Norwegian Jazz 101c: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2011
It may be true, at least most of the time, that familiarity breeds, if not exactly contempt, then certainly complacency; but that simply doesn't apply if subject is Norwayand, in particular, its disproportionately large and vibrant music scene. Suffering from an epidemic that most folks would be happy to attractfestival inflationthis country of just five million people is host to approximately 600 music festivals annually, covering every possible stylistic nook and cranny. More often than not, even when they're called jazz festivals, they stretch the boundaries of what defines the music, and audiences flocking to these festivalswith a demographic spread far broader than that showing up to jazz festivals on the other side of the Atlanticseem less concerned with moaning about what isn't, instead focusing on, and celebrating, what is.
Of course, those who come to these festivals from abroad may well be thinking about the question covered in a recent All About Jazz editorial, When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?but, based on programming at annual festivals like Molde, Kongsberg and Oslo, there's little doubt that the reductionist concerns of jazz purists are falling on deaf ears as festivals look for creative ways, not just to survive, but to attract new audiences and think outside the box to keep their existing constituents happy and challenged.
But as much as a festival like Bergen's Natt Jazz continues to recruit acts whose relationship to the American tradition is tenuous, at best, there's little doubt that the vast majority of them fall within a far broader purviewone that acknowledges and respects the American roots of jazz, while maintaining a commitment to incorporating references from other cultures. It's not just a good thing, either; it's essential to the cross-pollinating undercurrent of jazz, one that's become all the more important as it expands to become a global musicowned by no-one, as the music moves well into its second decade in the new millennium. And there are few events in Norway that address the expanding definition of jazz for a specific and focused international audience quite as well as JazzNorway in a Nutshell.
Now in its sixth year, JNiaN is a showcase that brings festival programmers, club owners, journalists, and other industry folks together with Norwegian record label heads, artists managers and in-country club/festival heads/programmers, for either an intensive first-time introduction to the country's jazz scene, or to broaden the exposure of repeat JazzNorway in a Nutshell attendees (Nutshellers) by setting up four days of activities, all surrounding the Bergen's Natt Jazz festival. And it's more than just the music; during the daytime, JNiaN's organizersLars Mossefin, Bo Grønningsæter and Brit Aksnesput together a packed but not overwhelming schedule that includes day trips to locations in and around Bergen that also include special showcase performances, providing even more opportunities for JNiaN attendees to find out what's hot in Norway 2011. It's like being on another planet for four days, where the only matters at hand are hearing about the music; listening to the music; and networking with friends old and new to discuss a myriad of matters surrounding the musicall in a relaxed social environment that engenders the creation of personal and business connections which ultimately continue throughout the year, in between JNiaN installments.
It's also about creating and maintaining a global network of advocates for the Norwegian scene. That a country so small has five separate organizations devoted to the jazz of their regions (east, west, north, south and central Norway), as well as organizations whose names say it allMusic Export Norway, and Music Information Centerseems almost implausible to folks from North America, where such remarkable organization simply can't afford to exist. And while the global economy is being felt, even in a country as oil-rich as Norway, there's a fundamental difference in its approach to arts support. Sure, the country has money; but how it chooses to spend that money gets to the real heart of the mattera country where, as the result of firm commitment to arts and education for the last half century, culture has become an integral part of its social fabric, rather than the dirty word it so often appears to be in North America.
And so, JNiaN is a meeting place for old friends to come together and meet new ones along the way, all in the context of an outstanding musical program. The bloom never falls off the rose, but it's always a great experience to see the reactions of people coming to Norway for the first time, like Australian journalist Jessica Nicholas, whose enthusiasm was so palpable that, even if JNiaN alums were becoming jaded, they'd be hard-pressed to remain so, after spending four days and nights experiencing the music and culture Norway has to offer.
- May 25: Arrival / Mats Eilertsen Trio
- May 26: Trip To Hardanger / BMX with Per Jørgensen
- May 26: Stian Westerhus and Sidsel Endresen
- May 26: The Source
- May 27: Lunch in Glesvær /Electric Pansori
- May 27: Fjell Fortress / Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem
- May 27: The Deciders
- May 28: Arve Henriksen Trio
- May 28: Farmers Market / Going Home
Bergen is Norway's second largest city, and its position along the Gulf Stream makes it one of the country's most temperate, though its geography is a double-edged sword. Surrounded by mountains, and considered the country's "Gateway to the Fjords," it's drop-dead gorgeous, no matter where you look. With waterways cutting into the city in numerous places, its picturesque landscape is what also makes it Norway's rainiest locale, the orographic lift of warm North Atlantic air resulting in over two meters of rain annually. It's never a good idea to be without an umbrella, as the weather can change, almost in an instant, from warm and sunny to near-torrential downpours.
But, strangely enough, the weather is rarely an impediment to getting out and about, and arriving in Bergen late in the afternoon on the first day of JazzNorway in a Nutshell, there was little time to unpack and hoof it over to USF Verftet, the multi-venue facility where Natt Jazz presents all its shows. With four performances spaces, ranging from under 100 to approximately 400-500, Natt Jazz 2011 combined a breadth of Norwegian talent with artists from abroad, including James Farm, Al Di Meola, and Salif Keita. But Verftet is more than a performance space; there's a restaurant/bar, and a couple floors of office space, including a room converted into JNiaN's Key Cluba relaxed space, where attendees can hang out late into the night, with drinks, snacks and copious amounts of promotional material; experienced Nutshellers know to either pack light, or bring an extra bag, to handle everything they'll be taking home.
