Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug
[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].
The weather in Oslo can be mercurial: one moment, raining; the next, sunny. But while inclement weather scuttled a chance to travel to Tonsberg for Slottsfjell Festival and another chance to catch Jaga Jazzist, overall there's been little else so bad as to ruin what has been a tremendous trip.
Walking around Oslo, the striking mix of old and new can be found on every street corner. And while Oslo has its fair share of problems endemic to larger citiesdrugs, the homeless, areas where closures have made for some less attractive spots with boarded up shopsoverall it's a gorgeous city, with beauty to be found wherever the eye wanders. It's also a dog-friendly town; Vigeland Sculpture Park has, in fact, a dog park within its 80 acre space, and it's hard to imagine a more beautiful place to bring your dog, meet people and other canine friends.
Walking from Oslo City Centre to Vigeland Sculpture Park
As the week in Oslo approached its end, meets with artists and labels continued to take up considerable (but always pleasurable) time. But before a lunchtime meet with guitarist Stian Westerhus and a mid-afternoon drink with pianist Helge Lien, one of the more compelling reasons to come to Oslo in the first place: a chance to visit Rainbowthe legendary recording studio where so many albums on the German ECM label have been recordedand an opportunity to speak with the studio's owner, Jan Erik Kongshaug, the man who, alongside ECM head/producer Manfred Eicher, helped redefine jazz in the early 1970s.
- July 16: A Morning at Rainbow Studio with Jan Erik Kongshaug
- July 16: Coffee with Stian Westerhus
- July 16: A Light Meal with Helge Lien
- July 17: Bare Jazz and Onwards to Molde
Oslo has recording studios located in some of the oddest places. 7etage is literally located on the seventh floor of an old building in the center of Oslo, across the hall from saxophonist Karl Seglem's NORCD office and practice room. Rainbow Studio is one of the last remaining "big" studios in Oslo, inauspiciously located on the east side of the city. It's the second Rainbow, in fact, owner/engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug having moved the original Rainbow of 20 years to its current location six years ago for the most mundane reason: the studio was situated above a bar which, after many years, began to feature live music that would leak through the ceiling into the studio. Despite the contract stipulating no live music, and Kongshaug taking legal action, the problem became protracted, and so he chose to relocate rather than continue fighting.
Jan Erik Kongshaug
For an engineer who has built an international reputation for his almost unparalleled instincts and keen attention to sound and detail, it may come as a surprise to learn that Kongshaug is largely self-taught. "I started playing accordion when I was seven or eight," Kongshaug explains, "because my father was a professional guitarist. We lived in Trondheim, where I was born, but he moved to Sweden, where he was a professional guitarist for many years; he was quite good, actually. He asked me what I wanted to play, and I said, 'Piano,' but we couldn't afford a piano so I got an accordion instead [laughs]. When I went to high school I began playing guitar, when I was fourteen or fifteen."
"Every weekend I was playing at parties in the area where I lived, and when I finished high school I got a job as a guitarist on a cruise ship. So I went around the world; the base was New York, so I was there ten times in one year, and I heard a lot of great stuffit was 1963/64I heard Coltrane live, and Miles' new band [Miles Davis] with Herbie Hancock...it was fantastic, really a great year. And the job onboard wasn't very busy, I played for a lot of American tourists; we had quite a nice time, because we played three hours in the night, and when the boat was at sea, we played, but when we were in the harbor we were off. We were not like the other people on the boatthey had to work shifts. But for us, if we had three days in Tokyo, we had three days off in Tokyo. I really got to see the world at that time."
Rainbow Studio: Main Room
It was a different time to be coming up as a musician in Norway, as its now famous educational system, with world-renowned institutions like the Trondheim Academyresponsible for musicians like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad and trumpeter Arve Henriksendidn't exist. "I got interested in recording because I had a tape recorder with two microphones, and that's how I got started. Then I came back to Trondheim after a year, and I started studying electronics, which I did for two years at a school there. Then I was planning to go into broadcasting, to NRK [Norwegian Public Broadcasting]they had education for sound engineersbut the year when I wanted to go, they couldn't take any more people, and so that's why I went into electronics instead. Then, after two years of electronics I got the job at Arne Bendiksen Studio [where some classic early ECM albums were recorded, such as saxophonist Jan Garbarek's 1970 debut, Afric Pepperbird]. It was because I played guitar; there was a bandleader here who had a lot of TV gigs, and he didn't have a guitar in his band, so he hired me, had me come to Oslo with him. He had a lot of jobs at Bendiksen studio, and he recommended me. I couldn't do anything; but I got the job; I had an electronics background but no engineering education."
Kongshaug is, then, the poster boy for the value of learning on the job. But it was nothing short of serendipity when, three years later, he had a chance meeting with a young Manfred Eicher, who had just started a label called ECM. "Eicher had heard the band [Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen] and wanted to record them, so he came to Oslo to record this quartet. And they actually recorded this album [Afric Pepperbird] outside Oslo at Henie Onstad Arts Centre [see Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2]; they also had a studio there. Bjørnar Andresen was the engineer, but the room wasn't suited for this band, it was too live; for a classical recording it was nice, but not for a band with drums and electric guitar. So they came to Bendiksen Studio to do it in the evenings, because I had a session in the daytime, and so it was just a coincidence that I met them. Manfred didn't know me, and I didn't know him, but that was the beginning."
