2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
2012 Umeå Jazz Festival
October 24-28, 2012
Nestled about 20 kilometers from the coast of the Baltic Sea in northern Sweden, connected by the Ume River, sits Umeå (pronounced: ooo-me-oh), a town of about 120,000 (including the surrounding region). Small it may be, but since 1968 it has hosted an annual jazz festival that takes place the last week of October and acts as kind of final big splash before the winter and long nights settle in. "How short the days are kind of depends on the weather," says Lennart Strömback, who has been the festival's Artistic Director for 22 years. "If it's snowing it can be quite dark, but if it's sunny, the days are usually about four hours long."
Even at the end of October, nearly two months before the winter equinox, it's already getting dark quite early, and it's cold-early mornings in the week spent in Umeå to attend the jazz festival saw the mercury dip, at times, as low as -11 Celsius. Even for a Canadian, that's cold for this time of year. "I don't know what their aims and wishes were in 1968 [when the festival began]," says Strömback, "except for peace and love, but at this point I think it's a kind of celebration, with a sparkling week before darkness comes to this part of the world."
The 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival definitely brought some warmth to the town, with a remarkable series of concerts at the Umeå Folkset Hus and Norrland Opera that included American artists like saxophonist Kenny Garrett, guitarist Pat Martino and drummer Gerry Hemingway; European artists like Norway's In the Country and the duo of singer Tone Åse and percussionist Thomas Strønen; a multinational trio featuring saxophonist Lotte Anker, bassist Jöelle Léandre and drummer Raymond Strid; and the American/Norwegian collaboration of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's Northern Lights, with keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, bassist Arild Andersen, saxophonist Bendik Hofseth and drummer Audun Kleive. There was also plenty of focus on young acts like England's World Service Project, and young Swedish singer Isabel Sörling and her group, Farvel. Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson, in addition to a bass duo concert with Christian Spering, performed some music from his recent recording, Togetherness (Dominique, 2012), with his sister, pianist Monica Dominique, while former e.s.t. drummer Magnus Öström brought his rock-inflected Thread of Life group.
"I'm always looking for those young artists that will surprise people. It's important to be able to communicate with a younger audience, so [performers like Canadian pianist/singer] Elizabeth [Shepherd] act as a kind of catalyst. I'm interested in food, where you have all these different flavors coming together to create delicious dishes. Elizabeth, she's one of the sweets," says Strömback, laughing.
When Strömback took over the festival in 1990, there were some significant challenges. "Until then, I think most artists brought [to Umeå]were big American names-and some really amazing names-but my contribution has been to bring some of the leading artists in the field of improvised music that are A bit more electric in their approach," says Strömback. "It was more of a mainstream festival. Still, now and then there were some pretty creative artists coming into town. Sun Ra was here in 1969 or '70, and he was pretty far out, so there has been some activity on the edge. But you have to consider that this town is not a big town. When I moved here in 1988 there were only 80,000 people, and the city has been growing by, more or less, about 1,000 people a year.
"Today, you can see a lot of lesser-known musicians," Strömback continues. "I think the profile of European jazz musicians is rising at the festival, as well as musicians from all over the world. I see Umeå as an arena, as a meeting point for different kinds of directions. It's not necessary to be labeled as a contemporary improv festival. You can find so many aspects of jazz here, and that's my vision. When I first started, I had this Jazz Lab-the small room with some far out-musicians-and it was almost empty every concert the first year; but over the years, this series has grown and now there's almost always a line to get into it. People have adapted and they're also really curious about these kinds of new concepts, the new directions of jazz and improvised music that they very seldom get the opportunity to hear."
Umeå may be a small town in relative terms, but a major university-and a military presence, beginning in the 1920s and '30s, that brought in some soldiers who were also jazz musicians-has resulted in a scene which has continued to gradually expand in the ensuing decades. "There were jazz musicians playing in their spare time, even in the '30s and '40s; there were some great amateur musicians," Strömback says. "In the '50s, an especially hot guy name Lars Lystedt was working and playing in bars, and he went to New York, because of working on the boats, buying records, hanging out in the clubs and coming back with dozens of great records. So, even in the late '50s, when there were really great musicians who were, in their own way, on a more professional level, there was this guy-who also became the first promoter of live music here in Umeå.
"The first concert with an international musician was [trumpeter/singer] Louis Armstrong, and it was so popular that thousands of people gathered," Strömback continues. "So, Lars then started the jazz festival in 1968; it was really important to have this dedicated person to start off the movement at the time."
