Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2: Kongsberg Jazz, July 9-10, 2010
Meeting in New York City during one of Kornstad's staysup until recently, he was spending half his year there, the other half in Oslothe saxophonist did a gig at The Stone with bassist Skúli Sverrison and drummer John Hollenbeck that went so well that, as Kornstad explained, "I said, 'next time I book the gig.'" And so, Hollenbeckin addition to a number of large ensemble recordings including A Blessing (OmniTone, 2005), has led the remarkable Claudia Quintet for the better part of a decade, heard most recently on Royal Toast (Cuneiform, 2010)and Sverrisson, a leader as well with albums including the recent Sería (Tónar, 2006), joined Kornstad for a late afternoon performance at Energimølla. It was the same room where Shining blew the roof off three days earlier, but this time, with concert-style seating, Kornstad, Sverrisson and Hollenbeck created a different kind of compelling dynamic.
From left: Håkon Kornstad, John Hollenbeck, Skúli Sverrison
Kornstad's use of a looping device to build dense layers of sound was perfectly matched with Sverrisson, who also employed a variety of effects processors to create massive washes of sound. Playing a six-string electric bass, Sverrisson spent more time picking, strumming or, by tapping the body of his guitar, vibrating the strings of his bass, fed through reverb and delay units. Watching Kornstad and Sverrisson build a veritable wall of sound over the course of a 45-minute opening improvisation was a study in spontaneous composition, as the music ebbed and flowed with surprising shape and structure.
Kornstad's use of extended acoustic techniques only provided further source material for his looping device, as he create sharp percussive sounds through the mouthpiece, but also generated clicking sounds with nothing more than the pads of his keys. His use of consonant multiphonics also created harmonic movement within his gradually evolving layers of sound, all in response to or encouragement of Sverrisson's own extended bass techniques.
Hollenbeck may have been all acoustic, but he had his own array of additional hand percussion, a small megaphone that he used in the second half of the opening improv, and an overall approach that balanced texture and pulse. It's great to hear Hollenbeck in such an open-ended improvisational context, since much of his own work revolves around his strong compositional voice. At the start of the first improv, he created a buzzing percussion instrument reminiscent of the late Collin Walcott's handmade instrument on "Buzzbox," the transcendent opening improv on Oregon's In Performance (Elektra/Asylum, 1980).
Kornstad also used his flutonette, an instrumental hybrid that placed a clarinet mouthpiece on a flute body. Mixing and matching instruments is something else that seems to be a Norwegian innovation, with artists like Arve Henriksen placing a saxophone mouthpiece on his trumpet, as he did at his 2006 Punkt Festival performance. There's a certain fearlessness that seems to imbue the Norwegian mindset, one that, rather than quickly dismissing an outlandish idea, instead looks for some way to make it happen. It's this kind of intrepid exploration that has seen Kornstad emerge as one of the country's most forward-thinking improvisers, since he began to focus more on smaller, improv-heavy musical contexts. An adventurous spirit that, partnered with Sverrisson and Hollenbeck, will surely stand out as one of the festival's best all-improvised performances.
While there's little to link Jaga Jazzist with American guitar icon Pat Metheny, there is one place where the two do meet: Jaga Jazzist's music may be a crazy hybrid of jazz, electronica, minimalist influences and far more, but the high volume, rock-edged delivery is also reflected in its setup. Beyond the fact that the group has more instruments on stage than a small music store, there are props to go along with the slot machine cover of its latest release, One-Armed Bandit. A tour bus and van arrived at Tubaloon at 3:00PM for a two-hour setup, to meet the 5:00PM sound check deadline. A bevy of bodies carted road cases onto the stage, and the various stage dressingslemons, melons, cherries, a bar sign and morewere positioned around the stage, along with additional lighting to augment that provided by the venue.
Watching the various members of the group arrive, and hang out back of the house that's used as a backstage for the group, it's truly like watching a group of friends come together. In addition to the three Horntveth siblings that make up the core of Jaga Jazzistdrummer Martin (a multi-instrumentalist, in fact, but live restricting himself to a massive, striped, plexi-glass drum kit), brother Lars (main composer and a serious multi-instrumentalist who plays, at any given gig, saxophones, bass clarinet, guitar, lap steel guitar, vibraphone and keyboards) and sister Line (who, in addition to tuba, plays keyboards, xylophone, percussion and contributes wordless vocals)there are two other members who have been with the group since inception, and others who have clocked in many years with the group. But there are invariably new members as well, and the most recent recruit is guitarist Marcus Forgsren, who replaced the departing Stian Westerhus a few months back.
