One of the challenges of any organization or festival is to find ways to top past performances, and certainly the breadth of exposure to Norwegian music, culture and geography at JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008 (JNiaN) would be hard to beat. A junket where approximately 40 people from around the worldwriters, photographers, festival programmers, club owners and otherscongregated in Norway for a few days of intensive exposure to all things Norwegian, the 2008 edition was an astounding success, with its combination of private performances for the group and access to the many shows at Stavanger's Mai Jazz 2008 festival. Coupled with fjord trips and stays in small but stunning locations like Rosendal, it created the lasting impression of a country where no idea is too outrageous, and no border ever fixed and immovable. If the recent American television documentary series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense taught anything, it was that jazz may have begun as an American art form but is no longer its proprietorship. An inclusive music where artists look for inspiration from sources far and wide to cross-pollinate into an ever-expanding continuum, jazz is now truly a world music. Based on the various performers recruited specifically for JNiaN attendees and those performing at Bergen's Nattjazz festivalthe focal point for JNiaN 2009it's difficult to deny that Icons Among Us posited ideas that Europeans have known for years. If the beginning of jazz can be found in African-American roots music, it now includes the traditional music of cultures far and wide, with Norway's rich folk tradition but one of many now imbuing jazz with new life, and a healthy future. Chapter Index
Overnight flights can be a trial under the best of circumstances, and every trip to Norway is a reminder of the unsettled life of the traveling musician. While the best thing to do is stay up the following day until early evening so that a good night's sleep can be had (making it possible to quickly adjust to the six-hour time difference), sometimes it's simply not meant to be. While JNiaN didn't officially begin until May 21, 2009, arriving on May 20, the first day of Nattjazz, meant that there were shows impossible to missamong them the Norwegian free improvisation group Speeq, with special guest vocalist Phil Minton
Bergen, Norway's second largest city next to Oslo and, at nearly a thousand years old, considered "the gateway to the fjords" is, like so many Norwegian towns, built in and around water on the country's west coast. An aerial view from Mount Fløyen one of several mountains surrounding the cityreveals inlets and peninsulas that make navigating the city more than a little complicated. While the venue where Nattjazz was taking placeUSF Verftet, with its multiple performance spaceswas but a five-to-ten minute walk from the hotel where JNiaN participants were lodged, the route between included a tremendously high hill: about a 45-degree angle straight up for about 75 yards, and then the same thing straight down. The trend towards obesity, so prevalent in North America, may be beginning to hit Norway, but with geography like this it's almost an uphill battleliterally.
Attending Nils Petter Molvær's sound checkfeaturing guitarist Eivind Aarset
and drummer Audun Kleiverevealed a much different group than last seen at Punkt 2007. While the group was smallerno turntables, no live samplingit was no less texturally rich and sonically expansive, with Kleive behind the drum kit making the trio a far more aggressive and improvisationally loose unit than the trumpeter's equally fine quintet of many years. Performing material from Hamada (Sula, 2009), there was considerably more weight on Molvær to create a broader palette of sound, and with a series of foot pedals allowing him to introduce various harmonies on top of his distinctive tone, even when Aarset was playing bassreducing the group to a more straightforward triothe music was surprisingly dense. And, as ever, the grooves were visceral and unshakable, even as Molvær's music moves further away from the techno rhythms that have been one part of his music until recently.
Attending the sound check also shed light on just how difficult the setup process is. With Molvær's rack of effects and myriad of foot pedals, and Aarset's setup looking like some portable mad scientist's laboratory, ensuring proper sound and, in the case of Molvær's performances where visuals are an equal part of the live experience, lighting (provided by Tord "Prince of Darkness" Knudsen), it's more than just hitting the stage and getting good sound in the room. It's a complex mix to ensure that not only does everything work, but that it works in concert with all around it. By the time the sound check was over, it was clear that everything was ready and that, even though the room itself was perhaps less than perfect acoustically, the sound was going to be impeccable.
Speeq, on the other hand, was as laissez-faire as could be, but in the best possible way. A trio featuring guitarist Hasse Poulsenfamiliar to ECM fans for his work with French reedman Louis Sclavis on Napoli's Walls (2003)bassist Luc Ex and drummer Mark Sanders, the group's performance was all about spontaneous invention of the most extreme kind, with Poulsen strumming so furiously on his acoustic guitar that he was breaking strings, and Ex completely avoiding any convention on his instrument as he also strummed with great abandon to create a dense, low-end rumble. In the arena of extreme, jagged improvisation, Speeq's performance was impressive, but was even more so with Minton's participation. Calling Minton a singer, however, is an understatement, as he was more a sonic partner in the freely improvised proceedings, evoking unpredictable, surprising and, at times, downright humorous sounds. But it was his clear empathy with Speeq that was most impressive; it's all too easy for music like this to sound random and disconnected, but Minton acted as a focal point for the group, pushing and pulling everyone else in ways that were undeniably connected, even as they sounded random and flagrantly spontaneous.