Norwegian Road Trip, Part 1: Kongsberg Jazz, July 7-8, 2010
[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].
Walking out of the train station, after a 16 hours air/train trip, from Ottawa, Canada, the first view of Kongsberg, Norway was a particularly welcoming one.
The Kongsberg Jazz Festival is in its 47th year, and like Molde Jazz (celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010), which inspired it so many years ago, it's hard imagine how the country's second largest jazz festival packs seventy events into four days in a town of less than 25,000 people. But this is Norway, a country that is currently experiencing "festival inflation," according to Kongsberg Jazz Festival Manager manager, Pål Fidjestøl. There may be plenty of challenges facing a festival where attendance, in the tens of thousands, well exceeds the town's population, but Kongsberg has, for nearly five decades, met those challenges, creating a festival wherewith its emphasis on Norwegian artists but with a handful of American artists including saxophonist David Murray, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist McCoy Tyner, and instrumental experimental group Tortoisea once silver mining town becomes, for a brief time, a music mecca of the highest order.
Kongsberg is but the first destination in a three-week Norwegian Road Trip that will also see visits to Oslo and Molde. During that time, there'll be plenty of coverage of the Norwegian music scene, but also plenty of time to have a look at a country that, with only 4.5 million inhabitants, is on the cutting edge of music and may well have more musicians per capita than any other country.
Kongsberg may be small, but like other Norwegian towns of its size, its commitment to culture remains a wonder to North American visitors, where a town the same size would be lucky to have a movie theater. Kongsberg has that, of course, but it also has a wealth of spaces that the jazz festival can use as performance venues. "We have fourteen venues," says Fidjestøl, "all of them have very unique characteristics that tell something about Kongsberg or the festival. Our main arena was designed by Snoarc , the very famous Norwegian architect who designed the Ground Zero Memorial in the US and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. They did the Norwegian opera and they also designed our new venue, that's four years old this year that we call the Tubaloon. Under the roof it can seat about 1,500 people, but we use it mostly for standing room shows, and can hold 5,000 people. And that's the main arena, and then we have a wide array of small, intimate and unique settings, like the old museum, we call it the Silver Melting Cabin. When they had the silver mines they took the silver to the city in this melting hut and they made silver bars there. So that's the actual room where they have the concerts, you can see the ovens where they melted the silver, and there's lots of history in the walls. It's a great arena to have concerts, and we also have picture gallery, and the oldest wooden building in Norway is where have the Avanthaugen concert on the Saturday. So all these are unique buildings that add to the experience and to the atmosphere, of course."
A daytime event that's similar to JazzNorway in a Nutshell (that takes place in May each year), called Silver City Sounds, brings together a group of people from Norway and abroad to create a forum for information exchange, unique music events and more. "The song by Sonny Rollins, he called it 'Silver City' as an homage to our festival and to our city," Fidjestøl explains. "That was when fame broke for the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in the early '70s, and Jazz Times had this front page, 'Where is Sonny Rollins?,' he was disappearing for two or three weeks, nobody knew where he was. And then in the next issue, Kongsberg put an ad saying 'He's Here.' He lived here after one of his periods of heroin usehe lived here in a small cabin in the woods for a couple of months one time, leading up to the festivaland that's when eyes opened about our festival."
Like many festivals, Kongsberg offers a combination of free and ticketed performances, also offering day passes and, relatively recently, a full festival pass for 2,000 NOK (a little over 300 USD). "The free program assembles about 30,000 people each day," Fidjestøl says. "For a city that is inhabited by close to 25,000, that's more than the number of people living here." A recent survey conducted by the festival indicated that, as Fidjestøl continues, "about 40 percent are locals, from the city of Kongsberg, then there's a good percentage of people from the areas near Kongsberg, but we also found that 13 percent of people come from abroad or from the other side of Norway [the west coast]." And so, a combination of people driving to and from Kongsberg and folks staying either at a campground along the river that runs through Kongsberg, or its two major hotelswhich provide accommodations for festival goers and artistsconverge on Kongsberg during week 27 of each year, turning the normally quiet town into an active and vibrant music mecca.
"The main headache is hotel capacity," says Fidjestøl, "but we have a lot of artists staying in Drammen, about 30 kilometers towards Oslo; also, some artists stay in Oslo, which we often suggest for those that will be here for several days." Given the proximity, and the way that Norway's population is spread around the country, it means that there are plenty of options, even for a small town like Kongsberg, allowing it to sustain a tremendous festival that, this year, will feature Norwegian artists including Shining, pianist Ketil Bjornstad and cellist Svante Henryson, guitarist Knut Reiersrud, poet Jan Erik Vold (in a unique concert with bassist Arild Andersen and Bill Frisell), singer Solveig Slettahjell and her Slow Motion Orchestra, and progressive jazz group Jaga Jazzist.
- July 7: Silver City Sounds Begins
- July 7: Shining
- July 8: Zanussi Five
- July 8: Intro Jazz: Årets Unge Jazzmusikere 2010
- July 8: Ketil Bjørnstad and Svante Henryson
- July 8: Röyksopp