There's a lot to catch up on when Jaga Jazzist gets together for a tour. With nine members (currently one short of its usual ten), everyone works in a number of bands, but Jaga remains a priority made all the more remarkable since, with such a large ensemble and an equipment rider that would put most rock bands to shame, Jaga is not exactly a group that makes a living for its players. Still, it's not hard to understand why people remain so committed to the group. Lars Horntveth's writing may leave little improvisational space on recordand only a little more in concertbut it's tremendously rigorous, challenging music that, despite its detailed structure, comes alive in concert in ways that it simply cannot on record, no matter how good records like One-Armed Bandit, What We Must (2005) and The Stix (2003) unequivocally are.
One thing becomes immediately clear, both from talking to Martin Horntveth and listening to the sound check: Jaga Jazzist is loud. Martin plays in a number of bands (even a Bruce Springsteen tribute band where brother Lars puts on a red suit and takes on the role of Clarence Clemons; a joke in itself since Horntveth lacks "The Big Man"'s girth), but with Jaga, despite having to navigate shifting bar lines, staggering stops and starts, and tempo shifts, Martin plays with a kind of thundering power where John Bonham meets Billy Cobham. And there's a lot to check at a Jaga Jazzist sound check, what with a need to organize nine separate monitor mixes with a seemingly countless number of musical instrumentssome shared, making creating individual mixes all the more challenging.
But it all managed to come together, and when Jaga hit the stage at 9:00PM, everyone in the group hit the ground running. The group focused heavily on music from One-Armed Bandit, though there was no shortage of earlier material, including "All I Know is Tonight" and "Oslo Skyline" (here, renamed "Kongsberg Skyline") from What We Must. The sound out front was not as good as it was when the group played at the indoor venue at Molde, in 2009; with a hard asphalt surface making up the grounds and all kinds of buildings surrounding Tubaloon on which the sound could bounce, the clarity of the instruments was sometimes lost. But what was lost in sound quality was more than made up for in energy. Song like "Toccata" (described by Martin as "Steve Reich meets Bernard Hermann") on new life as the swirling counterpoint of horns, vibraphone, bass, guitars, keyboards were pushed harder than on the record.
Line Horntveth (background left: Erik Johannessen)
All three Hornveth siblings commands attention in different ways. Martin, the spokesperson for the group, is a charismatic performer with a tremendous red beard, a hulking presence and perhaps the most directly connected player with the audience, despite facing inwards to the group, more often than not facing out and sometimes making direct eye contact (or, at least, seeming to). Lars' endless instrument shifts, even during the course of one song, links back yet again to Pat Metheny, who changes guitars as seamlessly as Lars moves from saxophone to bass clarinet, guitar, vibes and back again. Line, whose voice organically meshes with trombonist Erik Johannessen and trumpeter Mathias Eick (when, that is, Eick isn't playing double bass, vibes or keyboards), makes the tuba into an instrument that dances, while adding hand percussion to the mix and some trombone to boot.
From left: Martin Horntveth, Even Ormestad, Andreas Mjøs, Marcus Forsgren
Mathias Eick, Lars Horntveth, Øystein Moen, Erik Johannessen, Line Horntveth
But everyone in the group manages to be in the spotlight at some point in the show, even though solo spots are rare (and short when they happen) and there's none of the usual feature spots for anyone. Instead, Jaga Jazzist is all about the writing, and performing it with stunning accuracy and heightened energy. The sound may not have been as good in the house as the group's 2009 return to live gigging at Molde Jazz 2009, after a five-year hiatus, but its performance was much, much better, the result of plenty of touring since that time. The good news is its show was being recordedas are all of its current datesfor a planned live album to go along with the recently released Live at Cosmopolite (Ninja Tune, 2009), from a 2005 show in support of What We Must. With a new vinyl-only remix 12" EP, Bananfleur Overalt (Ninja Tune, 2010), and the regular release of free download tracks at the group's website, Jaga Jazzist is back with a vengeance, and working hard to keep up the momentum. After the show, Martin said that "two or three songs are good enough," not a bad number given the the number of shows already recorded, and ten more in the book between now and the end of the summer.