It's all about an expanding network of friends from around the world, joined together by a shared interest in the Norwegian scene, and so arriving late to the opening meeting of JNiaN, where press kits were being handed out amongst dinner and drinks, it was almost overwhelming to discover just how large this group has become over the past several years. With over 40 attendees, a large percentage of them returnees to the event, it was almost an exercise in futility trying to hold down a single conversation, with another familiar face to greet at every turn.
Dealing with jetlagthe result of an overnight flight, an eight-hour layover in Frankfurt, and a delay in the final leg to Bergen making the entire trip over eighteen hoursand the knowledge that JNiaN activities would be getting underway relatively early the next morning, there was no way to catch an entire evening of Natt Jazz. But after traveling 5,300 kilometers, it was impossible to say no to a performance from bassist Mats Eilertsen and the trio that released Elegy (Hubro) in 2010. Eilertsen's become an increasingly well-known name internationally, for his work with fellow Norwegian, Tord Gustavsen, on the pianist's latest release, Restored, Returned (ECM, 2010), as well as the cooperative group last hear on its eponymous disc, The Source (ECM, 2006)scheduled to play Natt Jazz the following evening. Less-known but no less deserving is Eilertsen's broadminded reach on a gradually expanding discography as a leader, where the bassist has experimented in a variety of contexts, all drawn together by a sinewy tone and unfettered approach to his instrument, employing a variety of extended techniques to augment an intrinsic lyricism and deep sense of time and groove.
From left: Mats Eilertsen, Thomas Strønen
Eilertsen's trio also featured another ubiquitous Norwegian, drummer Thomas Strønen, busy sideman and co-leader of Food, whose Quiet Inlet (ECM, 2010) presents a more ethereal side of the spontaneous composition equation to another of his projects, HumCrush, and its more angular yet still strangely beautiful Rest at World's End (Rune Grammofon, 2008). The youngest member of the group, and its only non-Norwegian, the career of Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje has been on an upward trajectory the past few years, for his work in fellow Dutchmnan, trumpeter Eric Vloeimans' Fugimundi trioresponsible for a tremendous 2010 performance in Ottawa, Canada, as well as his own projects, including the recent Avalonia (Challenge, 2010), an open-minded trio set.
In Eilertsen's trio, it was all-acoustic, though Strønen did bring a number of additional piecesmostly metal, including small gongs, bells and moreto expand his drum kit. The set reflected the ongoing evolution inevitable in a trio of musicians so busy with so many projects, all of which are brought to bearcross-pollinating stylistic growth within the context at hand while still retaining the markers that set it apartbut the greatest change within this trio of equals was unequivocally Fraanje. When the pianist played with his trio at Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2010, it came shortly after a trip to New York, where the trio expanded to a quartet with the addition of Tony Malaby. That a single event can create such momentous change is not necessarily uncommon, but it's not exactly common, either; in this case, working with the American saxophonist seemed to have freed Fraanje's playing up considerably, pushing his entire trio to become freer and more experimentalstill working with compositions as a basic roadmap, but taking far greater risks, with corresponding rewards.
Neither Eilertsen or Strønen are strangers to free improvisation, and while Fraanje's abilities were never without question, it's clear that he's lept to another plane since the trio recorded Elegy, a change that made the trio's Natt Jazz set more far-reaching and, ultimately, even more successful. Culling material from the CD for a largely continuous set, it was when the trio ventured into a set-closing reading of Elegy's only cover, the Miles Davis/Bill Evans staple, "Nardis," that its many strengths were revealed, if only because it was in a familiar context. In the midst of a turbulent underpinning from Eilertsen and Strønen, Fraanje delivered the dark melody with shades of dissonance, his hands dropping onto the keys like pebbles randomly thrown into a lake. But as free as it was, this was far from random, as the trio's "changes, no time" delivery adhered to the song's form, even if its unfolding was ultimately as unexpected for the trio as it was for the audience.
While "Nardis" was just one highlight in the trio's set, it proved an important point for those who think the Norwegian jazz scene is completely distanced from the American tradition. It's rare, it's true, to find Norwegian groups playing jazz standards but, as Eilertsen's trio capably proved, it's not that they can't, it's that they largely choose not to. But if and when they do, it's a given that the approach will be significantly different, filtered through a different cultural upbringing and bringing the same underlying values that imbue their own music to that of others.
During the daytimes, Nutshellers have, over the years, been treated to everything from boat trips down the coast to Stavanger and extreme sporting in Voss (the "extreme sport capital of Europe"), to making sausages in Bergsdalstunet. For the 2011 edition, attendees were taken on a day trip to the Hardanger region, known scenically for one of Norway's largest fjords, and as birthplace of the Hardanger fiddle, a violin variant made famous in the traditional music of the area and, on an international scale by artists like Nils Økland, on Rune Grammofon and ECM recordings including Bris (Rune Grammofon, 2005).
