Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008
Before diving into the Mai Jazz festivities, JNiaN were invited to the home of the Mayor of Stavanger, where the acting mayor further demonstrated the unparalleled hospitality that attendees had been receiving since the beginning of the trip, thanks to organizers Lars Mossefin, Bo Gronningaeter, Ann Iren Odeby and Aud Grete Ekestad. After brief speeches from the acting Mayor and Mary Miller, Director of Stavanger, 2008, a gorgeous buffet and the opportunity for conversation with some of Mai Jazz's organizers prepared JNiaN attendees for four days of outstanding music.
One of the most exciting and innovative aspects of Norwegian art in general and music in particular is its approach to stylistic cross-pollination, where boundaries are dissolved and genres twisted in new and often very unusual ways. Bassist Arild Andersen's performance at the beautiful Randaberg Kirke was the perfect introduction to the stylistic and cultural blending that's such a defining marker. With a group including Bugge Wesseltoft, saxophonist/vocalist Bendik Hofseth, drummer/percussionist Paolo Vinaccia and the stunning singer Kirsten Braten Berg, Andersen's performance consisted of music culled from two albums that mix the traditional folk music of south Norway with Andersen's own writing, filled with rich melodicism and free-wheeling improvisationSagn (ECM, 1991) and Arv (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1994).
Kirsten Braten Berg, Arild Andersen
As outstanding as both Andersen's albums are, hearing the material in performance is an entirely different experience. Bold themes are meshed seamlessly with elegant melodies, with Anderson's robust double-bass a voice as definitive as that of Berg's. What was most unexpected, however, was the group's entry into seriously swinging modal territory, where Wesseltoft soloed with intensity and dexterity rarely demonstrated so vividly in his own music. Vinaccia, who moved to Norway many years ago from his native home of Italy and has since played regularly with Andersen and Terje Rypdal since the mid-1990s, looks like he'd be more comfortable in a metal group. But looks can be deceptive as he demonstrated an encyclopedic understanding of percussion, giving him the freedom to be a powerful rhythmic anchor, a colorful textural contributor and, in support of solos from Wesseltoft and Hofseth, an intuitive rhythm section partner with Andersen.
While the music was heavily scripted, with Berg's strong voice often acting as a rallying point for the group, it was the passages clearly left open to the group that were the performance's most exciting. Hosfseth, who has his own discography that leans at times towards a pop complexion, proved himself to be one of Norway's secret treasures, a saxophonist who, with a tone that clearly comes from Jan Garbarek, still possesses a slightly warmer sound and an ability to build fiery solos that still retain a narrative quality.
Andersen, who has cited Jaco Pastorius as a seminal influence despite playing double-bass rather than fretless electric, is also expert with the use of electronics, bringing looping, pitch shifting and more into his own solos, which were filled with imaginative motifs and deep, in-the-gut low notes that resonated throughout the beautiful acoustics of Randaberg Kirke.
With the opening of the JNiaN Key Club at the Skagen Brygge Hotel, there was an opportunity for attendees to kick back, listen to some music, have a few drinks and pick up some promotional music from the many artists performing at Mai Jazz. The downside was a lack of sleep, but the excitement of the festival and the entire trip kept energy levels high. An early morning departure on May 8, on the boat "Sadnes," took JNiaN attendees on what was undeniably the most striking part of the week-long tour. Traveling through fjords created during the ice age, with sharp cliffs rising 2,300 feet above water that sank to depths of nearly 2,000 feet, it was impossible not to be in awe of the natural beauty that's endemic to the country.
Pulpit Rock, Lysefjorden
One of the most remarkable points of the trip was The Pulpit Rock, a large outcropping that has, over the centuries, slowly been cracking and falling into the sea. In recent years trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer gave a solo at the top of Pulpit Rock to an audience of 600 people, all brought to the rock by helicopter. A stunning example of the natural integration of nature and mankind, it's another characteristic of Norwegian culturerather than destroying the country's inherent natural beauty, Norwegians work with it, and find new ways to blend millennial landscapes with modern approaches in ways respectful of the past but never fearful of the future.
The organizers also provided two musical performances during the six-hour boat trip. Saxophonist Tore Brunborg is best-known outside continental Europe for his work in Masqualero, the 1980s group that recorded one album on Odin and three for ECM, including the particularly outstanding Band a Part (ECM, 1986), featuring Arild Andersen, drummer Jon Christensen, a young Nils Petter Movaer and, in some cases, pianist Jon Balke. He has also appeared on ECM albums including Arild Andersen's Hyperborean (1997), Misha Alperin's North Story 1997), Jon Balke's Nonsentration (1992) and Further (1994). But it's his own disc, Tid (Curling Legs, 1993), that provided insight into his significance as a player and performer.
Unlike the quartet setting of Tid, Brunborg performed with a trio including bassist Ole Morten Vagan and Erik Nylander, two young and flexible players. The music was loose and open-ended, but Brunborg's strength as a writer of both memorably melodic and contextually complex themes was an equal component. Fiery intensity juxtaposed with relaxed gentility, as Brunborg layered carefully developed solos over the elastic support of Vagan and Nylander. Vagan was a fine soloist as well, with an approach that created considerable contrast between aggressive attack and lithe linear constructs.
Towards the end of the trip back to Stavanger, the Hiilde Marie Kjersem Band performed a set that was heavily compromised by playing outside, where the wind created problems for Kjersem in maintaining pitch. Far removed from jazz, this was more a pop group with an occasional aggressive edge that allowed Kjersem the opportunity for greater extremes, but it was on the softer tunes that her voice, strong but equally capable of understatement, was at its best. The members of the group were all fine enough players, but sadly there was little to distinguish them, and there are other groups mining similar territory who are far more successful.