Since then, Umeå has been the home of a number of important jazz musicians. Some of the more important and internationally known names include saxophonist/pianist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Morten Ågre and saxophonist Jonas Knutsson.
The festival is not unlike The Netherlands' North Sea Jazz Festival, albeit on a smaller scale, with most shows taking place at Folkset Hus, which houses a number of performance spaces ranging from a capacity of 60 to 1,200. With approximately 4,500 attendees in 2011, the festival also participates in a local, volunteer-driven jazz club that brings one jazz show to Umeå each week.
While not as extensive as Norway's, Sweden's arts funding is still better than most European countries-though it could use, according to Strömback, more attention to exporting some of the country's fine musicians to the rest of the world. "For the last six years we've had a right-wing administration," says Strömback, "and it has really had an effect on funding for the arts. Still, there has been plenty of support, with the majority of Umeå's funding coming from the municipality."
One weakness of many international festivals is a focus on artists from abroad, to the exclusion of local artists or artists from their own countries. Umeå addresses that by producing an opening night show where students from Midgårds-ranging in age from 16 to 18-deliver an evening's performance of jazz music. And on the Sunday night at the tail end of the festival, a collection of local musicians (some quite famous in Sweden) put on another show that's more like a festival after-party, but one with some seriously fine music and an emphasis on fun and booty-shaking grooves.
With a fine lineup over the course of the week, one of the most eagerly anticipated performances was, however, from Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla and her quintet, collaborating with the local symphony orchestra on a newly commissioned composition. It was a great way to kick off the festival's main program, and a perfect place to begin coverage of the 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival.
- October 25: Iro Haarla / NorrlandsOperans Symfoniorkester
- October 26: Isabel Sörling Farvel
- October 26: Mike Mainieri's Northern Lights
- October 26: Magnus Öström's Thread of Life
- October 27: Monica Dominique / Palle Danielsson
- October 27: Pat Martino Organ Trio
- October 27: Tone Åse / Thomas Strønen Duo
- October 27: In the Country
- October 27: World Service Project
- October 28: My Kind of Jazz II and Umeå Wraps Up
Following an entertaining Midgårds Jazz Festival evening that featured local students with mixed results, Umeå 2012 got off to a particularly strong start with a commissioned piece from Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla. Written for symphony orchestra and the quintet which has released two marvelous recordings on ECM-2005's Northbound and 2011's Vesper-what distinguished it from other symphonic collaborations was its remarkable integration. This was not a case of alternating passages for orchestra and quintet, though there were plenty of feature spots for Haarla's group, including original members, Finnish bassist Ufe Krokfors band Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim (himself a successful leader on ECM since 2001), alongside newcomers, Norwegian trumpeter Hayden Powell and Finnish drummer Mikko Kallio, replacing founding members Mathias Eick and Jon Christensen, respectively.
Instead, this 70-minute suite, intended to reflect on that quiet time of day between moonset and sunrise, traversed a great range of imagery and emotion. Haarla's contributions to ex-husband Edward Vesala's Sound and Fury have been documented plenty, but it bears reiterating how influential she was on the late Finnish drummer when she joined the group for Lumi (ECM, 1986). That her compositional contributions to Vesala's music went uncredited at the time was, in retrospect, absolutely unforgivable, but the great news is that in the years since Vesala's death in 1999, her work has become more visible, both through her ECM recordings and in contexts like the 2010 Tampere Jazz Happening, where a reunited Sound and Fury group performed a set subtitled "The Music of Iro Haarla."
Haarla's ability to create floating stases with turbulent underpinnings reflected a similar approach to her days with Vesala, but now clearly attributable to the pianist/harpist, who played with great care and concentration, creating tension-filled ambiguities for her group and in this case, the NorrlandsOperans Symfoniorkester, conducted by Jukka Iisakkila. But even when a sense of controlled chaos reigned-made all the more dramatic for having the palette of a large orchestra at her disposal-Haarla's irrepressible lyricism remained fundamental throughout.
Seim was, as ever, a marvel of patient melodic development, his unique ability to bend notes (stemming from studies of ethnic instruments in the Middle East) turning one particular a cappella moment, early in the performance, into a highlight all the more powerful for its understatement and restraint. Powell, a mid-twenties trumpeter who has been garnering increasing attention, changed the complexion of Haarla's quintet considerably with a more burnished, brassy tone that contrasted with Eick's softer, more breathy embouchure. Together with Seim, he created a more powerful and, at times, piercing presence, as capable of strong thematic ideation as he was more outré concerns.