It was about 100 kilometers drive from Bergen to the Gamlastovo Gardrestaurant, situated about halfway between Voss and Flåm, and the tripcapably narrated by JNiaN coordinator Brit Aksnes, whose robust a capella singing along the way was almost as big a hit as some of the acts at Natt Jazzbut in that 75-minute drive, much was revealed about the Norwegian landscape, as well as the remarkable infrastructure that the Norwegians have built to create connections between the small towns that populate the country. A mountainous region, rather than try to find ways around or up and down the mountains, in recent decades the Norwegians have chosen to cut tunnels through them, and it's only when driving through these areas that the monumental scale of such a task is revealed. Unlike Finlandwhere the majority of the population is collected into two larger metropolitan areasin Norway it's always been about small towns spread throughout the country, making the challenge of delivering social services to all nearly insurmountable; still, fueled by oil money, the country has chosen to find creative ways to link towns together into greater regions, and in ways that don't spoil its natural beauty. There may be multi-lane highways approaching the few large cities in Norway, but once outside them, it's two-lane all the way, and built to enhance, rather than replace.
Arriving at the restaurant, Asknes passed the baton to Arne Fykse, who took the group through a winding path towards a small glen, where he provided a brief history of the Hardanger fiddle, its construction and the tuning of the sympathetic strings. Those resonant strings are what make this relatively small instrument sound considerably richer than its classical cousin, and the use of multiple tunings its ability to perform intervals and create pedal tones that would be impossible in conventional tuning. The instruments are also beautiful to behold, with different builders employing specific artistic designs. While not quite Stradivarius level, Fykse quipped, Hardanger fiddles can still be quite expansive, as much as $8,000.
Arne Fykse demonstrates the Hardanger fiddle
From the glen, Fykse led the group down a path to the opening to a cave, where intrepid, non-claustrophobic Nutshellers entered and, with their guide creating minimal light with candles lit throughout the small cavern, he gave a brief performance of three traditional tunes. It's one thing to hear a performance in a concert hall, or even a small club; another entirely, to hear the music performed in the resonant space of a small cavern, the sound surprisingly amplified by the rock wallssurely another in a long line of unforgettable JNiaN moments.
From there it was back to the restaurant wherebefore a traditional meal consisting of lamb so tender it was falling off the bones, a denser pork sausage, potato and another root vegetablea showcase performance was given by BMX. A sax/guitar/drums trio that surely stems from drummer Paul Motian's longstanding group with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, Norwegian guitarist Thomas Dahl, saxophonist Njål Ølnes and drummer Øyvind Skarbø nevertheless brought their own slant to the concept of a bass-less trio. Skarbø was prone to much more expressionistic bursts of energy, even as he proved capable of delicacy and color; Dahlalso a member of Mats Eilertsen's Radio Yonder (Hubro, 2009) quartet, heard recently in a tremendous showcase at Jazzahead 2011blended soft textures with delicate arpeggios and harder-edged, overdriven and near-noise-level sonics; Ølnes, the group's primary composer (when, in fact, the trio is working with form, which isn't always the case), playing with a combination of gentle lyricism and searing screams, informed, no doubt, by Jan Garbarek but with a less acerbic tone.
But it was the addition of trumpeter Per Jørgensen that gave the already talented BMX additional lift. A Norwegian musical icon, Jørgensen's star has been on the ascendancy recently, teaming with Finnish pianist Samuli Mikkonen and drummer Markku Ounaskari on Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs (ECM, 2010), though he's also known for his ongoing work as a member of keyboardist Jon Balke's Magnetic North Orchestra, last heard on Diverted Travels (ECM, 2004). Jørgensen and BMX first intersected, in fact, on Bergen Open (NORCD, 2010), an album that began life as a single disc, but ultimately stretched to two when the quartet's sound check yielded a stunning 46-minute free improv that demanded inclusion.
From left: Njål Ølnes, Øyvind Skarbø, Thomas Dahl, Per Jørgensen
As unassumingly charismatic as he was in his performance of Kuára at Tampere Jazz Happening 2010, Jørgensen's ability to combine unfettered extroversion with restrained lyricisma clear focal point in that group even when, as was the case with BMX, he was an after-the-fact additionwas matched by Dahl, Ølnes and Skarbø, as the thirty-minute set traversed considerably territory, from gentle counterpoint amongst the guitar and two horns, to loop-driven passages of stunning aggression. For a lunchtime performance, Jørgensen and BMX surprisingly managed to pull out all the stops, layering the dining room with huge swatches of sound and a surprising ability to either use preexisting roadmaps to arrive at new destinations or pull them direct from the ether. By the time the short but powerful set was over, Nutshellers were ready to decompress with a fine lunch capped by a short walk to another small building, where coffee and desert was served before the trip back to Bergen and an evening of Natt Jazz.
They've only been performing as a duo for less than a year, but guitarist Stian Westerhus and singer Sidsel Endresen have come a long way since their official debut at Molde Jazz 2010 (though the first inkling they were onto something came a year earlier in Oslo, where the two performed a duet encore, following individual solo sets). Even just a few weeks later, when they performed at Punkt Festival 2010 in Kristiansand, the evolution was already palpable. Eight months later, at a full concert in Bergen, Endresen and Westerhus gave a performance of such stunning, full-on engagement, that it would have been a crime if it wasn't recorded, as this was a show that defined the best of what each artist is about individually but, even more importantly, collectively in the context of this truly groundbreaking duo.
