Norwegian Jazz 101c: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2011
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.