Krokfors first gained attention in the late '80s/early '90s Finnish group Krakatau, which also included intrepid guitarist Raoul Björkenhiem and released two fine albums for ECM, Volition (1992) and Matinale (1994). Since that time, Krokfors has developed considerably as a bassist. His Umeå performance-as an accompanist, but particularly as a soloist, where he demonstrated a deep, robust tone, rare dexterity and, like his band mates, a concise sense of focus- was even more impressive than his 2010 Tampere Jazz Happening set, playing (along with Haarla) in Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen's fine quartet.
Like Powell, Kallio may not be well-known outside his country, though his performance with saxophonist Markus Hollko at Tampere Jazz Happening 2010 was certainly notable, and hopefully the exposure of working with Haarla will achieve greater international attention for both players. Kallio's ability to combine Christensen-like textural free play with a more definitive temporal sense when required, made him an ideal fit for the group, and one which will undoubtedly continue to change its complexion over time.
Haarla's writing moved from maelstrom-like turbulence to deeper melancholy and, ultimately, that gentle silence-approaching beauty which evokes so much promise at the start of each and every day. Whether it was more dramatic turns with the full orchestra or breakdowns into smaller subsets-such as a late-set trio with Krokfors, Seim and, on harp, Haarla-it was an evocative and provocative performance. The good news is that it was recorded, along with sessions over the next two days (in the same room, but without an audience). As it turned out, according to Seim later in the week, the majority of the best recordings came from the live show-no surprise, given the rapt audience's enthusiastic energy and response-so hopefully there will be a release of this project sometime soon.
Winner of the 2010 Young Nordic Jazz Comets, singer Isabel Sörling and her group-trumpeter Kim Aksnes, saxophonist Otis Sandsjö, pianist Henrik Magnusson, bassist Alfred Lorinius and drummer Carl-Johan Groth-delivered an early evening set that will surely go down as one of Umeå 2012's best shows. This group of young musicians from Gothenburg-selected to participate in the 12 Points Festival that has, for the past five years, brought attention to 12 young groups from 12 countries-drew heavily from Sörling's first album, Farve (Self Produced, 2012) from earlier this year, though the improv quotient was high and the stylistic purview broad.
In some ways, there were hints of '70s Rock in Opposition band Henry Cow in the way Farvel blended contemporary classical concerns with unconfined freedom, and the occasional rock edge. Sandsjö was a fountain of energy, blending extended techniques with flat-out skronking, while Aksnes was a more refined foil. Magnusson demonstrated remarkable restraint for a pianist so young, while Lorinius and Groth created a rhythm team with open ears, a firm sense of grounding and an ability to shift gears at the drop of a hat.
But as strong as the group was, all eyes, for the most part, were on Sörling, a singer capable of Björk-like sweetness one moment, strange ululations another, and high, piercing screeches the next. While the majority of her lyrics were in Swedish, the occasional English prose reflected at least some of the emotional space in which the singer lived:
once so small
child of god
saw it all
went so wrong
Not exactly uplifting lyrics, but Sörling and Farvel's performance-in turns spare and minimal, elsewhere harsh and aggressive-was but one sign of a vital Swedish scene that, alongside more established names, is clearly being reinvigorated by open-minded and far-reaching younger artists,
Though he's been busy in recent years playing with people like Dutch guitarist Marnix Busstra on Twelve Pieces (NYC, 2009) and Trinary Motion: Live in Europe (NYC, 2010), with Charlie Mariano on the late saxophonist's final recording, Crescent (NYC, 2010), and a reformed L'Image on 2.0 (NYC, 2010), vibraphonist Mike Mainieri has never forgotten the experiences in Norway that resulted in one of his finest recordings to date, Northern Lights (NYC, 2006).
