianist Christian Jacob. Yet another highly promising bassist, Eivind Opsvik, is attracting current critical attention with his fresh playing and composing. Pianist Roy Powell (a British émigre) has also released several rather interesting projects based off Norway.

Singer Anne-Marie Giørtz, who was part of the group Ab und Zu, could also handle Brazilian material with Trio de Janeiro. The unbelievably eclectic vocal quartet Kvitretten, whose members...Kristin Asbjørnsen in particular...can switch musical genres at will, mustering singular mastery of their craft, while Magni Wentzel stays closer to mainstream jazz vocal territories. Somewhere in-between lies the acquiescent caressing of Silje Nergaard.

One can also find traditional swinging big bands...such as the Follo Big Band, fun horn-led ensembles like the Funky Butt, groups such as the Louisiana Washboard Five (whose name is self-explanatory and whose music is thoroughly authentic), New Age guitar music like the one recorded by Erik Wøllo, avant electronic ensembles like Supersilent and Eivind Aarset's Électronique Noire, experimental groups like Oslo 13, Tri O'Trang and Jøkleba, avant-roots/experimental/folk music such as Dadafon's and everything Karl Seglem is involved in, as well as more mainstream material...like what Torbjørn Sunde, Helge Lien, Jan Gunnar Hoff and the Winnæss/ Calmeyer Kvartett have issued.

Musically or otherwise, the general parameters of the story of jazz in Norway are similar to those of jazz in general. Even so, Norwegian jazz...if there is such a thing as Norwegians themselves debate whether or not is proper to distance their music from its North American pedigree...is as rewarding as any.

Eivind Opsvik

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