While the showcases for European Jazz Meeting continued long into the night and into the early hours of the next morning, an early flight home on April 22 rendered it necessary to call it quits relatively early. Still, there couldn't have been a better ending to Jazzahead! 2012 than the Norwegian duo of singer Solveig Slettahjell and keyboardist/vocalist Morten Qvenild.
Qvenild is one-third of the remarkable piano trio In The Country, most recently heard and seen on the live CD/DVD Sounds and Sights (Rune Grammofon, 2011), and while that group has been venturing increasingly into vocal and singer/songwriter territory, it's been Qvenild's work with Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, and Slettajhell's own Slow Motion Orchestra, last heard on Tarpan Seasons (Universal Music Norway, 2010), where he's gained important experience as a vocal accompanist. With Magical Orchestra on hiatus, and Slow Motion Orchestra similarly on the back-burner, this new duo project with Slettajhell, and its recently released debut Antologie (SoSlo Productions, 2011), continues to mine the singer's largely down-tempo approach. Unlike Tarpan Season, however, Antologie capitalizes on Slettahjell's strength as interpreter rather than songwriter, featuring dark-hued, occasionally electro-centric renditions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, Sidsel Endresen and others.
Live, the duo managed to take the electricity generated by Marius Neset's preceding set and turn it inward, in a showcase of songs that, in addition to those culled from Antologie, drew a song from Prince that didn't make it onto the album. "We didn't dare put it on our album as he has a lot of lawyers," quipped Qvenild by way of introduction. "Now we'll do a song by someone who doesn't have a lot of lawyers...me," leading into an untitled song by Qvenild that, like his work with In the Country, demonstrates continued evolution as a songwriter.
But before the set began, the audienceinformed that it was Slettahjell's birthday (her 41st)broke into "Happy Birthday," as the singer took to the stage. "That was the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me," she said, and returned the favor with a set that was soft, honest andeven when Qvenild triggered programmed tracks for songs like Annie Lennox's "Saddest Song I've Got"wonderfully organic. Slettahjell possesses a powerful voiceone easily adaptable to today's melismatic American Idol pop culturebut has, instead, shaped a career predicated on carefully chosen moments. Delivering the lyrics with the respect they deserve, when Slettahjell occasionally reached for greater power, it was all the more profound for its sharp contrast to her largely understated approach.
Similarly, Qvenild's aim was clearly for the heart of the songs. Soloing with grace and quiet power, Qvenild humbly claims not to be a virtuoso, but there were moments, as in his solo on "The Saddest Song," where it was clear that he possessed all the technical skill he needed but, like Slettahjell, was about choosing the moments in which to reveal it with great care.
Making this new duo of Slettahjell and Qvenild all the more successful in its short set. Two musicians for whom the song is paramount, and whose interpretive approach finds more in slow, brooding interpretations than the originals (who'd have thought the Stones' "Wild Horses" could be so poignant?), Antologie may be their first recording as a stripped-down duo, but hopefully it won't be their last.
Bringing Jazzahead! 2012 to an end. With plenty of goodbyes to be madeand some of them continuing them the next morning in Bremen's airport and beyond, when it turned out there were plenty of attendees forced to make the early morning flight to Frankfurtit was another great year, filled with productive meetings and a chance to sample some terrific music from around the globe. Jazzahead!'s continued success means that hopefully its organizers will address some of its growing pains in 2013. There's simply no better way to find out what's happening in Europe and abroad in a condensed few days, but it will be better still if the coordinators find a way to accommodate growing attendance with a larger venue for its evening showcases, and perhaps even an extra day to allow a more practical to balance between meetings, educational streams and showcase performances.
Page 1, Siggi Loch, ŠKODA Award: Messe Bremen/Pusch
All Other Photos: John Kelman