Ever since his 2010 All About Jazz interview, Mainieri has been looking to reunite the group that made Northern Lights, though lining up a tour with players who, leaders all, have their own busy schedules, was no small task. Still, he finally managed to do it for a short European tour that brought him to Umeå with two players from the original recording- pianist/electronic manipulator Bugge Wesseltoft and saxophonist Bendik Hofseth-along with two new and well-known collaborators: double bassist Arild Andersen, one of the original "big five" that came to light in the early '70s on a series of now-classic recordings for ECM; and drummer Audun Kleive, a member of guitarist (and another one of the "big five") Terje Rypdal's Chasers band, as well as recent work with trumpeter's Arve Henriksen and Mathias Eick, not to mention two new releases of his own-Attack, with his Generator X band, and the solo Release (both Self Produced, 2012)
The quintet's set ranged from smoldering to flat-out smoking. With a few dates already under its collective belt, the group was absolutely in the pocket, with Andersen's deep, visceral lines aligning completely in the pocket with Kleive. Looking like a man 20 years his junior (it's almost impossible to believe he's 75), but playing like someone who has grown up through much of the history of jazz, Mainieri played like someone with nothing to prove but plenty to show.
Wesseltoft, whose Songs (Jazzland, 2012) proved it's possible to play in the tradition even if that tradition is foreign, was as delicate yet playful as ever, with plenty of eye contact between the pianist, Andersen (whose irrepressible smiles revealed another player with no shortage of mischief) and Kleive. Hofseth, an alum of Mainieri's longstanding Steps Ahead group, is a somewhat underrated player who still has plenty of cred, in particular for his work with Andersen and fellow Nord, pianist Ketil Bjørnstad. Like his bandmates, Hofseth moved from gentle lyricism to fiery energy, oftentimes within the confines of a single solo.
In a set being recorded for radio broadcast, Mainieri included some material from the album, in particular a softly grooving version of the jazz standard, "Nature Boy" (with an opening electronic salvo from Wesseltoft that culminated in a climax of iPad-driven sonics) and a brighter version of the album's original, "Vertigo." The set also featured a contemporary rework of the Indian traditional song, "Kannada," that first appeared on Twelve Pieces, as well as "R is for Riddle," which Mainieri introduced as a twelve-tone row.
One of the disadvantages of a festival like Umeå-not unlike North Sea Jazz (albeit on a smaller scale), with attendees purchasing day passes that allow them to attend all the shows in the various performance spaces in the UFH venue-is that people regularly come and go from performances, looking to catch bits of everything. What they miss, by doing so, is the arc of a great set. Mainieri-as inventive a player as ever, and a name that deserves to be spoken in the same breath as mallet players like Joe Locke, Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson and Stefon Harris-delivered a set that, beyond individual highlights (and there were many), was even more captivating when taken as a whole. It was a shame that so many people chose to move on during the set, as they missed out on a performance where the whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
When pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a tragic diving accident in 2008, putting to an end the remarkable 15-year run of e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio)-Europe's most successful jazz act, selling hundreds of thousands of albums, and already beginning to conquer North America-it was almost impossible to imagine its impact on his fellow trio mates, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström. They didn't just lose a band mate and a dear friend, they lost the gig that had been their almost exclusive focus for the past fifteen years. More like a rock band than a jazz trio, the members of e.s.t. worked as a band, with very few extracurricular activities.
And so, after a couple years of silence-and following, even more tragically, the remarkable Leucocyte (ACT, 2008), which signaled a band still growing and at that point, in considerable transition-both Berglund and Öström began making music again, but this time in their own groups: Berglund with his progressive rock-leaning Tonbruket, with two records out, including its debut, Tonbruket (ACT, 2010) and its follow-up, Dig It to the End (ACT, 2011); and Öström with Thread of Life (ACT, 2011). If Öström's debut as a leader was, perhaps, a tad underwhelming-good, yes, and loaded with plenty of the grooves for which Öström had become known, but lacking a little on the energy front-live, it was something else entirely...and in the best, most surprising way possible.
If the album's material left plenty of space for the group-including, in addition to Öström, keyboardist Gustaf Karlöf, electric guitarist Andreas Hourdakis and bassist Thobias Gabrielsson-live, Thread of Life dug into the music in a far more exhilarating way. Opening with "Afilia Mi," with its wordless theme sung by Öström, Gabrielsson and Hourdakis, let the audience know, in no uncertain terms, that this was going to be a high-energy set with plenty of solo space and some absolutely thundering grooves. Two young members of American saxophonist Kenny Garrett's group-also performing at Umeå but, sadly, missed in order to focus more on the Scandinavian acts- were seen near the front of the standing room section of the room, clearly digging on what they were hearing.
