As part of Jazzhead! 2012's day-long European Jazz Meeting, focusing on up-and-coming Euro acts, Norway's Trondheim Jazz Orchestra seemed like an odd choice. TJO has, after all, been around with a revolving door of personnel for some time. Coming from the renowned Trondheim Conservatory, the TJO has provided an opportunity for a number of important Norwegians to cut their teeth. In addition to collaborations like this year's stunning The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon, 2012), where TJO worked with Motorpsycho and Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken for a progressive rock classic, the orchestra regularly records albums focusing on its various alumni, including saxophonist Eirik Hegdal's Triads and More (MNJ, 2011) and Migrations (MJN, 2011), with trombonist Oyvind Brække (also of The Source, with saxophonist Trygve Seim).
Both Heigdal and Brække were on-hand for TJO's Jazzahead! debut, along with younger members including relentlessly hard-working bassist Ole Morten Vågan, of Motif and The Deciders; violinist Ola Kvernberg, whose Liarbird (Jazzland, 2011) was one of last year's best; and trumpeter Eivind Lønning, who's been gaining some international visibility as a member of pianist Christian Wallumrød's ensemble on ECM recordings including Fabula Suite Lugano (2010).
A Norwegian super group then, perhaps, with Swedish pianist Maria Kannegaard, whose trio with Vågan and drummer Thomas Strønen was last heard on Camel Walk (Jazzland, 2008); Mattias Ståhl, the Swedish vibraphonist whose group, Ståhl's Blå, as toured in Europe and abroad; saxophonist Martin Küchen, heard most recently on Zanussi 13's Live (Moserobie, 2012) and TJO mainstay drummer, Tor Haugerud, who's also a member of the experimental group Vertex, whose Shapes and Phases (SOFA, 2010), a free improvising duo, with guitarist Petter Vågan (Ole Morten's brother). Only singer Ingrid Lode appears to be new, though a quick look at her website reveals a surprising number of projects, including the intrepid Trondheim Voices.
Any who have seen even a few of these artists, in particular Vågan and Brække, will know that humor is a fundamental, and so the group's entry into the Borgward Saal from the rear of the roomhorns blaring and acoustic bass being strummed with furious abandon, while Kannegaard and Lode were alone on a stage ultimately too small to hold the entire groupwas the Norwegian version of New Dutch Swing. With just a few microphones on the floor in front of the stage, TJO gradually took its place, but not for long, as those with small enough instruments wandered the floor and the stage Lønning, Brække and Küchen coming together arm-in-arm at one point, to sing in accompanimentmaking the complex nature of the music all the more impressive for the lack of charts and the ease with which the members of TJO broke down into subsets, only to reform periodically, delivering an all-too-brief set that successfully posited that rigorous music needn't be overly serious music.
Later that afternoon, in the same room, British pianist Kit Downes took the stage with his longstanding trio of bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren, augmented by cellist Semay Wu and saxophonist James Allsopp, to perform music from Quiet Tiger (Basho, 2011), the pianist's follow-up to his Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Golden (Basho, 2010). A quiet man who chose to let the music speak for him, Downes' music trod darker territory than TJO, but avoided navel-gazing and superfluous ethereality, evolving organically into more boisterous territory where, bolstered in particular by the ever-inventive Maddren, Downes finally let loose a little and demonstrated both the virtuosity and penchant for accessible abstraction that has garnered the near-26 year-old pianist such a strong reputation at such a relatively young age.
Few debuts have been so well-titled as Marius Neset's Golden Xplosion (Edition Records, 2011), on which the Norwegian-born, London-resident saxophonist almost literally burst out of the speakers with a backing group that included keyboardist/hornist/producer Django Bates and the rhythm section of another group on an upward trajectory, Phronesis. For his Jazzahead! showcase, Neset replaced the absent Bates with Ivo Neame, effectively turning his Golden Xplosion group, with bassist Jasper Høiby and drummer Anton Eger, into Marius Neset with Phronesis.
Perhaps most remarkable, howevergiven Phronesis' own powerful personality on it own Walking Dark (Edition Records, 2012)was that this revised Golden Xplosion avoided sounding anything like Neset backed by Phronesis. This of course, had a great deal to do with Neset's writing, which combined knotty thematic constructs and irregular meters to make almost impossibly challenging contexts for incendiary performances by everyone involved. Still, equal credit must go to the members of Phronesis, who somehow managed to sound like an altogether different group while capitalizing on their own inherent chemistry, honed over the past few years.
Neset hit the ground running with the appropriately titled "City on Fire." On the record, Neset opens with a processed tenor reminiscent of the late Michael Brecker's EWI work on albums like As unrelenting as he was for most of the set, Neset did know how to create flow in a performance by dropping things down for a gentle reading of "Sane," though it didn't last long, as he segued into "Angel of the North," with its episodic development rendered in a solely acoustic context here, as opposed to the album, with its more electro-centric textures. Neset is already being heralded as a new saxophone voice to watch in Europe, but based on his Jazzahead! performance and the number of North Americans and Asians in the audience, there's little doubt that he'll be gaining ground on those shores in the near future.
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As unrelenting as he was for most of the set, Neset did know how to create flow in a performance by dropping things down for a gentle reading of "Sane," though it didn't last long, as he segued into "Angel of the North," with its episodic development rendered in a solely acoustic context here, as opposed to the album, with its more electro-centric textures. Neset is already being heralded as a new saxophone voice to watch in Europe, but based on his Jazzahead! performance and the number of North Americans and Asians in the audience, there's little doubt that he'll be gaining ground on those shores in the near future.