Each artist is breaking through the boundaries of convention with their respective instruments. Westerhus, whose Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010) was as big a shot across the bow of guitar orthodoxy has been fired in many years, may look like a rock star, and he may play with the energy and rig of a rock guitaristfour amps, and enough foot pedals to open a small music storebut what he does with all this gear and attitude is to challenge orthodoxy of form and function, as he combines unorthodox techniques on his guitar; bowing, scratching, using alligator clips to prepare the instrument, with the kind of intimate knowledge of each and every pedal that both allowed him to create new sounds in the moment and not only use those effects as an organic extension of his guitar, but as standalone instruments in and of themselves, at time unplugging the jack from his guitar and using his thumb on it to create a base signal that was then manipulated through his devices.
As defined as he is by the electronics, Endresen is just the opposite; effectively an all-acoustic singer, the only thing she needed was a microphoneand no outboard processing, at thatand, even then, only to be heard alongside Westerhus, especially when he began to ratchet up the volume. Her ongoing evolution of a new vocal language based on cellssmall techniques ranging from strange utterances and clicks and ticks, to odd, reverse-attack sounds that seem almost impossible to make with a mouth, a throat and a larynxhas been well-documented on records like her own One (Sofa, 2007) and, more recently, a couple tracks of live sampler Jan Bang's ...and poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2010). Listening to Endresen sing is sometimes like hearing many voices at once; a strange confluence that occasionally seems almost like a conversation, only to suddenly turn deeply melodic, with the lovely, warm tone that made albums like the more song-based Undertow (Jazzland, 2000) so richly rewarding.
And so, individually, both Westerhus and Endresen are doing things nobody else has done. Together, however, their individual strengths join into a whole that, increasingly, exceeds the sum of its parts. Their interaction is getting deeper with each passing performance, and while Westerhus is usually the more visually captivating of the twoEndresen preferring to remain seated, off to one side of the stage, while Westerhus and his mountains of gear occupy a much larger space on the other sidethis performance found Endresen more physically engaged than in any of their previous shows. As the intensity of the set-long improvisation grew to near-ear-shattering levels, the normally still Endresen was bouncing in her seat, her head bobbing, and her arms gesturing in ways that gave whatever alien language she was speaking surprising meaning.
And there were new techniques on the go as wellEndersen, in particular, experimenting with multiphonics that may have been rooted in throat-singing, but here were taken to a new place, as one note orbited around the other's pedal tone in a remarkable display of vocal pyrotechnics that never became an end unto itself. Westerhus was, at times, as much performance art as performance, punching the machine head of his guitar into his amp, and letting the resultant sound build into feedback that, as it neared the outer reaches of control, he'd rein back in with a sharp, punctuating chop.
The beauty of this duoand in its players' individual workis the remarkable balance it strikes. Westerhus' sounds are often otherworldly, certainly alien to most that use conventional concepts of rhythm, harmony and melody as yardsticks; and yet, there's no shortage of beauty amidst the unexpected sonics. Westerhus may be aggressively pushing the envelope, but he had to learn all the rules before he began breaking them, and while it's almost impossible to hear any roots in the music he makes, they're there nevertheless, in the haunting melancholy of one particular passage where, combining bowing and a plethora of effects, the guitarist turned almost orchestral in tone. And as much as the performance was an endless flow of give-and-take, of push-and-pull, Endresen's ears were equally open, finding her way to near-song form at more than one point. The duo has, in fact, been recording its performances with an eye to a first release, and it's hard to imagine parts of the Natt Jazz performance not being used, though with the rapid growth this duo is showing, who knows what the next performance will bring?
Saxophonist Trygve Seim may be the best-known member of The Source, the consequence of two beautifully constructed, large ensemble records on ECM2001's Different Rivers and its even more compelling follow-up, Sangam (2004)but his longtime partners are gradually building similar names for themselves. In a country where there's a disproportionate number of remarkable musicians, and within that, an equally out-of-balance group of outstanding drummers, Per Oddvar Johansen has honed a tremendously broad approach that makes him as strong a groove-meister in singer Solveig Slettahjell's Slow Motion projects as he is a textural foil in pianist Christian Wallumrød's more rigorous ensembles, last heard on Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM, 2010). Bassist Mats Eilertsen, back from his previous evening's performance with his trio, continues to gain traction with Tord Gustavsen and others, not to mention his own albums as a leader.
The Source, from left: Øyvind Brække, Trygve Seim, Mats Eilertsen, Per Oddvar Johansen
On an international level, trombonist Øyvind Brække remains the most hidden treasure of the group, a trombonist who exploits the near-vocal qualities of his instrument, whether in the context of The Source or the more clearly defined confines of the longstanding Sandvika Storband, whose latest release, A Novel Approach (Self Produced, 2011), stemmed from a commission where the trombonist adapted his own music, along with pieces by trumpeter Mathias Eick and guitarist Jacob Young, for the 17-piece big band.