Rainbow Studio: Main Control Booth
Kongshaug and Eicher have been working together for forty years, and have recorded hundreds of albums togetherfirst, at Bendiksen, then at Talent Studio, and then at Rainbow. The relationship just seemed to click. "We had the same attitude towards sound, it was very easy. We didn't have to talk; it just worked, and it sounded nice."
Kongshaug and Eicher's relationship has to be one of the longest in jazz, and yet word is that when they are working together, they rarely have to speak; they just seem to know what they want. Even Kongshaug aloneand for all the recordings made for ECM, there are far, far more made at the studio for other labels, and for independent artistsis reputed to be a largely silent presence at sessions; things just get done. Pianist Helge Lienwho has recorded all six of his trio albums at Rainbowcommented, in an interview later the same day, that set-up is very quick at Rainbow. Normally an hours-long process at most studios, Kongshaug gets the sound together in a matter of fifteen minutes, and with minimal fuss or discussion, so that the musicians can start playing almost immediately. It's surely one reason why so much of the music recorded at Rainbow sounds so freshthe artists aren't hanging around for hours while each musician gets his/her sound.
In order to do this, Kongshaug's skills have to be strong; but, more importantly, his ears have to be good. "I think it has to do with growing up listening to and playing a lot of music," Kongshaug says humbly, "it was very easy for me to understand what the musicians meant; I think that's more important than all the technical knowledge."
Rainbow Studio: Main Console
From Bendiksen, Kongshaug then moved to Talent Studio. "I worked at Bendiksen until '74," says Kongshaug, "and then, I think the room was too little and there were plans to build a bigger studio, I met this guy, Arve Sigvaldsen, who had made a lot of money with popular music, and he built Talent. I was not a partner; I was just hired by him. I was there from '74 to '78, and then I was a freelance engineer for five years. I moved back to Trondheim for three years, and I traveled a lot. I did some recording in Talent, and a lot of sessions in New York at Power Station. So when I moved back to Oslo again, and Talent Studio was breaking down into bankruptcy, I had to decide whether or not I should continue traveling all the timebecause there was no other studio in Oslo that could do these kinds of recordings. So that's why I started Rainbow Studio in 1984. We spent twenty years in that location, and then we moved here six years ago. When you have a live Irish band playing on the floor below you, while you're trying to record [pianist] Bobo Stenson...it was impossible, and so that's why we moved here. Then we had to start all over again."
For a studio as busy as Rainbow, it employs surprisingly few people. "We are three people here," says Kongshaug. "Me and another engineerhe's a freelanceand a woman who takes care of all the administration."
With so many legendary ECM recordings under his beltChick Corea and Gary Burton's Crystal Silence (1973), Keith Jarrett's Belonging (1974), Ralph Towner's Solstice (1975), Jan Garbarek/Bobo Stenson Quartet, Dansere (1976)...and that's only a handful, and only in the first years of the label's existencedo any sessions stick out for Kongshaug, as being especially memorable? "The first one must be the first time I worked with Keith [Jarrett], on the solo album Facing You (1972)," Kongshaug answers. "That was very early days and it blew my mind when he played this solo concert, because he recorded the whole album in three or four hours. Also, all the Jan Garbarek groups, different groups with Jan Garbarek, at the time they were just fantastic. And then when Jan and Keith played together on Belonging, and then when we moved to the other studio [Talent] to do My Song (1978). And also the trip to Tokyo with the Belonging quartet [also featuring bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen], where we recorded Personal Mountains (1989), that's a fantastic record. And then I got to work with all these great guitar playersPat Metheny, Bill Frisell...there's been so many."
Rainbow Studio, Drum Booth
While adverse circumstances forced Kongshaug to relocate Rainbow (and at no small expense), in the end it was worth it. "The new studio is much better acoustically, because the old studio was much drier," Kongshaug explains, "which was good if you were recording a lot of loud, electric music; with acoustic music, it's good if you have a little bit of the room, even if it's not really live, because then you have to be much bigger. This room is built much better."
And so, with a room that has some air in it, Kongshaug will sometimes mike a guitar, for example, with both a close mike and a more distant one, to get a bit of the room soundonly, of course, if there's not too much other sound happening in the room, as he often chooses to put much of the group in the big room to record with as close to "live" a feel as possible. There is a drum booth and a smaller vocal booth, though the sight lines between them are all good, and the two booths are in a part of the main room where there's a little nook that, sometimes, can be used to set up a small group for even greater intimacy, even if the players are separated by glass.
