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Live Reviews

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 1: Kongsberg Jazz, July 7-8, 2010

By Published: July 11, 2010
July 8: Ketil Bjørnstad and Svante Henryson

If pianist Ketil Bjørnstad had only released his acclaimed series of ECM recordings, beginning with Water Stories (1993) and winding through a series of duo, trio and quartet albums that culminated with this year's Remembrance (2010), that would have been enough to cement his reputation as a compelling, neoclassical composer with an improvisational bent and strong poetic aesthetic. But Bjørnstad has been around much longer than most people in North America are aware, with a four-decade, multi-disciplinary career that, in addition to other non-ECM albums like Grace (Universal Music Norway, 2004) and Before the Light (Universal Music Norway, 2002), has seen the pianist release a number of novels and books of poetry.

Ketil Bjørnstad

Nearing 60, Bjørnstad continues at a pace that would put many younger musicians to shame. With a new album in the can, but being held for release in early 2011 to allow Remembrance sufficient time to reach its audience, Bjørnstad delivered his first live performance of this new material at Kongsberg. If this charming duet show with Svante Henryson was any indication, Bjørnstad's forthcoming recording with the Swedish cellist is going to be another high point in a career filled with milestones.

Bjørnstad and Henryson have been performing together for a number of years, and their shared chemistry was in plain sight throughout their hour-long set, where the music was richly composed, but still filled with opportunity for subtle interpretation and brief, lyrical soloing. Bjørnstad's seemingly effortless playing was all about touch, whether it was the delicate, whisper-like approach to the opening "Night," or a more powerful force on the more dynamic "Tidal Waves." In many ways, his music was hypnotic, creating a context for the mind to wander, evoking strong cinematic imagery. Not exactly lulling, but rather more trance-inducing, Bjørnstad's particular ability to surround his vividly thematic, classically oriented pianism with contexts ranging from gentle electronic to edgy electric guitars, has created a personal oeuvre. His particular empathy with Henryson—especially on the more rubato compositions, where the delicate balance between an almost physical feeling of falling into a theme was carefully maintained by both players—actually surpasses earlier collaborations with American cellist David Darling
David Darling

Darling was (and remains) a fine cellist, with a series of strong albums for ECM, but Henryson's understated passion created a dramatic undercurrent to Bjørnstad that made their performance a transcendent experience. His arco was a times warm, at other times delicate and gossamer-like, while his pizzicato was surprisingly robust—or, at least, surprising to those who didn't catch his performances at Molde Jazz 2009 with singer Kristin Asbjornsen, or at the festival's "Break of Day" performance, with trumpeter/Artist in Residence Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
, keyboardist Jon Balke
Jon Balke
Jon Balke
and percussionist Terje Isungset. But here, in intimate duet with Bjørnstad, Henryson was featured to a far greater extent, his mid-set solo performance a beautiful combination of subtle virtuosic technique and lyrical intent.

Svante Henryson

Henryson appears to have emerged out of nowhere the past couple years, but continued associations with artists like Bjørnstad, and especially their forthcoming ECM disc, will surely achieve greater visibility, and bring him the attention he so richly deserves. As for Bjørnstad, this new album promises to be a career highpoint, one which will surpass his last piano/cello duet disc, Epigraphs (ECM, 2000). It was no surprise when, at the end of the performance, the audience not only demanded an encore, but gave Bjørnstad and Henryson a standing ovation, a rarity in Norway and a refreshing change from North American audiences who dispense them with generally less discretion. It was a well-deserved and apt ending to a show that was largely gentle, occasionally majestic and always elegant —more space and calm than density and power.

July 8: Röyksopp

It's difficult to imagine any way to link Bjørnstad and Henryson's sublime duo performance with the techno beats and electronica of Röyksopp, defined by the group at its website as "a two-headed Norwegian monster, dealing within the realm of contemporary electronic music." But with guest singer Anneli Drecker—the voice of Bjørnstad's Grace and The Nest (Universal Music Norway, 2003), and one-half of the internationally acclaimed pop group Bel Canto—if there wasn't exactly a link, there was, at least, a reasonable segue.

From left: Svein Berge, Torbjørn Brundtland

Performing at Kongsberg's Tubaloon—a large outdoor venue uniquely designed by Snoarc— Röyksopp was definitely pop spectacle; but as is the case with most jazz festivals, stepping outside even the broadest purview works by drawing people who might otherwise not come, or satisfying the happy truth that many fervent jazz fans are also passionate about all kinds of music, making some additional extracurricular programming enriching to the overall festival experience.

The crowd of a few thousand people began lining up well in advance of Tubaloon opening around 8:15PM for the 9:00PM show. There was a vibe of anticipation, made even stronger by the group's delayed entrance, about twenty minutes late. But all was forgiven when the duo of singer/keyboardist Torbjørn Brundtland and keyboardist/percussionist Svein Berge hit the stage, fleshed out by a guitarist and, in particular, a bassist whose charismatic stage presence pushed the energy level even higher.

Emerging from the innovated Trømso scene in 2001 with Melody A.M. (Wall of Sound), nearly a decade later the Norwegian Grammy Award-winning Röyksopp drew from its catalog, also including material from its forthcoming Senior, due for release in the fall of 2010. It was a party atmosphere, with fervent fans pushed up against the barrier at the front of the stage, others dancing throughout the packed crowd behind them, and even more mulling around the back of the venue. And with performances by Tortoise and Jaga Jazzist to follow at Tubaloon over the next couple days, the party vibe is sure to continue.

Visit Shining, Zanussi Five, Ketil Bjørnstad, Svante Henryson, Röyksopp and Kongsberg Jazz Festival on the web.

Coming up in Part Two of Norwegian Road Trip 2010: Kongsberg Jazz Festival with Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers, Tortoise, Jan Erik Vold/Arild Andersen/Bill Frisell, Kornstad/Hollenbeck/Sverrison and Jaga Jazzist, and Silver City Sounds wraps up with a presentation about Oslo's Henie Onstad Arts Centre, and a public interview with saxophonist Hakon Kornstad
Hakon Kornstad
Hakon Kornstad
and Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist

's Martin Horntveth.

Photo Credits

Page 1, Tubaloon:

All Other Photos: John Kelman

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

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