Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010
Saxophonist Petter Wettre is, perhaps, something of an anomaly on the Norwegian scene. Schooled at Boston's Berklee College of Music rather than Norwegian schools like the Trondheim Conservatory (from which artists like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad and trumpeter Arve Henriksen emerged), his growing discography speaks with a distinct voice that, more than many of his peers, comes more directly from the American tradition. As the question of what is jazz and what constitutes a jazz player continues to be debated heatedly around the globe, Wettre's views are, to say the least, controversial. His view is that there are, indeed, fundamental prerequisites that need to be met before an artist calls him or herself a "jazz musician." With fourteen albums as a leadereach one different conceptually than the others, ranging from solo composed saxophone performances to duos, trios, quartets and moreWettre has collaborated with American saxophonist Dave Liebman and has been seen most recently as a member of drummer Manu Katche's touring group, splitting the duty with another Norwegian saxophonist, Tore Brunborg. In many ways, with feet in both the American jazz tradition and a Norwegian scene that often chooses to discard that tradition in pursuit of something else, he's in a unique position to bring perspective to the subject.
Wettre asserts that, for every Jon Christensen or Arild Andersen, who may play distinctly Norwegian music but can swing like hell when the situation demands, there's a whole other tier of musicians who have no real grounding in the tradition that initially defined what jazz is. "Since my background is from Berklee," says Wettre, "my whole concept of playing is based on the American tradition. Even if you are playing Norwegian jazz, I think you need to have a certain knowledge of what you are doing. And since there are Norwegian jazz musiciansor, at least Norwegian musiciansthat call themselves jazz musicians, there should be some prerequisites for them to call themselves jazz musicians. And I've been analyzingnot arresting them, but I've been quite vocal on the sceneand expressing my thoughts about what you need to know before you can call yourself a jazz musician. Not that I know everything, but there are certain thingsif you are going to play a swing tune in this tempo [snaps his fingers], then you should be able to swing, and there are certain ways to get to that.
"How I conceive, since I took my education in the States and am now teaching students in NorwayI teach at the Kristiansand ConservatoryI've kind of visited both worlds and I'm doing workshops and classes and have students from Trondheim, and have also done things in Oslo. So I know kind of the vibe that goes on. I must say it's a lot better; when I came back from Berklee in 1992, I was treated like I was a leper, they did not want to have anything to do with me, playing American jazz and being a white guy in Norway. But then there were people interested in Coltrane, and swing was popular again, but that was after years and years and years of long notes, a lot of reverb...whatever that was.
"I've also been vocal on the scene, expressing my thoughts of the Norwegian money system and how we support the arts," Wettre continues. "We have so much money here that everyone gets a chance, which I think makes it very hard for people to choose, because everyone is on the scene; everyone has the same promotional budget; everybody has a CD. So if you are not really interested, it's hard for you to figure out what you should get. So you end up with a lot of people, I won't say smart, but smart enough to push their album to the front of the line despite the fact that they can't play particularly well, but are very good at promoting themselves. So you end up having a lot of CDs that are half-assed."
With perhaps more professional musicians per capita than any other country, a lower signal to noise ratio would be expected. Aside from being a good promoter, what's a musician to do? "It's kind of hard for me to criticize the system because it's been very generous to me," Wetter says. "I have tons of support, I've done fourteen albums and I've done tours with famous musicians in Norway and abroad. So I also use the system, so in a way it makes it impossible for me to actually criticize it. At least once a year I go to New York and I stay there for a week or two and hang out with friends, go to clubs, and just get inspired. And I meet all these great players with no means, no money, they just play because they love to play and they organize sessions where they play for the door or for free.
"Over here," Wettre continues, "the mentality is, 'We want to have $500 before we even talk about anything. People aren't hungry here; they come right out of school and expect to be treated like Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, they're going to have single rooms at the hotel, they're going to have meals, they're going to have wine in the back room, they're going to get 5,000 Kroners each. What the hell are you talking about? You can't even play 'Bye Bye Blackbird," you haven't proven anything."
In many ways it's a positive that Norwegian musicians are treated like professionals; they actually make a living; they have support from the government; they have homes, they have families, they have normal lives. But there's something to be said for being hungry. "Well, the thing is, and I don't want to generalize too much," says Wettre, "but what I experience is that a lot of people complain that there are no places to play, and the salaries are too low...it's hard to get support, and then you go to New York and you see these guys can play 200 times better than anyone I know, but these guys don't have anything. And, of course, it's bad that these guys don't have a house, that they can't have a family, so in a way there's nothing wrong with the support itself. That's very generous and very helpful and very good. It's just that the mentality that the money producesyou get the notion that you must be excellent, and there's no reason for you to do anything more now. I feel that, but then again, it's been almost twenty years since I came back from Berklee, I'm 42 now, so my conception about things is way different than a guy who's 25maybe I was like that when I was 25, I don't remember. "
Perhaps the problem is not that there's money; the problem is in how it's used. "That's one of the things," says Wettre." You shouldn't criticize anything until you have a solution. So I try not to be too critical; I just want to have a decent life, I don't want to have too much to worry about. I just want to think about myself and what I can do better. Not worry that that guy can't play as good as I can but he gets more money. If I start to do that, I'll just be a grumpy old man, and that's not going to benefit anyone. But then again, I see it, and every now and then I can't help but reflect on it a bit, and I pretty much keep quiet about it, but if people ask me, I owe them the correct answer, or at least an honest one."