Drum Booth and Small Nook in Main Room
One of the myths of "the ECM sound" has been that the label and Kongshaug have used some kind of stock reverb setting. Nothing could be further from the truth; while reverb is a characteristic of many ECM recordingspart of the label's pursuit of creating unique soundscapes for its recordingsevery session is different. "I work with a lot of different reverbs to create different 'rooms,' says Kongshaug, "I have all kinds of reverbs, but I don't like the plug-in reverbs; I have the real ones, like the Lexicon 960, the TC, and others. You can create the 'room' you want."
Each musician at Rainbow also has the ability to create his/her own headphone mix, with reverb dialed in as well. But what is recorded to tape (or, now, hard drive) is dryjust the sound of the instrument and, at most, some of the sound of the room, with the more expansive soundscaping done later, during the mix. Because, oftentimes, there are a number of musicians recording in the same room without absolute separation, there can be some "leakage"the sound of one musician's instrument heard a bit on other track(s). This can be a problem if there's a mistake that needs to be fixed afterwards, but since ECM is almost pathological about not doing any later editing or "punching in"preferring to keep the best take, warts and all (not that there are many)this is rarely a problem. "If you have a 'live' room and many musicians," says Kongshaug, "you can also get a nice sound by leakage. But if you have a weak [soft] acoustic bass, and a drummer who plays very loudly, then you have to separate them. Otherwise you have to record the bass direct [a direct line from a bass pickup to the recording console], and that usually sounds terrible. I like the acoustic sound of the bass, and I think it's really nice now that so many young jazz musicians are now using acoustic bass."
Rainbow Studio's Piano
One of the aspects to recording that has made Kongshaug's name has been his attention to piano sound, though he has a surprising opinion as to why he achieves such a rich sound, while so many others do not. "I always get this question," Kongshaug says, 'what kinds of microphones do you use, where do you put them?' I don't think it's that important at all; you have to have a good condenser mikeI usually use a Schoeps or a Neumannbut that's not important. You have to have a good tuner; you have to keep the piano in shape. Every session it's tuned. I have one very good tuner, and one backup; if not, it's not the same instrument. I often get music recorded elsewhere, and every time, everything sounds goodthe saxophone, the drums, the bass; the piano is always shitty."
"I don't understand how piano players can play on these instruments," Kongshaug continues. "I think that people are so used to a piano being out of tune that they don't notice it, and I think that's terrible. They say it's a bad piano sound, and they don't understand that the piano is out of tune. It's not a bad sound, it's an out-of-tune piano. I read a review in a Norwegian jazz magazine recently, and normally they talk about the musicand, of course, that's the most important thingbut sometimes they'll also talk about the sound, and in this case wrote that the piano sound wasn't good. I haven't heard the record but I know what the problem was: the piano was out of tune, because most recordings have out-of-tune pianos [laughs]."
Typical ECM recordings consist of two days recording, one day mixing. How much attention is paid to the piano varies, depending on the music, the touch of the pianist...and the order in which the music is recorded. It's tuned before the session," explains Kongshaug, "but then sometimes people want the piano tuned down to [A]440 , because the normal tuning is [A]442that's the most common for classical and in EuropeI don't know, but maybe it's more common to tune a piano in North America to [A]440. But if you have a Hammond organ that's [A]440, then you have to tune down the piano, and you need to do it twiceone day before, and then on the day."
"But usually it's enough to tune it once," Kongshaug continues, "but if you have recorded for six or seven hours and the piano playing is hard, then sometimes it needs to be tuned again. Sometimes the musicians are playing and they say, at the end of the day, 'Now we're going to do a solo piano ballad.' What?!? [laughs] You should have started with that; the piano is now out of tune!' But I guess most people aren't aware of that; they're used to pianos that are out of tune."
Mixing Panel (left) and Power Supplies (right)
With Kongshaug often hired to mix albums recorded in other studios, is there anything he can do if he receives tapes where the piano is out of tune? "No, it's lost," says Kongshaug. "If it's out of tune it's out of tune. You have to live with it."
The goal is often to have as many musicians as possible in the same room. When guitarist Jacob Young recorded Evening Falls (2004) and Sideway (2008), for example, the quintet was placed in the main room, with Young's amplifier placed in one of the booths. The only time Young was not in the room with his band mates was when he was playing acoustic guitar, which was so quiet that, for the sake of separation, he needed to sit in one of the booths.
As much as Kongshaug records in Rainbow, he is also, sometimes, hired to mix albums recorded elsewhere, and that includes ECM recordings like trumpeter Mathias Eick's forthcoming disc, due out in the fall of 2010. As is the case with most studios, Kongshaug has a large set of studio monitors, but also a smaller, bookshelf-sized set, and it's on this smaller set that he normally does most of his mixing. "I usually use the small speakers," says Kongshaug. "If you have a good balance on the small speakers they'll sound great on the large ones, but not the other way around."
These days, Kongshaug does far more sessions for artists and labels other than ECM. "ECM maybe does ten or fifteen albums a year, but that's only three days at a time," says Kongshaug. "I have to work a lot more than that; it's actually just a small part of what I do."
