Norwegian Jazz 101a: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009
As more of the JNiaN participants continued to arrive throughout the day on May 21, about half the group already present attended a lunch atop Mount Fløyen, sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bergen International Festival and Nattjazz. While it is, in fact, possible, to walk up the mountain, most chose to travel by funicular, a large, glass-windowed car that travels up the mountain by rail. It was possible to watch the surroundings while climbing the mountain, and see the city of Bergen begin to recede into the distance.
As rugged as the coastline of western Norway is, the chance to see Bergen from a height revealed just how lush and green it is as well. And while mountains in North America are often deserted, there were buildings scattered throughout the trip up the mountaina dovetail with the pockets of small Norwegian towns scattered along the coast, reachable in some cases by boat alone, and in other cases by roads that cut through a swath of mountains via countless tunnels carved deep through the mountains and hills that make up the geography of the area.
Fløyen Folkerestaurant, at the top of Mount Fløyen
While JNiaN participants were here for Nattjazz, the Bergen International Festival was taking place concurrently, focusing on classical music, theater and other artistic pursuits. The buffet lunch that took place at the Fløyen Folkerestaurantincluding a wealth of fresh seafood readily available from the waters surrounding Bergengave JNiaN participants the opportunity to meet each other, as well as network with members of the local arts community, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who helped sponsor JNiaN) and a number of artists. As ever, the expansive scope of arts support in Norway was an underlying theme as various projects were described that simply could not happen without generous arts funding. Jan Bang, co-artistic director of the annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, was also on hand, discussing his forthcoming album on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label, scheduled for release in 2010.
Following lunch there was time to catch some rest before the official launch of JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009, which took place at a room in the Nattjazz venue. JNiaN's hostsLars Mossefin, Bo Grønninsæter and Ann Iren Ødebywere on hand, as a group that was evenly split between participants from the 2008 edition and those new to the junket came together for the first time. One of the best aspects of JNiaN, in addition to the music and exposure to Norwegian culture, is the opportunity to bond with like-minded people from around the world. Over the course of three days, professional and personal relationships would be forged that will, no doubt, continue well past JNiaN.
While many of the performers at Nattjazz were familiar to JNiaN attendees, one of its best features is the introduction of lesser-known players through brief private concerts. At the opening buffet dinner, following brief discussions about the challenges facing promoters and journalists by North Sea Jazz Festival's Sander Grande and German National Radio personality/Jazzthing writer Karsten Muetzelfeldt, saxophonist Kjetil Møster delivered a solo performance that demonstrated the intrepid nature of the Norwegian improvising scene. Blending electronicslooping and distortion being the dominant onesMøster's 20-minute set possessed a clear lineage back to Jan Garbarek's 1970s work, specifically his duet record with guitarist Ralph Towner, Dis (ECM, 1977).
Long pedal tones created a deep foundation for Møster's often angular lyricism. Like Garbarek, Møster was a perfect blend of ice and fire, evoking images of barren landscapes and icy Nordic cool. Even when Møster turned off the processing, his extended techniques created an unusual combination of broad intervallic leaps that punctuated his oblique melodies. Unorthodox embouchure is one of the signatures of many Norwegian horn players, and Møster was no exception, with odd multiphonics expanding and contracting his sound, as the music descended into a maelstrom of looping, screaming and overdriven horn lines, and pulses created by the dissonance of notes in close proximity. It was certainly an intense way to kick off JNiaN2009, where extreme may well have been the underlying theme.
There are pluses and minuses to Nattjazz's organization. On the plus side, a single pass gets its audience into the building, with the ability to wander from room to room to sample the various artists performing on any given nightusually two artists per room, for a total of six shows in the venue's three performance spaces. The problem is, however, that with people coming and going virtually throughout every performanceand alcohol being served as wellthe noise factor was high, which became something of a problem, even in the louder shows. In performances like trumpeter Arve Henriksen's, it occasionally became downright intrusive.
Still, Henriksen and his trioguitarist Eivind Aarset and sampler Jan Bangmanaged to engage the audience to such a degree that, at times, there was total silence in the room, as the trumpeter captivated with new material, as well as some tracks culled from his recent Cartography (ECM, 2008).