And why wouldn't they? If Hourdakis seemed like a capable guitarist on record, in performance he commanded a broader range of textures from his Gibson SG guitar, but focusing more often than not on a lightly overdriven, warm and reverb-drenched tone that went from biting one moment, to ethereal the next. Karlöf, while set up with electric keys, spent most of his time on an upright piano, and proved just as capable as Hourdakis in building dynamic, climax-driven solos. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Gabrielsson; a fine enough bassist on the record, performing live, he drove the music- both on bass and keyboards-with a stunning combination of unshakable anchor and occasional injections of impressive, Tony Levin-like slurs and leaps into the upper register.
With a kit augmented by a rack of small gongs as well as a table with electronics, Öström led from behind, which allowed him the opportunity for a busier approach to some of the material. His ability to twist, turn and flip time created a shifting underpinning that challenged both band and audience. A particular highlight came in a new song that- as it ultimately led to a massive ostinato that may have inadvertently referenced '70s Canterbury legend Hatfield and the North's similarly psychedelia-drenched "Shaving is Boring," from its eponymous 1974 Virgin Record debut-was referential rather than imitative, as Karlöf and Hourdakis took lengthy, unfettered solos. On the gentler side, "Ballad for E" may not have enjoyed the star power of guest guitarist Pat Metheny (who appeared on the record), but Hourdakis absolutely acquitted himself in his own inimitable fashion.
Closing with a more grounded version of Thread of Life's "Piano Break Song," Östrom and his group finished a set that combined complex progressive rock leanings with unequivocal fusion tendencies, all played with the kind of energy and commitment that comes from a band which has had the chance to evolve its material in performance. With a set like this, perhaps Öström's best next move would be a live recording.
October 27 started out with a fusion-lite performance by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knuttson and American bassist Tom Kennedy's quartet, which also featured impressive keyboardist Charlie Blenzig and drummer Thomas Ojala. Featuring chops aplenty, there was never any doubt that these folks could play, but with a setlist drawing from Kennedy's solo recordings-and albums by pianist Dave Grusin and guitarist Mike Stern-as energetic as it was, it never quite achieved liftoff. Solid grooves, nice charts and strong players does not always a great band make, and if this quartet's show was enjoyable and impressive in the moment, it sadly had little to distinguish itself as a memorable one.
On the other hand, sometimes just a pianist, a bassist and an elegant book of standards is all that's needed for a performance that's both sweet an memorable. Pianist Monica Danielsson may be best-known in Sweden by her married name, Dominique, under which she was an actress in the late '60s/early '70s. She was also member of Bäska Droppar, later changed to Solar Plexus, and cowrote the Eurovision hit song "You're Summer" with her husband Carl-Axel Dominique.
But for those of more international focus, its the Danielsson name that bears more significance. Bassist and brother Palle Danielsson has been a key member of a number of groups over the years, in particular pianist Keith Jarrett's "Belonging Quartet," also featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen-a group whose live, double-disc set Sleeper: Tokyo, April 16, 1979 (ECM, 2012), is one of the year's best archival releases. He's also been a longstanding member of British pianist John Taylor's trio with drummer Martin France, heard recently on Requiem for a Dreamer (2011) and Giulia's Thursdays (2012), both in the Italian Cam Jazz label.
Danielsson and Arild Andersen were, for many years, ECM's bassists of choice, and if their work on that esteemed label was undeniably of the tradition even if it wasn't always in the tradition-also imbued with the inescapable markers of their own Swedish and Norwegian cultures-the bassist's recording with his sister, Togetherness (Dominique Records, 2012), reveals, perhaps more than anywhere else, Danielsson's deep roots in and love of the American jazz tradition.
Danielsson and Dominique's Umeå set drew heavily from Togetherness, performing short but sweet versions of iconic standards like "Angel Eyes" and "Begin the Beguine," but also demonstrating their love of classical music with a gentle rendition of Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Dominique's greatest touchstone would have to be pianist Bill Evans, though her harmonic approach was more direct and, if similarly gentle, less impressionistic. Danielsson, a player for all occasions, kept the contexts clear and focused while his sister soloed, taking his own richly lyrical turns but, like his sibling, never overstaying his welcome.
Last seen in 2006 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, guitarist Pat Martino is another member of a group of aging musicians who, rather than slowing down, seem to be ramping up their activity. Two years shy of 70, Martino was an early success with a series of recordings for the Muse label, in the late '60s and early '70s, that positioned him as the torch-carrier for past legends like Wes Montgomery while formulating his own unmistakable approach, which he's further honed since his remarkable comeback from a brain aneurysm in 1980 that, leaving him with absolutely no memory, required him to learn his instrument all over again, from scratch.