But is there a difference between the sessions Kongshaug records for ECM and those he does for others? The answer is no, though Eicher does have some personal views that impact how Kongshaug does his job. Kongshaug has, in fact, become a set of ears for the Norwegian scene, often helping artists to make a connection with ECMand other labels like ACT as wellsince Eicher no longer accepts unsolicited demos. "That also happens; when Tord Gustavsen did his first recording, they did it on their own, and then Manfred got a copy. He liked it and they did another session for a few more songs; that's how that started [Changing Places (2003)]. Manfred, he gets hundred of demos a year, and it's impossible for him to listen to them all."
Room to Relax at Rainbow
With all the artists who come through the doors of Rainbow, are there any that Kongshaug feels are particularly special? "There are a lot of great musicians; I've done a lot of great recordings with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, which has different people every time, and fantastic musicians. There are so many fantastic musicians these days that you have to be very original, you have to be doing something very new, to get yourself heard. There are hundreds of Coltrane copiers; they're very impressive but not so interesting. The other problem is that some of these players are so great, but some of them experiment and they go over the heads of normal people."
At 66, does Kongshaug see himself moving towards retirement? "I work every day," Kongshaug says, "I have only a few weeks' vacation, but as long as I love it and can do it, I'll continue to work; of course, you don't always know when you'll have to stop. If we didn't have an international reputation we'd have closed years ago; if we only had Norwegian clients, we'd never make it now. It's because we have all these international clients coming in, it also encourages Norwegian artists to record here. I know that most of them want to record here, but it's only those that get the [financial] support that can do it. The price to record now is about the the price as it was in New York in 1980, thirty years ago. $200 was the price when I worked with ECM there, including an assistant engineer; but my salary was not included; you had to pay me extra. Today it's 1,500 Kroner, including me, so it's actually cheaper. But there are very few studios left, in a few years I don't know if there'll be any studios like this; they're closing down all over the world."
Since returning to Norway in 2003, guitarist Stian Westerhus has intentionally placed himself in as many different musical contexts as possible, from the extreme freedom of Crimetime Orchestra to the more rigidly structured Jaga Jazzist. His own projects have been much more focused on free improvisation, albeit of a more high volume kind. His 2010 solo performance at NattJazz, his latest release with Puma (2010's Half Nelson Courtship) and tremendous solo guitar disc, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010), all represent an artist whose time has come, as he dispenses with convention to reinvent the sonic potential of his instrument, much as fellow Norwegian, Eivind Aarset has, but with an entirely different sound and focus. He's also been working with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's trio for over a year, which has put him on the roadand on the mapalmost continuously.
"Before I moved to England, when I was 18 or 19, I was just playing in bands, experimental rock stuff, and just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, like you do when you're a teenager," says Westerhus, sitting outside a coffee shop at Vigeland Sculpture Park. "I became interested in improvisation through prog rock, and I always felt I was really lucky with all the people I've known, right up until now, with everybody challenging each other, just really doing a lot of playing and searching, without boundaries. I thought jazz music was free improv, and that's why I wanted to go to a jazz school. Since I didn't get into the jazz academy at Trondheim when I was 18, I just thought 'fuck it, I'll stay in Norway, practice for a year and then go somewhere else.' "
Westerhus relocated to England and went through the jazz program at Middlesex. As is the case with so many of his peers, listening to Westerhus' music may not speak directly of experience or education in the jazz tradition, but it's there nevertheless; deeply imbued beneath an exterior that's equally informed by metal and prog. "I had a guitar teacher named Stuart Hall, he's an amazing guy who never plays live anymore," says Westerhus, "and I studied jazz harmony and theory for three years. It really opens your ears; I really got into [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler; I think that was the only heavy harmonic jazz stuff that I felt at home with. I didn't grow up with bebop or swing; I grew up with rockall the '70s and '60s stuff; I was a huge Gong fan, I think I have like 20 records; and of course, King Crimson was huge for me, and the progressive jazz stuff like [guitarist] John McLaughlin. I used to sneak out my sister's tape recorder when I was sixI sort of remember it, but my mother tells meand I'd steal this one tape, this compilation for the car that had this Mike Oldfield song, and I'd sit and listen it over and over again."
"So the prog thing has been quite evident from the very beginning," Westerhus continues. "There's a real freedom to it, within the rock genre, that appeals to me. I picked up an old Gentle Giant album The Power and the Glory (Capital, 1975); amazing singers; I still love that stuff."
While in London, Westerhus "tried to be a jazz musician, which didn't really work because if you wanted to make money you had to play function gigs and play standards, which I really hated because it was so polite. So I thought, 'fuck that,' and became an ice climbing instructor; I did a lot of climbing, so I thought, 'I can do that.' I'd never ice-climbed before, but it was easy."
Easy for Westerhus, perhaps; but in some ways his ability to dive, head-first, into the relative unknown was reflective of his approach to music as well. "You really have to work hard in London, when you're young and nobody knows you," says Westerhus. "The reason why I didn't get a lot of gigs was because I did what I wanted to. I really felt like I was searching for something, and I was looking for people to play with, and the problem in London was that nobody had the time to be in a proper band; I wanted to rehearse every fucking day, and everybody's busy just trying to make a living. So I just kept practicing, and after two years I was feeling really sick of it. For a few months I was back in Norway; I was supposed to do a social service thing because I didn't want to go into the military [a mandatory one-year service in the Norwegian army existed until very recently]. I said I was a pacifist, and then it got postponed because of my education, and then they said 'Ok, you've got to come back and do this.' What happens is you get put in some institution, and they give you a small flat, which I thought would be a great way to move back to Norway."