Like Westerhus and Endresen, The Source reflects the individual strengths of its members, while creating a whole that sounds like nothing any of them do elsewherea compositional and improvisational laboratory, in the interactive space of a chord-less quartet. Brække is the quartet's primary writer, and it was material from the group's self-titled 2006 ECM release that formed the foundation for some of its set in the same intimate, 100-seat Studio USF where Endresen and Westerhus had been just a couple hours prior.
Unlike Westerhus and Endresen, however, The Source may be about interpretive power, but it's almost entirely within a scripted format. Seimlooking considerably different than he did when he brought his large ensemble to PDX Jazz in Portland, Oregon, during the winter of 2007; less style and more Vikingwas in top form, eschewing the kind of muscular, extended approach to improvisation that defines so many saxophonists, and focusing more, instead, on tone, nuance and the creation of strong, theme-based solos. A captivating presence who favored the absolute perfection of every note over a preponderance of them, whether on tenor or curved soprano, Seim's growing interest in the music of India and Pakistan has become pervasive in his phrasing, where he added unorthodox bends and microtonal tinges.
Brække's "Caballero" was initially driven by Eilertsen's simple, bowed line, coming out of silence and creating an angular pulse over which the trombonist and Seim moved in, out and around its simple but oblique melody. Ultimately, however, it was Johansen's emergent military pulse that gave the tune its weight, unfolding like a bolero. A focus on rubato tone poems that were more about percussive color than pulse, and which provided everyone in the group opportunity to explore individually, coalesced into passages of stunning group interplay, as if saxophonist Ornette Coleman's free jazz of the early 1960s was morphed into something as redolent of Norwegian folkloric traditionalism as it was the American vernacular. A puckish playfulness also imbued the set; it may have been some serious music, with arrangements that demanded plenty of focus, but it was clear, from the smiles and nods of encouragement amongst the group throughout the set, that this was a group having plenty of fun.
And while it's hard to imagine a group taking requests, The Source did. Johansen's melancholy ""Mmball"a popular tune for the group, appearing on both The Source and The Source and Different Cikadas (ECM, 2002), as well as Seim's duet disc with accordionist Frode Haltli, Yeraz (ECM, 2008)here it was a perfect encore and set closer, bringing The Source's performance to a calm and tranquil completion.
After an all-too-brief night's sleep, it was back on the bus for a relatively quick trip to Glesvær, a small town with a long history, courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bergen International Festival. First mentioned in the late 1600s, it was originally a fishing town (as many Norwegian towns along the coast were), located in the large archipelago west of Bergen, reaching into the North Sea. Now a vacation destination, with summer cottages for purchase and rent, its rugged beauty provides an ideal place to get away for a weekend, a week or a month.
An old trading post was converted into a restaurant in recent years, and it was there the Nutshellers converged for a lunch of bacallà, a traditional stew made with salted cod. But first, the group was treated to a showcase by Electric Pansori, a new group featuring three players who've intersected at various times, but never before in this combinationor with this premise. Christian Wallumrød may be best-known for his series of austere, acoustic chamber recordings on ECM, including The Zoo is Far (2007), but he's no stranger to the world of electronic experimentation. Drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, back from his performance with The Source the previous evening, was equally plugged in, making him a strong sonic foil for guitarist Ivar Grydeland, whose last album with the folk-tinged, Indo-centric Huntsville, Echos, Arches and Eras (Rune Grammofon, 2009), was a pulsating, noise-driven improv-fest, with guests Sidsel Endresen, and two members of American alt-country group Wilco, intrepid guitarist Nels Cline and percussionist Glenn Kotche.
Electric Pansori, from left: Christian Wallumrød , Per Oddvar Johansen, Ivar Grydeland
Norway has been a trendsetter in the realm of electrocentric free improv, with groups like Huntsville, Supersilent, Puma and Humcrush proving that not all noise sounds the same. Add Electric Pansori to that elite group, after a 30-minute free improv that, like BMX 24 hours earlier, surprised nutshellers with its bold approach to sound-sculpting; it also shocked others in the vicinity, as passers-by looked into the large window of the restaurant, to see what all the hubbub was about.
Pansori is a form of Korean traditional music, but there was little, if anything, tying Electric Pansori to its namesakeother than a similar adherence to the concept of music intrinsically requiring long stretches of time to develop. The performance was about shifting parameters of sound, with Grydeland distanced (as usual) from posing guitar histrionics, avoiding "look at me" pyrotechnics and, instead, patiently creating washes of sound that rarely resembled the instrument from whence they came. Johansen spent as much time with his gear as he did his acoustic kit, building pulses that ebbed and flowed, while Wallumrød used his synth to create alternate soundscapes, often based on densely packed, dissonant voicings and near-relentless repetition.
Less about discrete form, and more about shifting presences, it was an auspicious debut for a group that has yet to record, but hopefully will do so in the near future.
With lunch over, it was another quick bus ride inland to Fjell Fortress, located in the barren, rocky Norwegian countryside. Built by German occupying forces during World War II, if it wasn't exactly a pleasant placedespite a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area (and, obviously, the reason for its location)it did provide some insight into how the war had been conducted. A small round structure, with its exterior now largely glass, there was no indication of the massive structure built inside the hill, into which Nutshellers descended via a spiral metal staircase that had to be at least 30 meters deep. On the way down, there were openings for firing large weapons, but it was at the bottom of the fortress, with remaining mines, missiles and other armaments, where a sense of the cold brutality of the war crystallized. This fortress may have been the home for a large group of people, but there was absolutely nothing about it geared for comfort. Dank, cold, and dark, it was a sharp contrast to the rugged beauty of Glesvær; even the surrounding landscapebarren, craggy, rockywas largely unappealing.