Since then, he's released a series of fine records, but since signing with Joe Fields' HighNote label, he's returned to releasing an album a year, first with the 2011 quartet date, Undeniable: Live at Blues Alley, and this year with Alone Together (2012), a duo recording with pianist Bobby Rose that harkens back in concept, if not actual execution, to one if his early classics, 1976's We'll Be Together Again (Muse), with a then-twenty-something pianist who has since also gone on to bigger things, Gil Goldstein.
For his Umeå performance-and a European tour that will take him to Stockholm and Moscow, before returning to the United States for a visit to Chris' Jazz Café in his hometown of Philadelphia-Martino brought Pat Bianchi, an organist whose reputation is on the ascendance, and drummer Carmen Intorre, another promising young player. The set ranged from simmering swing and gentle blues to Latin balladry and an absolutely incendiary look at Martino's "The Great Stream," one of the three extended tracks that make the guitarist's Live! (Muse, 1972) an absolutely essential recording for anyone who wants to hear the straight line from Charlie Christian through Wes Montgomery and into the future.
Possessed of a rich, indigo tone that few others have been able to master with such effortless clarity and articulation, Martino was a marvel from start to finish. Bianchi managed to keep the bottom end swinging, even as he layered Leslie-drenched chords beneath Martino's rapid-fire phrases while delivering sizzling solos of his own-and Martino was nothing if not a democratic leader, giving his trio mates plenty of space as well. Intorre's ability to swing at any tempo was matched by his punctuating Martino's lines with effortless intuition, driving his trio mates on with a combination of grace and passion.
All told, it was a mainstream set that went nuclear on more than one occasion. Few guitarists possess Martino's ability to hang onto a phrase, repeating it with absolute precision as his band mates build the tension, only to release so powerfully that it was possible to feel it throughout the audience-in this case, a packed house.
From there it was off to a set so completely different that it highlighted one of Umeå Jazz Festival's great strengths: a mixed program so diverse which, in addition to having something for everyone, by allowing the audience to sample any show helps to stretch its audience. Some festivals aim to please; others aim to please and to challenge, and Umeå is one of the latter.
Singer Tone Åse and Food/Humcrush percussionist Thomas Strønen released their debut as a duo this year, Voxpheria (Gigafon, 2012), and if each is beyond capable as an acoustic instrumentalist-Åse possessing a soft-toned and very appealing voice, Strønen a drummer capable of strong pulse, textural abandon and everything in between-it's their infusion of electronics into the mix that gives this duo its distinct specificity.
Åse may be less known on the international stage, but she's been garnering significant attention in her home country for her participation/leadership in Trondheim Voices, an experimental outfit that, not unlike Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen, searches the the roads less traveled (though ones significantly different from those trodden by Endresen), exploring the intimate relationships between singer, sound and movement. Åse was also a member of Kvitrettena female vocal quartet that released three recordings between 1996 and 2002, and featured three other Norwegian stars in the making, who have all gone onto own independent successes: Kristin Asbjørnsen, who was a key member of pianist Tord Gustavsen's ensemble on Restored, Returned (ECM, 2009) in addition to her own recordings; Solveig Slettahjell, last heard on the wonderful duo recording with In the Country keyboardist Morten Qvenild, Antologie (Universal Norway, 2012); and Eldbjørg Raknes, who (in addition to making a series of forward- thinking recordings), has been teaching at the renowned Trondheim Conservatory (now called Trondheim NTNU) for some time, and has recently been promoted to the position of Associate Professor.
Åse is also known for her trio, Bol, with Strønen's Humcrush partner, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, and drummer Tor Haugerud, and whose numb, Number (Gigafon, 2012) is an intrepid collaboration with guitarists Stian Westerhus and Motorpsycho's Snah. It's all reflective of a Norwegian scene that has more going on than many countries much larger, and yet is defined by ongoing collaborations across its entire spectrum. Strønen's work with Food and Humcrush is only one aspect of his larger purview, but one thing he has proven in both contexts is that he's capable of creating a surprising amount of sound from his kit and electronics-both of which are so tightly integrated that it's oftentimes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.