Stian Westerhus at NattJazz 2010
"Then the minute I got back I got this letter that said 'we've reconsidered and we can't afford to have you over here,'" Westerhus continues. "By that time I'd already rented a flat, so I stayed here for a few months; this was in 2002, 2003. I met some musiciansI was back in Trondheimbut then I moved back to London because my girlfriend wanted to go back, and it was really tough times; we didn't have any money, and it's really tough living without any money. So I went back and continued whatever it was that I was doing, but while I was in Trondheim I'd heard of this Master's program, and I thought, 'Ok, if I get into that I'll move back to Norway,' because it was a good opportunity, you could get some funding going, meet a lot of the young musicians, get a practice room, get all these kinds of things going. And I thought, 'If I do that, I'm going to do that and only that,' really try to work on it."
"So I auditioned, and it took ages before I got an answer," Westerhus concludes. "I thought, 'Ok, if I don't get in I'll just quit playing; I'll just move to The Alps and do climbing or something.' It was really good for me; since I was on the verge of quitting anyway, I made a promise to myself that if I got in I'd do everything I could to play with absolutely everybody, and find out if this is something that I could actually do, and it's been absolutely crazy ever since."
In the booklet for NattJazz 2010, Westerhus was given the byline, "The hardest working guitarist in Norway." Whether or not it's empirically trueand the guitarist is both bemused and a little embarrassed by itit sure seems like it, with Westerhus popping up everywhere. At Molde, he'll be playing three timesonce with Puma, once in duet with singer Sidsel Endresen, and once with Molvær's trio. He's joked with Molvær, who is this year's Artist in Residence at Molde, that with three gigs to the trumpeter's five, he should be called "Junior Artist in Residence."
In most places, musicians collect into cliques; once you get into one, it's easy to play with a lot of the same people, but breaking in is very difficult. But the same drive that pushed Westerhus to become an ice climbing instructor has encouraged him to find ways to play with everyone he could meet. He may reject orthodoxy when it comes to music, but Westerhus is nothing if not methodical. "When I moved to Trondheim, I was in a really small house; the Jazz Academy is so small, there are only forty or fifty people there throughout the four years," Westerhus explains. "There are so many young players, and they're all keen to play and they're all searching for something. I just had this idea that if I booked one of the rooms for three hours every day, and just went up to someone every day, who I didn't know, and said, 'Hey, do you wanna play?' I'd at least find something."
"So that's what I didI played with everybody, and just kept playing and playing and playing," Westerhus continues. "I think I just realized that I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and I needed to find somewhere where I was comfortable, and I hadn't really been playing for a few years, so I really wanted to play. And I didn't really know anybody. But from then it's really been about focusing on having bands, working in bands and finding a sound; these things have been more important to me than chasing the fancy gigs."
Westerhus never does anything half-way, and his solo performance at NattJazz was remarkable for a number of things, including the sheer amount of equipment he usedfour amplifiers and enough effects pedals to open a small music shop, spread across a stage that could easily support (and, in fact, did, earlier in the festival) an eight-piece band. But this is no dalliance; Westerhus is intimately familiar with each and every pedal, both individually and how they work in concert with each other; and watching him perform, it's clear that they're an extension of his hands, his feet and his guitar. The same way he doesn't have to think about where his hands fall on the neck of his guitar, Westerhus' knowledge of his effects is equally thorough, comprehensive and instinctive. It brings a whole new meaning to the old saying "you spend a lot of time learning your instrument; then you just forget about it and play."
Westerhus' experience with groups ranges from the kind of freedom where, as was the case in Crimetime Orchestra, a few music sheets are tossed about, a few things figured out in sound check (there's never any formal rehearsal) and then the show starts and where it goes is anyone's guess. With Westerhus' interest in improvisation, it seemed to be a far better fit than his time spent with the more structured music of Jaga Jazzist, whose One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010) is high on the list, along with Westerhus' Pitch Black Star Spangled, as one of the year's best releases so far. "I had some structure with Jaga," says Westerhus, "but I kept tossing the sheets of music. It's so structured that I felt it needed some beef; I think that music needs a few wild cards and some interaction. I'm much better at doing that than at just playing sheets of music. It was great fun and they're really, really nice guys, but it was taking up a lot of time. When we released the album, it was like, 'Ok, when can we tour,' and everybody could do it, except for me."