Stairway down Fjell Fortress
But though there was little that could be called attractive about this fortress-now-museum, a showcase performance by Trygve Seim and pianist Andreas Utnem made clear that beauty can, indeed, be found anywhere. Performing music from the duo's 2010 ECM recording, Purcor: Songs for Saxophone and Piano, Seim and Utnem delivered JNiaN 2011's sparest, most lovely performances.
Purcor was largely written by Seim and Utnem individually, though the album does include three improvisations that are more spontaneous composition, with strong undercurrents of form, even as they move into unexpected places over the course of relative brevity. There are also folk songs from various Norwegian locations, but the album's greatest success is the seamless beauty that joins all the tracks. In this unamplified context, it was still possible to hear every nuance of Seim's saxophone, even as he did little more, at times, than breathe into his horn. Seim's rootsas is the case with so many Norwegian saxophonistsis in the ubiquity of Jan Garbarek; but just as so many American saxophonists are informed by John Coltrane or Michael Brecker, so, too, does Garbarek's undeniable presence mean anything but imitation to subsequent generations that include, along with Seim, saxophonists like Håkon Kornstad. Instead, Seim's similar attentiveness to the absolute purity and intent of every note he plays resulted in a similar aesthetic, perhaps, but an unmistakably personal sound and alternate in deceptive thematic simplicity.
From left: Trygve Seim, Andreas Utnem
Utnem, too, could be easily lumped into the category of fellow Nord Ketil Bjørnstad, whose neoclassical leanings have defined a whole new space for improvisation. But Utnem's playing is more clearly rooted in Norwegian folk musiceven greater economy, too, making him an ideal foil for the likeminded Seim. And when he turned to the reed-based harmonium on Seim's hymnal "Responsorium," Utnem achieved a rare sonic union with Seim's horn. As quiet and introspective as the duo's set wasand as much as it evoked a surprising number of contrasting emotions, despite its inherent understatementit ultimately managed to create a rare island of calm, peaceful reflection for Nutshellers that was all the more profound for the place in which it was delivered.
After a quick dinner break, it was time to get back to USF Verftet, climbing the tremendous hill that separated the hotel from the venue with, if not greater ease, at least more familiarity. It was an evening of relatively slim pickings, partially due to the massive draw of Jarle Bernhoft. Since releasing his latest record, Solidarity breaks (Universal, 2011), the looping meister/singer/multi-instrumentalist songwriter who now goes by just his last name, has made a tremendous leap into Norwegian stardom. Last seen at Punkt Festival 2009, the now even snappier dressed and hair-styled Bernhoft's distinctive, soul-based pop musiceven more captivating live, as he's a veritable one-man band, creating real-time loops on voice, guitar and keyboards that make for in-the-moment arrangementshas clearly struck a chord. The lineup to get into his show was so large that it was almost impossible to squeeze past it into Sardinen, where a band advertized as Konigsberg was set to play...only, it turned out, there was no band called Konigsberg, just a quintet called The Deciders.
Except The Deciders was Konigsberg. Formed by Ole Morten Vågan for a 2010 commission at the Konigsberg Jazz Festival, the hardworking Norwegian bassist and co-leader of Motifwhose triple-disc set, Facienda (Jazzland, 2011) is a frontrunner for one of the year's bestdecided, at the last minute to change the group's name, and it should come as no surprise for those familiar with the sheer unpredictability of Vågan's music. If there's anyone in Norway carrying the torch for bass icon Charles Mingus, both in terms of intrepid group leadership and muscular bass playing, it's Vågan.
There's plenty of intersection between Motif, whose 2010 performance at Natt Jazz was a revelation, and this new venture, and not just because Germany's Axel Dørner now holds the trumpet chair in both groups. Both groups also lean heavily on Vågan's writingthough in the case of Motif, it's a piano-based quintet, whereas The Deciders has no chordal instrument, instead looking to Dørner, German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall and Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljunkqvist to build vertical harmonies in the frontline, while placing most solos in a trio context, supported by the powerful Vågan and Swedish drummer Jon Fält.
That's not to say there wasn't plenty going on beyond the individual solos, where other players injected cued lines and punctuating shots directed by various members of the group. And The Deciders proved far more than a "head-solo-head" group; the writing was far more detailed than that, with knotty lines and idiosyncratic rhythmic accents and shifting bar lines. But the emphasis was on freewheeling improvisation, and in the realm of a kind of post-Ornette Coleman free-bop, it's hard to imagine a performance as thoroughly exhilaratingand hilariousas The Deciders' Natt Jazz set.
At a time when festivals are concerned about bringing in a younger demographic, groups like The Deciders make a case for it being possible without making musical compromise. This was challenging music, with periods of complete and utter freedom, where soloists like Dørner resorted to outrageous extended techniques to make sounds as often flatulent as they were mellifluous. But not only did The Deciders attract a young crowd, they kept it, with a combination of captivating energy and patter that wasn't just between-song, it was inter-song, as Vågan screamed out, with complete abandon, "We are THE DECIDERS!!!," to tremendous applause, whistles and screams. So, perhaps, one way to attract people to the music is to make it more fun?
