Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011
It's been a long time since Jon Balke released a recording with his longstanding Magnetic North Orchestra2004, in fact, with Diverted Travels (ECM)but the pianist/composer has been far from inactive, with projects ranging from the intimate solo performance of Book of Velocities (ECM, 2008) to the more sweeping and ambitious Siwan (ECM, 2009). Still, it's encouraging to know that Magnetic North Orchestra is still a going concern, though in recent times Balke has been exploring an expanded version of the group, Magnetic Book, where six additional strings (two violins, two violas and two cellos) expand the lineup's current (but still-shifting) nonet to a quindectet. With a new album to be released, hopefully, in 2012, Balke began touring the group in northern Norway earlier in the summer, with Magnetic Book's Oslo performance its first in the southern part of the country.
Taking place in the lovely Kulturkirken Jakob, Balke demonstrated his ongoing interests in combining Baroque/Renaissance music, and contemporary minimalist forms, with improvisational elements weaving in and around the detailed arrangementsnot unlike Bill Frisell's recent work with the guitarist's 858 Quartet, where written lines determine the overall shape of a piece, but who plays what and when becomes a more open-ended proposition. Amongst a group of busy players known for work in other projectsclarinetist Håvard Lund (Trygve Seim Ensemble), percussionist Helge Norbakken (Arve Henriksen, Mari Boine) and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr (Terje Rypdal)Balke's regular lineup remained, nevertheless, consistent in its stylistic focus and, thanks to the longstanding and, as ever, charismatic presence of trumpeter/vocalist Per Jørgensen (BMX, Jøkleba!), retained specific voices that defined the group's overall identity, even as so many of the players have changed.
Like Balke, Jørgensen also played hand percussion, and some of the set's most captivating moments came when the pianist and trumpeter engaged with Norbakken, whose combination of older ethnic instruments and found objects created a percussion orchestra like no other. At one point, with Jørgensen seated halfway between Balke and Norbakken, the trumpeter kept looking rapidly left, then right, like following the ball at a tennis match, grinning furiously and injecting his own percussive punctuations at just the right moment to draw the three players together in rhythmic confluence. This may have been rigorous music, but it was clearly also fun, as the smiles and eye contact amongst the group made clear throughout the set.
From left: Håvard Lund, Bjørn Kjellemyr, Per Jørgensen
Jørgensen's voicea combination of soft, melodious falsetto and near-cathartic wailswas as key to Magentic Book's sound as his trumpet work, and the music was also bolstered by Balke's light but confident touch, and the pianist's tendency to find obscure but compelling melodies where others would lean more to convention. The addition of the six additional strings gave some of the writing more weight, though delicate passages were paradoxically made even more so, as the strings moved between monophony and polyphony. Balke's music resonated because, despite taking many roads less traveled, it possessed an underlying lyricism and, for all its intrinsic classicism, an unobscured connection to a folk tradition imbued by the church, making the location of Magentic Book's performance as perfect as the music itself.
With a new album recently hot off the presses, Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (The Thing) brought his rock-edged and electronics-heavy Fire! trio to Mono, a relatively small club in the heart of downtown Oslo. Clearly a counter-culture club, it was the perfect place for Fire!, whose unreleased? (Rune Grammofon, 2011) may have featured Jim O'Rourke, but the guitarist/electronics wiz was nowhere to be found at the Oslo Jazz Festival performance. Instead, the trioalso including thundering electric bassist Johan Berthling and equally powerful drummer Andreas Welinput on a near-relentless set that traded on the appeal of a high volume power trio, with the bassist and drummer creating shifting but unshakable pulses that gave Gustafsson the freedom to explore both his room-filling baritone saxophone and an even more sonically assaultive Fender Rhodes, fed through a number of devices to give it a largely unearthly and almost always aggressive sonic footprint.
Without the benefit of earplugs, it was impossible to stay for the entire performance, but that shouldn't imply any kind of negativity; instead, Fire! delivered a performance with an arc spread across the entire set, meaning that those who scuttled in and out of the venue (as others did as well) didn't really feel the benefit of the shape Gustafsson, Berthling and Welin's playing ultimately took. But if there was a positive in having to leave a performance mid-set, it was the knowledge that something was being missed, as those who hung around for the entire show emphatically confirmed the next morning.
Situated behind the bar, near Welin and largely looking on Gustafsson's back, the saxophonist/keyboardist remained a charismatic focal point, as he delivered dense clusters on the Rhodes, only to send them further into the stratosphere by constantly applying heavy distortion and pitch shifting amongst echo and reverb-drenched screams that may have been the musical equivalent of projectile vomiting, but which remained somehow strangely compelling. Being relentlessly assaulted never felt so good.