Stian Westerhus at NattJazz 2010
"I had some gigs penciled in with Nils Petter, and my calendar was just packed with all these small, very different things," Westerhus explains, "but within them there was and is a linearity [laughs] with my solo project, and Puma and Monolithic, that needs to have a continuity to it. I just wasn't prepared to put any of that aside to do the Jaga stuff; that didn't make any sense to me. And so we figured that, perhaps, it was better just to leave it. Also, me and [Jaga's primary composer] Lars [Horntveth] had different views as to how the music should be played; not that we were fighting, but it was more like 'Hey, this was fun, this was great, but you should probably get another guitarist [laughs]. With Jaga I kind of felt like pushing an elephant through a keyhole; when you're there, you're the only one who is playing with any kind of freedom and you don't get a whole lot of interaction, so you really have to force your way through; which is also very interesting, but at the same time it's not what Jaga needs. So it was one of those things where it was agreed that there were no hard feelings, it just didn't work and the schedules didn't really talk together."
Westerhus and Jaga are, indeed, still on very good terms; the guitarist will, in fact, be guesting with the group when they go to Japan later this year. But as intriguing as it is to see these two very different musical forces come together, as they did in 2009 at Molde Jazz, it's clearly not a fit meant to last. Molvær, on the other hand, has turned into the almost perfect vehicle for Westerhus; all the more remarkable for Westerhus' replacing Eivind Aarseta guitarist who, for over a decade, helped shape the trumpeter's music and sound. But Westerhus' replacement was nothing about filling Aarset's shoes; in fact, the guitarist is not all that familiar with Molvær's past recordings featuring Aarset.
"I was depping for a guitarist in Hanne Hukkelberg's band," Westerhus explains. "We were somewhere in Italy, and it was like 30 degrees outside, really hot, I was just standing there being terribly hung over, and Nils Petter phones me and says, 'Hey, it's Nils Petter, how're you doing,' 'Ah, pretty hung over here,' 'Ok, do you want to be in my band,' 'Uh...yes...?' [laughs]. It was one of those weird ones, so we did a few random gigs, and they worked out really nicely, and he was very happy and I was also, so we just stuck with it, and we did a ton of gigs this past autumn. Now I'm doing some gigs every month. It's still changing, that band."
The whole idea was for Westerhus to bring his own approach to sound to the group. "I don't really know the band when Eivind was doing it, and I never saw them live," explains Westerhus, "so it was one of those weird things where I had no real frame of reference. I'd heard the records, of course, but I never saw it live, which is actually quite nice. I think it's a lot more open now, in terms of playing. Also, I don't think I do Nils Petter as many musical favors as Eivind did, because he was a master at creating all these carpets of sound that moved very slowly, and which were probably very comfortable to play on."
"I'm kicking Nils Petter's ass a lot harder," Westerhus continues, "and what he says is that, especially earlierwhen they had a lot of DJs and beats and grooves going onhe could play a bit and then sit back a bit. Now he can't sit back at allhe's just really forced into playing a lot more. And it's so free now; we play tunes but, at the same time, if you see it from the other side, I only have one groove, one key and three chords that I have to do, so I can force Nils Petter into any corner I want, and he can force me into any corner he wants, which is great. You really need to be razor sharp when you go onto the stage, which is fantastic, a really cool thing to do. Especially when you're doing, say, 30 gigs on a tour."
"It's amazing to be playing with him, he's such a good trumpeter," Westerhus enthuses. "I also think that it's become a lot clearer; the ideas have become a lot clearer and the whole band has become a lot clearer musically. There's some new stuff and some old stuff, but the old stuff doesn't sound anything like the old stuff. It's funny, because I don't really know which albums the tunes are from, so it's funny when you play a venue packed with old fans and Nils Petter starts playing a tune, and they go 'whaaaaaaaa!' and it's like, 'Ok, it's an old tune, and they didn't clap because I'd stopped playing [laughs].'"
The group is talking about recording, though certainly not before 2011, as the autumn is already packed. Westerhus will be doing a month-long tour with Monolithic, Westerhus' duo with Kenneth Kapstad, and perhaps his most extreme project. Puma, who will play at Molde as part of the Rune Grammofon Label in Residence, is a group that's evolved considerably since its inception, but in an almost reverse way to how most bands function. "We've never discussed anything before we've played; we only talk about the music after the show, which has been really nice." But if his groups don't come in with any preconceptions, how do they differentiate? "It's the players," Westerhus confirms, "but with Puma we've talked a lot about our music after we've played it; analyzing it, listening back to itwe've recorded endless gigsand being in the studio for a lot of time, especially me and [keyboardist] Øystein [Moen]we've done all the editing.
"It's a very strong concept and we have very strong views as to how the music should sound," Westerhus continues. "That's why it's so important to play a lot of gigs, and also to rehearse, if you can do that, though often it's better to just do gigs because it puts you on the spot. Actually, for the first time, we're going to try to play a few tunes from the album [Half Nelson Courtship], because the way the album was built up, it's more melodic than we've ever been. So we thought, 'Maybe we should try that,' and use that as a point of reference, and the reason why we were rehearsing the other night, because we never rehearse. We're playing four or five of the tracks [from the album], and it's working out really well; we were kind of anxious about how it would sound, but we listened back to it [the album] in the rehearsal, and tried to play it, and it sounded really similar, so we thought, "Ok, that's how we sound now.'"