In the first of two free improvisations lasting about an hour, the duo began in quirky quietude, but gradually began to build as Strønen focused largely on bells and cymbals, which he sampled and expanded onto the duo's soundstage. Traces of Endresen could be heard in Åse's more mellifluous moments, but unlike the older, completely acoustic singer, Åse began to process her voice, adding two, sometimes three layers of harmony, as well as inserting spoken word and singing samples, and real-time looping. As a pulse insidiously began to assert itself, Åse proved herself capable of a wonderfully warm delivery, sometimes as quiet as a whisper and, while never exactly becoming a roar, certainly building, along with Strønen, to momentary climaxes that led to new and unexpected directions.
A second improv, based on the idiosyncratic poetry of e.e. cummings, was more aggressive than the first, as the duo created a wash of sound that was, perhaps, unexpected from just two performers, but with their use of electronics as natural and seamless as their acoustic instruments, anything-and everything-clearly became possible.
SInce the release of This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (Rune Grammofon, 2005), Norwegian piano trio In the Country has evolved a sound and built an audience that has no issue with taking a rather conventional format and twisting it into a brand new shape. While acoustic piano, double bass and drums have always formed the core of In the Country, on its subsequent recordings-2006's Losing Stones, Collecting Bones, 2009's ambitious Whiteout and 2011's live CD/DVD combo, Sounds and Sights (all on Rune Grammofon)-the trio of Morten Qvenild (piano, keyboards, vocals), Roger Arntzen (double bass, vocals) and Pål Hauskens (drums, percussion, vocals) has gone through its own shifts, moving increasingly towards song form and more vocals. None of the trio's members have what might be considered a great voice in conventional terms, but both Hauskens and Qvenild, in particular, are perfectly suited to In the Country's fragile, often deeply personal subject matter.
There was, however, considerably less singing at the group's Umeå performance than a year ago at its Festival International de Jazz de Montréal show, where the trio even reached beyond its own compositional framework for a very personal look at guitarist Mark Knopfler's title track to the Dire Straits hit album, Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros, 1985). On the other hand, as fine as In the Country has been in concert, consistent in its absolute consistency, even those who've seen the group numerous times since 2006 agreed that its Umeå set-with the venue packed to the rafters-was one of its best ever, and one of the highlights of Umeå 2012.
With a projection screen above the band displaying black and white imagery-some moving, some still, of running water, forestry and wildlife-the group introduced a number of pieces from its just-recorded fifth album, to be released by Rune Grammofon in February, 2013. If this performance was anything to go by, then this may well be another leap forward for a group that has been making significant steps with each recording. With everyone performing at the top of their game, special props must go to Hauskens, who has never sounded better. Always a drummer concerned with texture-whether it's towels draped over his drums to mute the sound, large bamboo brush-like sticks to allow him to play with a certain amount power at lower volumes, or attaching a percussion instrument to his left foot so that he can use them in time with the rest of his kit-Hauskens has also always been a player with wide-open ears. On this night he seemed especially connected, which was a very good thing because Qvenild was soloing with particular strength as well.
Qvenild's current doctoral studies are based around his concept of "hyper piano," an organic and seamless blend of the acoustic and electric. From the beginning of the trio's show it was clear that at least some of his studies were beginning to bear fruit as he treated his piano both with acoustic preparations and electronic processes. Arntzen was, as ever, the modicum of simplicity and perfection in his spare choices. Older material included Whiteout's "Kung Fu Boys," here played with more fire than usual, and an even more vulnerable version of the Sound and Sights' haunting, melancholic "Slow Down." The end result was a truly triumphant performance that garnered both a standing ovation-and in Umeå, where they were clearly not handed out perfunctorily, that meant something-and a well-deserved demand for an encore.
Along with Isabel Sörling Farvel, England's World Service Project was another high point of the 2011 edition of the 12 Points Festival. Not only does the festival create a platform for young acts to be heard by fans and the media, but in the last couple years it has implemented a new initiative called 12 Points Plus, where three groups are selected to go on a European tour, in order to further expose them to an even larger audience. As interested in promoting up-and-coming bands as it is legacy acts, Umeå is an active participant in 12 Points Plus, and this year's edition brought three groups to the festival: France's Actuum, Poland's Maciej Obara Quintet, and England's World Service Project. If time and too many choices made it, sadly, impossible to catch Actuum and Obara, it's a good thing that World Service Project wasn't missed, as this young group-ranging in age from 21 to 26-is clearly one deserving a close eye and ear.