The Deciders, from left: Rudi Mahall, Axel Dörner, Fredrik Ljungqvist, Jon Fält
It didn't hurt that Fältwhose own group, Lekverk, delivered a similarly absurdist set of over-the-top humor and undeniably outstanding musicianship at Natt Jazz 2009was a frenetic backbone, his eyes constantly shifting around his band mates, as he combined an unrelenting sense of groove with an equally relentless sense of mischiefat one point, in a solo-trade-off where the entire band stopped, simply coughing in time. Between his unfettered approach and Våganoften slapping his strings so furiously it seemed like blood was flyingThe Deciders had as lithe and muscular a rhythm team as can be heard in Norway these days, and if the group has yet to record its first album, then that's an oversight that needs to be corrected, and fast. This is a group whose ties to the jazz tradition are deep, while remaining unequivocally rooted in the 21st century.
Trying to leave The Deciders' show was even more challenging than getting in, with Bernhoft's show still ongoing, and people packing up the halls of the venue to try and squeeze in. One of the great things about Natt Jazz is that people buy a day pass and can move between the four performance spaces inside the venue, and catch up to six shows in a single night. One of the downsides is that there's almost constant movement, as people move from one show to another, and if there's a bottleneck, as there was for the Bernhoft show, it makes getting to all the other spaces next to impossible.
The last day of JNiaN was a little different than past years. There was a day of sport programmed for the more energetic at heart, ranging from calmer exploits like fishing to kayaking, mountain hiking and, for the most fearless, tandem paragliding. Those who were looking for a little calmer day could spend it in Bergen, with a planned lunch at the in-town location of Cornelia, whose island restaurant, Cornelius på Holmen, has been visited by Nutshellers in past years. For others, it was a time to catch up on a little work; travel is always great, but the work at home doesn't stop, and so it's often a challenge to balance the heavy itinerary of trips abroad with the endless flow of emails and other responsibilities.
But after an afternoon of catch-up, it was time to hit Natt Jazz for the final evening. First up, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, who is no stranger to Natt Jazz between supporting albums like his own widely acclaimed Cartography (ECM, 2008) with a 2009 Natt Jazz show, and collectives like Supersilent, the flagship improvising group that delivered its first live performance ever at Natt Jazz in 1997. Henriksen has, in the past few years, become one of the country's most significant artists, always searching for new areas to explore, and consequently receiving high accolades, including being selected as Artist in Residence at Molde 2009. Henriksen is the recipient of North Sea Jazz Festival's Paul Acket Award, and more are on the way for 2011, making his appearance at Natt Jazz 2010 all the more fortuitous, as he was debuting a new group at the festival, and it turned out to not only be the best show seen as part of JNiaN, but will certainly go down, along with the Westerhus/Endresen duo set, as one of the best live shows of 2011.
Henriksen has long possessed a deep interest in all things percussive; becoming, along with his trumpet, voice and electronics, Supersilent's de facto drummer when Jarle Vespestad left the group in 2008. A trumpet trio with two percussionists might sound, on paper, like something with significant self-limitations, but only to those unfamiliar with Henriksen, and the two partners he chose for the group. Helge Norbakken has, over the past several years emerged as of Norway's premier ethnic percussionists alongside Terje Isungset, appearing on albums including Jon Balke's Siwan and trumpeter Jon Hassell's Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street, both released in 2009 on ECM. Drummer Audun Kleive has achieved even greater international exposure as a member of Norwegian guitar icon Terje Rypdal's Chasers band of the 1980s/90s, as well as recent work with trumpeters Mathias Eick, on The Door (ECM, 2008), and Nils Petter Molvær on Hamada (Sula, 2009).
While Kleive's reputation as a powerful kit drummer has been supported, in recent times, as a member of Molvær's trio with guitarist Stian Westerhus, and in the reunited Jøklebathe now-super group with Jon Balke and Per Jørgensen that gave its first live performance in years at Vossa Jazz 2011. Here, however, Henriksen recruited the drummer solely as an electronic percussionist, with no kit to be found, just his Wavedrums, on which Kleive triggered a variety of samples, ranging from conventional drum sounds to otherworldly electronics that pushed the trio's overall sound into the 21st century and beyond. It worked as a perfect dovetail to the all-acoustic Norbakken, whose collection of percussion instruments ranged from ethnic drums, a variety of cymbals, bells and more, to two car wheels, flipped on their side, as well as a bass drum, similarly inverted. Between the two, Henriksen had a veritable drum orchestra at his disposal and, combined with his own broad palette, there seemed to be no limits to what this trio could achieve.