Westerhus is also focusing on solo performance more than ever before; live, he simply empties his head and plays; all the more remarkable, then, that his shows bear an unmistakable arc, a flow that may not be considered in the least, but sounds like it could have been. "I tried walking into a performance once with kind of an idea for a composition in my mind before I walked onstage," Westerhus says, "and it was a disaster. I lost all the flow, my energy level just went down I couldn't listen to the music in the right way. I just decided never to do that again."
The past couple years have been good for pianist Helge Lien. His most recent release, Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008) has received both strong critical acclaim and won a Norwegian Grammy. Performances at the 2009 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand and, more recently, NattJazz 2010 both reveal a trionow together for more than a decadethat is in no danger of losing its edge; instead, if anything, Lien and his trio, with bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aalefjær, continues to find new ways to raise its game. Lien unveiled some new music at NattJazz that is bound for release on the trio's next CD, which may get recorded as early as this fall, with hopes for a 2011 release.
Lien, still in his mid-thirties, has found a way to marry the American jazz tradition with more distant concerns; a virtuosic player with a quick sense of humor, it becomes clear that not only does he bring a mischievous playfulness to the table, but his trio mates are just as quick to respond in kind, making Helge Lien Trio performances run the gamut from technically impressive to sensitively economic, from light to dark, and everything in between.
Surprisingly, culture and music were not a big part of Lien's upbringing. "My parents were not musicians," Lien says, "none of my close family members were musicians; my mother played accordion in her spare time, but we had this old organ in the house, with the rhythms, and the upper and lower keyboards. So I learned some tunes on itI taught myself, really, just out of interestand I also played in a band with a friend of mine; we also made music, quite early, inspired by The Beatles. I advanced on the organ, got better organs, and then I got synthesizers. My first experience with a piano wasn't 'til I was thirteen or fourteen, there was this English jazz pianist who settled into my town, working as an organ player also, in the church, and he was really interested in young people, so he arranged for concerts with me and some of my friends and other young interested people in the area, and did lots of good things for us. I also had some lessons with him, and this was my first meeting with jazz, actually, and with the acoustic piano."
"I started at this high school when I was around sixteen, which had a special music program," Lien continues. "I started a big band in high school, which was maybe the most important schooling that I'd had to that time. The idea of becoming a musician and the longing to write my own music started then, but I'd actually been composing music back when I was twelve or thirteen. Anyway, I had two years of classical piano there; after that, I started at the State Academy, in Oslo. When I started the State Academy, I had a teacherMisha Alperin, the Russian pianistand he was very focused on creativity and composition."
In North America, music students emerge with a strong command of their instrument and technical knowledge; but the creativity aspect seems somehow lacking. "How do you teach someone to find their own voice," Lien asks. "A very, very normal view on this is that you first have to learn the skillsthe history, the chord changes; and then you can start being a composer. But I think this is wrong. I think the ability to catch an idea, to recognize something that is unique is something that you have to rehearse. You have to rehearse being creative, in a way. I found my way to do it, at the State Academy, was I'd sit down at the piano, and just improvise; I went in there and pretended it was a solo concert, for hours and hours. I recorded it and listened to it afterwards, and then, of course, it was terrible because most of it was just crap; but I was rehearsing, and a few times, here and there, there was something that I liked, and then I could make that into something. But I was not so conscious of it, while I did it. But what I know now is that I was actually rehearsing to be present in the musical producing state. And this is quite unique; you cannot learn it theoretically, you have to make this experience happen all the time and over a long time. And you will use your internal filter to pick out what you like, and this is a good way to find your voice; it provides a very good picture of how your voice can look."
From left: Knut Aaleflær, Helge Lien, Frode Berg
Helge Lien Trio, Performing at Punkt 2009
For a young performer, Lien is an oddity in Norway: he is working with a conventional jazz piano trio format; there's no technology to be found; and despite a largely original repertoire, Lien does make reference to his roots very clearly by covering music by Johnny Mercer, Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, amongst others. A jazz trio, then, in the most conventional definition. "My first big influence was Oscar Peterson," says Lien, "and then Keith Jarrett has been very important, of course, and in later years, Bill Evans. But also many, many other musicians, not just pianists; I'm fascinated by drummers, for example. I'm a really big fan of Audun Kleive and Jon Christensen, and (of course) Jack DeJohnette."
"For me, the piano is about making illusions," Lien continues. "So it's really important for me to focus on things that are not obvious for the piano. On breathing, for example; and the length of the notes, and to make vibratothis very, very absurd thing for a piano because, of course, you cannot make vibrato, but it's what makes it interesting...that you can make the illusion of vibrato. All these things that are around and under the piano. That you can make the illusion of a note that sustains for five seconds, like a saxophone note."
Lien met the musicians who would ultimately become Helge Lien Trio while in the State Academy. "Knut, the drummer, he went through the classical department," Lien says, "he was one year older than me. And Frode, the bassist, he was already finished classical bass. But we played together in different settings from time to time, and I just had a kind of feeling for them, and put them together and I recorded our first rehearsal on a minidiscwe just played some standards and some free stuffand I listened to it, and I really liked how we played together. Something just kind of happened; something not so obvious, which I liked very much."
