Montreal Jazz Festival Day 5, Part Two: July 2, 2007
For a country of 4.5 million people, the wealth of artistic diversity coming out of Norway is almost unprecedented. Labels like ECM have been exploring the wellspring of music coming from the Scandinavian country for over thirty years, but there are also a number of Norwegian labels that are pushing the boundaries of improvised music. Keyboardist/producer Bugge Wesseltoft's Jazzland label, in particular, has taken the concept of electronica/ambient-centric Nu Jazz to another level, introducing conceptual and philosophical elements that, while well-known in Europe, are sadly underexposed in North America.
Still, for many years Wesseltoft and some of his Jazzland artists, including guitarist Eivind Aarset, singer Sidsel Endresen, Wibutee saxophonist Hakon Kornstad and drummer Wette Holte, and bassist Marius Reksjo have been coming to Montreal under a variety of contexts both solo and collective. Celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2006, Jazzland Community brought these six artists together for a series of individual performances sequenced so that they largely segued seamlessly from one to the next, culminating with everyone on stage for a finale that was boldly dramatic in its blend of understatement and expressionism. As Wesseltoft explained at the start of the group's midnight show at Club Soda, the performance represented a number of new things that each artist was working on, giving the performance something of a laboratory feel, but nevertheless a powerful and captivating show that the Montreal audience was privileged to see and hear.
That technology can be integrated organically with traditional instruments was established immediately with Wesseltoft's opening solo performance. Beginning on piano, developing vivid themes, he was, at the same time, sampling his playing so that he could ultimately begin processing the samples and feeding them back, creating a foundation for further exploration. He even added processing to the mix, taking the stark, economical piano work and, by applying a generous amount of reverb, creating a sudden swell that expanded the sound outwards. A true innovator, Wesseltoft is an artist who sees limitless potential in the expansion of the musical palette, making his relatively brief solo set a strong introduction to the concepts that would be augmented by the other performers as the set progressed.
Wesseltoft ended his segment with a cushion of sound that allowed Aarset, Reksjo and Holte to gradually take the stage and shift the emphasis to more groove-driven music that, for all its potent rhythm, remained dark, brooding yet evocative of expansive vistas. Almost the polar opposite of Holdsworth, Aarset's music is as much (if not more) about texture and ambience than definable melodies, though themes do emerge. Holdsworth is unquestionably a textural player as well, but Aarset's amplification of the sonic possibilities of the guitar, often sounding like anything and everything but a guitar, positions him as an innovator who, though he may not have the sheer chops of Holdsworth, is to be reckoned with. And while there were plenty of atmospherics, firm foundations did appear at times, if only to disappear again into the ether.
Konrstad joined Aarset's trio towards the end of the guitarist's segment, gradually taking the reins until he was left alone on stage, delivering an all-acoustic solo tenor performance demonstrating that the innovations taking place in Norway extend well beyond the marriage of technology and tradition. Two pieces reflected Kornstad's ability to not only create percussive bursts and harsh, almost Ayler-like cathartics, but great beauty as well. The latter part of his set was devoted to a unique multiphonic ability, as he created a folk-like chordal foundation for melodies that he'd alternate so naturally that momentum was retained despite his rapid shifts from soft chords to powerful linear phrases.
The only non-segue of the set was when Kornstad left the stage and Endresen entered. Endresen's experiments with the seemingly limitless potential of a single voice was a highlight of the 2006 Punkt Festival and documented on One (Sofa, 2007). Here she began with a strong, folkloric melody that was stark but beautiful. As the piece developed, she introduced a series of conversational phrases, interspersed with stutters and quirky stop-starts. But this was only the beginning. As with One, her voice gradually took on a more abstract quality, creating guttural gestures and tones that one would think were electronically generated if it weren't clear that she was doing it all with just her voice. Her ability to rapidly articulate the most extreme percussive, gutteral and high pitched sounds was simply remarkable.
Endresen began her enduring "Western Wind," from Undertow (Jazzland, 2000), alone, but was gradually joined by Aarset, Reksjo, Holte, Kornstad and Wesseltoft for a version that was even better than the one on the recording. An unusual juxtaposition of bleakness and beauty, it was an immensely powerful group performance, despite the spare and abstract soundscape. The concert ended with another group piece that delved deeper into rhythm and texture, building to a climax that left the audience demanding more. The Community was happy to comply, though the enthusiastic crowd made it clear that it would have been happy to stay all night, as long as Jazzland Community kept playing. Wesseltoft's Jazzland Community may have left its audience hungry for more, but the good news is that the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal has always been a strong supporter of the Norwegian scene, so even though the crowd ultimately had to leave, they could do so content in the knowledge that these artists will undoubtedly be back again for future festivals.
Tomorrow: Le Grand Evenement General Motors, featuring Seun Kuti & Egypt '80.