With Bang sampling his band mates' playing in real time, processing it and feeding it back, it turned even known material into something altogether new. The subtle beauty of the performance was propelled gently by Bang's beatseven during a performance of great abstraction and impressionismwhile Aarset brought new meaning to the concept of subtly nuanced support. Intuitively switching from long, drawn out chordal swells to lines taking on a middle eastern vibe with his use of an E-bow (essentially a tape head that, held just above a string, creates a sustaining vibration and unique tone), Aarset also matched Henriksen's penchant for taking his instrument to new places, the two combining sounds resembling oud and shakuhachi, respectively.
Henriksen's painfully beautiful falsetto voice contrasted, at times, with singing in his normal range, speaking through his horn while playing it concurrently. And for those who think such performances, filled with haunting beauty, are all seriousness, there were occasional moments of humor injected, with Henriksen's spoken voice saying "Oops" at one point, and drawing laughter from both his trio and the audience.
Eivind Aarset and Arve Henriksen
Henriksen's music links more to Norwegian traditional music and classical music than it does the American jazz tradition, but the emphasis is still on improvisation and interaction. But rather than overt displays of virtuosity, it was all about finding the moment, where three musicians join together to speak with a single voice. Whether it was Aarset brushing his strings so lightly as to barely be heard, Henriksen feeding his trumpet through processors to create a harmonized sound or Bang creating staggered beats that, in a strange way, reference African rhythms, this was music for which there seems to be little precedence. Henriksen has been honing his sound and compositional and improvisational processes for well over 15 years now, and he's never come closer to realizing his goal of creating evocative music that integrates various references in its own personal way, as he did during his Nattjazz performance.
Terje Rypdal, on the other hand, was clearly aiming for something more broad-scoped and ambitious with Crimescene, a commission for the festival that teamed the legendary Norwegian guitarist with his Skywards trio (keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and drummer Paolo Vinnaccia), the outstanding Bergen Big Band, and Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, a longtime Rypdal partner dating back to albums including Waves (ECM, 1978) and Descendre (ECM, 1980). While the use of a big band might suggest something swinging in the American tradition, Rypdal used the 17-piece ensemble more orchestrally, creating a nexus between his more rock-edged improvisational work and classical-centric albums like Q.E.D. (ECM, 1993) and Lux Aeterna (ECM, 2002).
Rypdal was in fine form, playing with a grit and edge that's been missing in recent times. Whether he was playing with a slide or his fingers, his ice-edged tone was instantly recognizable. As was Mikkelborg's, who played trumpet (muted with a Harmon mute at times) and flugelhorn, and making clear his own reference point in Miles Davis, for whom he composed the large ensemble work Aura (Columbia, 1989). Storløkken, a longtime member of Supersilent and whose new group, Elephant9, scored big with its debut, Dodovoodoo (Rune Grammofon, 2008), stuck primarily with Hammond organ, and while he only had two opportunities to solo, they were amongst the highlights of the 75-minute set. Vinnaccia, an Italian expat who has been in Norway for many years now, is a powerhouse of a drummer; he may look like an aging metal head with his black "Almost Musician" T-shirt and long, graying hair, but he's equally capable of understated color, a necessity throughout Rypdal's new composition.
The instrumentation may not have been conventional in a classical sense, but Rypdal's detailed score used horns and woodwinds in ways not unlike composer Gyö Ligeti, with dense clusters creating sounds sometimes more felt than heard, evocative of abstract images and unusual colors. Parts of the suite were almost amorphous, yet Rypdal was clearly shaping the sounds like a potter shapes a piece of clay, gradually morphing into something more concrete and clear, where pulsing rock rhythms bolstering powerful, hard-edged solos from both the guitarist and Mikkelborg. Members of the Bergen Big Band received solo space as well, while bassist Magne Thromodsæteralso a member of the more modal blowing quintet Bungalow, who'd perform the following eveningproved to be one of the ensemble's strongest players, despite playing a largely supporting role.
Rypdal's last release, Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006), was another commission that utilized Storløkken, Vinnaccia and Mikkelborg, but it was a smaller ensemble affair that paid direct homage to electric-era Miles Davis. As fine a piece as it was, Crimescene surpassed it in scope and performance. Rypdal's playing may have stopped growing in the leaps and bounds it did in the 1970s, but combined with his constantly evolving and more sonically sophisticated writing for large ensembles, he's sounding better than he has in many years. Hopefully the time lag between this recording and its release on ECM won't be as long as the three-year gap between the performance and release of Vossabrygg.