"I think I have more than enough work to do discovering the possibilities of the acoustic," Lien continues. "And, as I said, I'm really fascinated by illusions, and when you use a loop machine, like Bugge Wesseltoft does, it's amazing, he makes really great music with it. But for me, I find it more fascinating to work with the illusion of these things. When you have a loop machine then it's looped and you hear it."
There's an unmistakable advantage to having a group that's been together for ten years; the chemistry is at a profound level, and the trust amongst the players is equally deep. But there is the challenge of keeping things fresh. "I think the whole concept of how we produce music is very much about being fresh and surprising each other with the interplay," says Lien. "Of course, we have to rehearse new music regularly, which we do, of course. I also feel that the other two are developing themselveshow they think and how they play; I often feel surprised by them. Frode is classically educated and has an extensive career with lots of different kinds of music. He can play electric bass, funk and all kinds of techniques, and he can read like hell, so he's kind of a total, all-around musician. At the same time, I like him because he has personality and he has extreme skills on his bass; the sounds and the ideas he uses are completely unique. I think he challenges the normal way to function as a bass in this kind of group, and I like that a great deal. But now he has a steady job, he's hired as a bassist in the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra."
"Knut is also classically educated," Lien continues. "He also plays a lot of different kinds of music, contemporary music as well as pop music, jazz music...anything. He has quite unconventional sound ideas, he plays his drums in a much more classical fashion, with high, short notes; for me, it's just fresh and I think he also has a very unique approach to groove and beat. He uses different kinds of sticks, and puts small bells and other equipment on his drums and plays them. A much wider spectrum for sound than a normal jazz drummer; he knows how to produce sound and how to make variations."
Lien believes in slow evolution rather than rapid evolution. That said, he has plans for the next trio recording that will make it different than Hello Troll. "I would say that the next album may be a bit darker, that's how I see it now. When I make albums I try to visualize a mood as a kind of frame, and I think this time it will be a bit darker, a bit heavier. I'm excited to hear how it comes out. It was great to be able to play some of the music in Bergen [at NattJazz 2010, where Lien was one of four artists commissioned to write new music for the festival]. It's great to be asked to write new music for a festival; I work best under pressure. Lots of great things happen under pressure; when I'm not under pressure unfortunately I get a bit lazy."
With the week in Oslo drawing to a close, time simply had to be made to walk into the city center to visit Bare Jazz. At a time when CD stores of any kind are dying out, it's incredible not to just see a CD store in Oslo that's thriving, but one that's both busy and exclusively a jazz store. Bare Jazz has been around for fifteen years, owned by Bodil Niska and her husband. Niska is a saxophonist with a number of CDs out under her own name, including Night Time (Bare Jazz, 2008), Blue (Self Produced, 2004) and First Song (Self Produced, 2000), as well as one album with the all-woman trio Girl Talk, Talk Jazz (Hot Club, 1996).
She's as knowledgeable as might be expected from someone with experience on both sides of the music biz table. Show her one CD and she's got a dozen more suggestions; and it's that knowledge and energy, shared by of herself and her staff, that helps give Bare Jazz an energy that's palpable upon setting foot into the store.
Of course, Bare Jazz is more than just a jazz CD/Vinyl store; the courtyard that acts as the long entrance to the shop is also an outdoor café, and passing by it numerous times throughout the week in Oslo, it always seems to be bustling. There's also an indoor café on the second floor of the building, and if the vibe that permeates the store and indoor/outdoor cafés is as constant as it has been throughout the week, then there's hope for jazz yet.
Courtyard Café Outside Bare Jazz
Inside the store, its organization makes great use of a relatively small space, with small laminate cards with the front and back of each CD taking the place of actual jewel cases and digipaks, meaning that the store can pack a lot more display items into the space of just a few CDs. Like what you see? Bring the card to the counter for a chance to have a listen before you buy, on one of the two listening stations on top of an old upright piano that acts as a table beside the cash counter. The latest releases can be found on panels behind the cash register and to the right; opposite the cash register is a glass box containing all kinds of books, boxes sets and DVDs; and with a wrap-around section making no discrimination of jazz style, Bare Jazz does break out Norwegian artists into a separate area, as they do vinyl and sales items. There's also a separate display for the entire Winter&Winter catalog, including its remaster/reissue series of the old JMT catalog.
Inside Bare Jazz
The prices are a little steep199 NOK (about $32 USD) for a regularly priced title; 149 NOK ($24 USD) for a "budget" priced CD. That includes, of course, Norway's 25% sales tax, and while some stores have the ability to refund the VAT (value added tax) if you prove yourself a visitor, most small stores do not, and Bare Jazz is, sadly, no exception. Still, it's worth the extra money to go to a jazz store that is so vibrant and alive; a place that proves jazz may be marginalized in many places, but in Oslo, there's a clear demand for the musicand, furthermore, an actual community.
Coming Up: Crossing the Mountains to Molde; First coverage of Molde Jazz 2010.