After visiting Norway as often as four or five times annually, a first trip to the country in early May is surprisingly late for a first visit of the year. The last time visiting the west coast city of Stavanger was in 2008, part of the annual JazzNorway in a Nutshell event that brought international guests from around the globe to sample Norwegian culture but, most importantly, the vibrant Norwegian scene that has been steadily building (some might say exploding) over the past four decades, but in particular since the seminal years of 1997-98, when a series of recordingsSupersilent
's Khmer (ECM, 1997) signaled a paradigm shift in this small country of five million people that makes more compelling music than many larger countries.
Last time, Stavanger was celebrating its year as European Capital of Culture, and so there were a lot of activities built around the event. Mai Jazz 2014 may not have been as auspicious from an international perspective, but as jazz festivals go, it has managed, in 26 years, to maintain a balanced program that places famous international acts alongside others deserving of much more attention, as well as a healthy collection of Norwegian artists from around the country and from the region as well. The festival also participates in an annual competition that, in conjunction with other jazz festivals in cities like Bergen, Molde and Kongsberg, encourages very young up-and-comers with a prize of 150,000 NOK, and has, in past years, selected groups like In The Country
all now firmly established acts with multiple albums to their names and, in the case of In the Country, a contract with Germany's ACT label that is helping it attain greater international visibility.
The 2014 program was no different than previous years; alongside major performers like Pat Metheny
's Golden Striker Trio, the festival featured established Norwegian acts like In the Country, in a very special collaboration with poet Frode Grytten, sublime improvisers Jøkleba, balls-to-the-wall extemporizers The Thing
employing local symphony orchestras (in this case, the marvelous Stavanger Sinfoniorkester), arranged and conducted by Hans Ek, and a group of (relatively) local featured soloists. But as terrific as the big shows often are, it's sometimes the unexpecteds that stay in the memory even more after the festival is over, and if there was one group that fit that description this year, it was Piacentini's remarkable sextet.
Helleik Kvinnesland, the festival's Managing Director, has been with the festival since its inception, though he started as a volunteer with, surprisingly, very little knowledge of jazz. "I wasn't born and raised with jazz music, so it was my experience, as a student, to experience the music of jazz through Mai Jazz," says Kvinnesland, "and so I became a very active volunteer. Then, after a few years it became clear that it was too busy to continue as a volunteer, so I was asked to become Managing Director in 1995. I quit my day job and have been working full-time for Mai Jazz since 1997. I feel very privileged to have had my hobby turn into my day job."