Of course, going onstage with no rehearsal (other than an extended sound check earlier in the afternoon), no preplanning and no written material, there was no way to know what to expect. Still, nobody could have anticipated a show so filled with the sound of surprise that, more than once during the nearly 100-minute set, just as it seemed like the trio was about to start winding downat one point, Henriksen even giving what appeared to be a cue to do just thatone of the players would emerge with a new idea that grabbed everyone's interest, and suddenly they were off again, in an entirely new direction. There's a certain nervous energy about a first performance that can, in the right hands, inspire a group to completely unpredictable but tremendously inspired heights, but Henriksen, Kleive and Norbakken pushed the sound of surprise even further, in a set that combined dark lyricism, tribal rhythms and ambient audioscapes. Moments of warped funk mixed with hints of song form, in Henriksen's use of a small synth keyboard to evoke Terry Riley-like minimalism, and periods of Supersilent-like aggro, as the trio sometimes entered noise territorythough, with two percussionists in play, with far greater attention to underlying pulse.
Throughout it all, Henriksen moved effortlessly among his instruments, at one point rapidly switching between his trumpet and pocket trumpet, to create a one-man trade-off. He sang in a fragile falsetto, growled and screamed with abandon. He placed a saxophone mouthpiece on his trumpet and, later, played with no mouthpiece at all. All with the kind of incredible instincts that both pushed his band mates and kept an open ear to where they were going, created a continuous and seemingly endless communal flow of ideas. Kleive not only used his fingers and palms in direct contact with his Wavedrums, he morphed the sound with his hand moving in the air above the electronic pads, not unlike a Theremin. Norbakken used all manner of stick and brush on his instruments, as well as his hands, at one point standing and scratching a large cymbal with a stick, in response to Kleive's bubbling sonics.
Helge Norbakken That a long set could somehow feature no individual while absolutely spotlighting all of them, kept the energy and excitement high throughout the set, even when the dynamic dropped to no more than a whisper. A fundamental of many Norwegian festivals is to commission new works and new ideas; in recent years, Natt Jazz has included performances like the 2009 debut of Terje Rypdal with the Bergen Big Band, recorded and later released by ECM as Crime Scene in 2010. Henriksen's debut of this new trio, coming in a year where the multi-instrumentalist is achieving more accolades than ever before, resulted in one of those events where, when a recording is finally released, those in attendance can look back knowing they were there at the beginning of something very, very special.
With an outrageously early pickup for the airport coming at 4:30am the following morning, a late last night for Natt Jazz and JNiaN was simply out of the question. Still, it was equally impossible to leave without catching at least a few minutes of Farmers Market. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensenwho delivered a mindboggling solo set at Polar Jazz 2011, above the Arctic Circle in Longyearbyen, that combined outrageous virtuosity with the timing of a great comedianFarmers Market hasn't released an album since 2008's Surfin' USSR (Kirkelig Kulturverkstad), but the group continues to be a live favorite. Driven by bassist Finn Guttormsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, Farmers' shows draw on a large repertoire, blending original music with whacky reworks of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder and Paul Desmondtheir infamous version of "Take Five" on the group's aptly titled Speed/Balkan/Boogie (Kirkelig Kulturverkstad, 1995) not only ultimately stretched to 11/8, but posited a distinctive Bulgarian tone thanks to the guest appearance of Georgi Andréev, playing the bowed Bulgarian gadulka.
There were no gadulkas to be seen at Farmers Market's packed show in Sardinen; instead, just the core groupalong with Carstensen (on electric guitar, accordion, banjo and pedal steel), Guttormsen and Vespestad, also featuring guitarist Nils-Olav Johansen and Bulgarian saxophonist Trifon Trifonovkicked things into high gear from the get-go, with fusion energy that recalled John McLaughlin's second Mahavishnu Orchestra of the mid-to-late-1970s. Like Carstensen solo, but on even more steroids, the group navigated knotty themes played over almost impossible rhythmic landscapes...but as complicated as the arrangements were, they were played with such ease, that even the odd-metered tunes grooved with booty-shaking energy. Farmers Market is as much a quirky dance band as it is a comedy act, all supported by effortless virtuosity and playing that is deeper than the group's crazy veneer sometimes suggests. Another example of making music that has broad appeal while, at the same time, avoiding any kind of artistic compromise.
Sadly, however, it was necessary to leave the show early, head to the Key Club for a quick goodbye to a few friends, and return to the hotel to pack and catch a paltry three hours sleep before meeting a small group of Nutshellers who also had to catch the early flight from Bergen to Frankfurt. But, riding in the van to the airport with friends from Italy, Poland and Sarajevo, everyone was still strangely energized about a trip that may have lasted less than 100 hours from start to finish, but that demonstrated, yet again, the hospitality of JazzNorway in a Nutshell, the remarkable breadth of the Norwegian music scene, and the enduring value of relationships built around Natt Jazz.
Every trip, every festival has its purpose and its unique value, but JazzNorway in a Nutshell manages, in ways like no other, to reaffirm and expand a growing network of people in an industry that may be marginalized, but which remains strong and committed. After a mere four days with this remarkable group of peoplebrought together for the purpose of spreading the word about Norwegian music, but ultimately accomplishing much more by creating friendships and business relationships that continue to bear fruit throughout the year anyone who came experiencing doubts about the value of their work was, despite being tremendously sleep-deprived, refreshed, reinvigorated and re-inspired. JazzNorway in a Nutshell's greatest success is its gradual expansion of this global network, made possible in the most relaxed, informal and amicable way possible, as the event created a focal point of common interest, made all the stronger by the personal relationships built over four days of shared music, information, experienceand fun.