Punkt Festival 2009: Day 4, Kristiansand, Norway, September 5, 2009
A recent winner of the Norwegian Grammy for Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008), pianist Helge Lien and his trio, featuring bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aaleflæt, made his first appearance at Punkt. Possessing many of the qualities that made Hello Troll such an impressive release, it was also an opportunity to hear the trio take considerably greater liberties with the music.
Knut Aaleflæt, Helge Lien, Frode Berg
It is, perhaps, a little too easy to compare Hello Troll with the music of the late Esbjorn Svensson and his trio, e.s.t.: strong grooves, accessible European classicism married with a certain pop-like sensibility, and unmistakable virtuosity rooted in the music of Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson and Jan Johansson. But in performance, Lien's music takes on considerably greater risk. Expanding Hello Troll's "Axis of Free Will" into a lengthy rubato exploration before finding its way to the driving piano motifs that define it, Lien's breadth of rangefrom delicate touch and nuanced economy to greater power and virtuositywas immediately evident. It was, in fact, a particularly strong window into the workings of a group that may work in the tried-and-true conventional format of the piano trio (and there's no mistaking its roots in the jazz tradition), but here, and on the even more impressionistic "Radio," the trio demonstrated a flexibility and telepathy that, with six albums under its belt since 2000, continues to get deeper with each passing year.
Hello Troll may be more eminently accessible, and songs like the Latin-esque "Troozee" still grooved along with gentle forward motion, but the group dynamics were even stronger in performance, with Aaleflæt especially in touch with Lien, but the entire trio managing to create unexpected shifts at the drop of a hat. With an expanded drum kit that included bongos, bell trees and chimes, Aaleflæt didn't get any solo space per se (even Berg only got one), but his fluid elasticity and intuitive responsiveness were unmistakable components of the trio's collective voice. Berg's arco was as warm as his pizzicato, and it was part of the trio's personal approach to arrangement that found him bowing the anticipated line at the foundation of "Troozee" rather than plucking it (though he did eventually switch).
As for Lien, he's a thrilling player capable of creating lengthy, cascading motifs and sophisticated, pulse-driven voicings, but never for their own sake. "It Is What It Is, But It Is" may be an elliptical title, but it was an evocatively appealing piece with Jarrett-like gospel tinges, one of the set's more direct pieces that also include a solo from Berg that was at the nexus point between Arild Andersen and Anders Jormin. It provided a soft contrast to "Halla Troll," which came closest to approximating e.s.t.'s weighty propensities though, without that trio's bassist Dan Berglund and his heavily processed double-bass, remained more organic, even as it went to free spaces that Svensson's trio never did, even with its marvelous and sadly final album, Leucocyte (ACT, 2008).
Lien's trio also won the 2008 Kongsberg Jazz Festival's DnBNor Musicians Award, and with albums like Hello Troll and shows like its Punkt debut, it's a trio well deserving of broader international exposure.
Another member of the extended Punkt family, keyboardist/producer Bugge Wesseltoft demonstrated another aspect of the festival: trust. Having just finished recording akiko's new album in Oslo, the Jazzland label head brought the diminutive Japanese singer to Punkt without the festival having heard a single note. Wesseltoft's endorsement was all the festival needed, and their brief setthe only Alpha Room performance that wasn't a remixwas proof that their faith in the pianist's instincts was merited.
akiko, Bugge Wesseltoft
Wesseltoft opened the set with the title track to his most recent release, Playing (Jazzland, 2009), using an upright piano, a single electric keyboard, a mixer and a foot pedal that allowed him to apply reverb-drenched, Harold Budd-like ambience at will. Concentrating less on group projects and more on solo performance in recent years, Wesseltoft has been honing a hybridized approach to electro-acoustic playing that continues to reference certain aspects of jazz harmony, while being equally influenced by Norwegian traditionalism and romantic classicism. His music, even at its darkest, possesses a certain optimism that reflects his own personality. With easier access to the strings of his upright piano, it was possible for the pianist to integrate extended and prepared techniques.
As Wesseltoft began to play the second piece, akiko quietly walked onto the floor and began to sing in a near-whisper. With an almost naïve, child-like melody, she created an instant connection with the audience, one that was cemented when, after the song was over, she humbly introduced herself. Her approach combined spoken word and melody, with ambiguous lyrics that touched on matters of love, life and existence. Wesseloft's accompaniment ranged from spare, feather-light and acoustic (with the occasional injection of reverb to broaden the soundscape) to creating deep, in-the-gut bass synth sounds. Sampling her voice, he created occasional background washes from that further enhanced the landscape, also resorting to a more low-tech sound enhancement when he took a sheet of paper and slipped it between the strings and hammers of his piano.
The short set was a compelling introduction to a singer from whom more will be heard, and very soon.