Beyond its own music, WSP has been involved in an ongoing project/festival called Match and Fuse, bringing together groups from various countries. The 2012 edition brought groups like The Netherlands' Tin Men and the Telephone (one of the absolute high points of the recent Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2012), Norway's Pixel and Synoke, and England's Led Bib and WSP. What became clear, upon speaking to WSP keyboardist Dave Morecroft, was that this is a very, very bright group of young players who is taking its career by the horns and using everything at its disposal to gain recognition.
The group's debut, 2010's Relentlessm (Brooke Records), demonstrated no shortage of promise from the quintet-at the time including, in addition to Morecroft, saxophonist Tim Ower, trombonist Raphael Clarkson, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Neil Blandford. Blandford has subsequently been replaced by Michael Clowes and, if anything, based on its Umeå performance, the group has made significant strides in a relatively short period of time: greater confidence, a much greater injection of humor and overall craziness into the proceedings, and a much stronger group identity. Songs like "De-Friender," which Morecroft introduced with its relevance to the Facebook age, was loaded with knotty stops and starts. An unrelenting pulse moved from thundering rock beats to up-tempo swing in a heartbeat, before dropping down into a free section that began with Morecroft, Clarkson and Ower in trio, but soon paradoxically built up and dissolved further when Chaplin and Clowes joined the party.
And, as jagged and sharp-cornered as so much of Morecroft's music was, there was, indeed, a party atmosphere from a band that was clearly having fun as, in the same tune, it broke down into a polka beat that evolved into a disco beat...and then stopped entirely, only for the whole band to rejoin with even greater power. "Fire in a Pet Shop"- like "De-Friender," appearing on the group's 2012 self-produced EP, Live from London, things got downright silly when Morecroft and Clowes began making animal noises, ranging from monkeys to cats. But silly is good, especially when you've a group this talented, this together and this promising. Chaplin looks like he's barely begun shaving (though he is, in fact, 21 years old), and the rest of the band looks like it's only a couple years older. But World Service Project is a band that, as outrageous as some of its music can be, takes its business very seriously, with Morecroft and Clarkson attending two daytime panels-one on trends and tendencies in jazz, and the other on jazz media-and participating in them with the kind of interest that is rarely seen in such educational programming at festivals.
There's no doubt that World Service Project is a group with promise, and one committed to self-promotion at a time when it's absolutely essential, especially for young, up-and- coming bands. But with performances like its incendiary Umeå set, and a new record on the horizon, if there's any band that's doing everything right, and deserves all the acclaim it can handle, it's World Service Project. Stay tuned: there's clearly plenty more to come.
There are plenty of jazz festivals in the world, but few with someone like Lennart Strömback at its helm; a presenter with big ears and an even bigger heart, his clear and profound appreciation for everyone who helped make Umeå Jazz Festival a reality was felt from the moment of being picked up at the airport upon arrival. As much as possible, Strömback puts a personal touch on the festival, including providing some great lunch and dinner spreads for artists, media and other invited guests. When you're eating in the same place that all the artists are, it's an opportunity to network and, more than that, just have some fun before, in-between, and after the shows. Transparency that makes everyone accessible is something seen more in European festivals than in North America, but Strömback goes a step further, and really makes it feel like one big working party.
On the Sunday following the festival's last night of international performances, Strömback showed his appreciation by putting on a dinner for any of the remaining guests, as well as for all the volunteers who worked so hard, and with so little sleep, to make the 2012 edition a success. His speech to the crowd made his love and appreciation clear, but it didn't end there. An evening directed by pianist Mathias Landæus-whose 2009 recording with bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Fålt (Bobo Stenson Trio, Lekverk), Opening (Mare Recordings), is an impressive date of originals and a couple of standards-was more party than performance, though there were some very good performances. A number of outstanding musicians formed the house band-most of them local (as well as a guest performance by saxophonist Jonas Knutsson)-supporting a series of singers which ranged from a stunningly beautiful four-piece female vocal group to a duo that delivered some Swedish hip hop with plenty of spirit. By the end of the evening, the entire audience was up dancing, bringing Umeå to a close on a very personal note for everyone involved.
It was this kind of personal touch that-along with outstanding performances from artists known and unknown, established and up-and-coming, and young and old-gave Umeå its distinct personality; hopefully this first visit to a small town, nestled in Northern Sweden, won't be the last.
All Photos: John Kelman