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Live Reviews

Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013

By Published: April 10, 2013
March 13: March 22: Mehliana / Emilia Mårtensson / Stian Westerhus / Alex Riel and Stefan Pasborg

If the festival was meant to kick off on a high note, that was unfortunately scuttled by pianist Brad Mehldau's new project with drummer Mark Guiliana, Mehliana. After opening ceremonies for the festival, Mehldau appeared onstage with just a Fender Rhodes and a synthesizer, while Guiliana's kit was augmented by a laptop computer. And that's where the problem began. This isn't the first time Mehldau has dabbled in electric instruments; 2002's Largo (Warner Bros.) was an intriguing and engaging record that, produced by pop songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Job Brion, demonstrated that Mehldau's palette was far broader than his already successful series of Art of the Trio recordings—recently collected in a seven-disc box (Nonesuch, 2011)—with the pianist writing arrangements for brass and woodwinds, and playing, in addition to his usual grand piano, a Fender Rhodes, synthesizer, vibraphone and percussion, in a set of largely original compositions, with one Beatles tune and one Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
1927 - 1994
piano
tune thrown into the mix.



What made the record good was its blend of acoustic and electric instruments, and the existence of predetermined form around which Mehldau used a wider array of instruments than usual to color his sonic canvas. Here, in Voss, it seemed largely improvised, and while Mehldau's technical acumen and improvisational skills are irrefutable, coming to a country where the integration of acoustic and electric instrumentation is so organic, so effortlessly natural—and with a disproportionately large number of musicians—was a gutsy move which, sadly, didn't succeed particularly well. When compared to Norwegians like pianists Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft
b.1964
piano
, {Splashgirl}}'s Andreas Stensland Løwe, In The Country
In The Country
In The Country

band/orchestra
's Morten Qvenild and Eple Trio
Eple Trio
Eple Trio

band/orchestra
's Andreas Ulvo
Andreas Ulvo
Andreas Ulvo
b.1983
piano
, Mehldau's use of electronics seemed rather rudimentary and obvious, rather than the seamless manner in which these musicians manage to integrate electronic instrumentation into their overall approach.

Equally, Guiliana is undeniably a fine drummer—first coming to attention in Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen
Avishai Cohen
Avishai Cohen
b.1971
bass
's group but, in the years since, working with everyone from saxophonist Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
b.1966
saxophone
and pianist Jason Lindner to guitarists Brad Shepik
Brad Shepik
Brad Shepik

guitar
and Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke
b.1973
guitar
—and clearly a player with an intuitive ability as similarly fine-tuned as Mehldau's. But it just didn't seem to work. Perhaps it was the evening; perhaps it was, indeed, being in a country where what the duo was striving to achieve sonically seemed a little rudimentary—certainly the duo's reviews elsewhere have ranged from positive to positively glowing. But as an opening set for Vossa Jazz, with many people leaving the large Vossasaken Hall in the Park Hotel from as early as the first couple numbers, it may have looked like a strong contender on paper but, sadly it fell a little short. As Mehldau continues to stretch his boundaries with other duos including Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile, pianist Kevin Hays
Kevin Hays
Kevin Hays
b.1968
keyboard
and saxophonist Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
b.1969
saxophone
—their 2011 duo performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival being a highlight of that event's year—hopefully his work with Guiliana will continue to evolve and improve.

Elsewhere at the Park Hotel, Emilia Mårtensson was delivering a beautifully restrained set that supported the accolades the singer has been garnering since making guest appearances on Britain's Kairos 4tet's two releases—2009's self-produced debut, Kairos Moment and its Edition Records follow-up, two years later, Statement of Intent, which won the group the 2011 MOBO Award. Her own debut on the small, but important independent Babel label, And So It Goes... (2012), only further serves to explain why Britain's The Observer dubbed her "The New Face of British Jazz 2012."

That Mårtensson had to leave her native Sweden for the UK to gain attention is curious, but the new London-resident has clearly found her place. And So It Goes... is a duo recording with pianist Barry Greene
Barry Greene
b.1961
guitar, electric
, but for her Vossa Jazz performance, Mårtensson brought the quartet with whom she's been working regularly—in addition to Green, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer/percussionist Adriano Adewale. In the packed and absolutely perfect club-like environment of the intimate Huskort room, she and her group clearly felt comfortable and at home delivering material from the recording, which puts new spins on contemporary tunes like James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" and Peter Gabriel's "Washing of the Water," in addition to covering Egberto Gismonti
Egberto Gismonti
Egberto Gismonti
b.1947
guitar, acoustic
's "Palhaço," first heard on the Brazilian pianist/guitarist's Circense (Carmo, 1980) but more recently found on ECM Records' unearthed archival 1981 live performance of his "Magico" Trio with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
and bassist Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
b.1937
bass, acoustic
on Carta de Amor (ECM, 2012).

Her bio makes it clear that, growing up in Sweden, the twenty-something singer was more enamored with jazz vocal legends like Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
and Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day
1919 - 2006
vocalist
than pop icons of her generation or singer/songwriters of years past like Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
and Tom Waits
Tom Waits
Tom Waits
b.1949
vocalist
, making her near-Spartan delivery all the more surprising...and refreshing. With a sympathetic band and a delivery high on substance and low on flash, the only unfortunate thing was leaving the set before it was over, in order to make a bus to the next show...

...which was a surprise performance, announced only a couple days prior to the festival. With guitarist Stian Westerhus in town for a duo performance with singer Sidsel Endresen, the festival decided to add another show that married Voss' extreme sports predilections with a guitarist whose own reputation as a fearless risk-taker made it an ideal marriage.

Opened about a year ago, Voss' wind tunnel has already become an immensely popular visitor destination. And why not? In a tube-like tunnel, an artificially generated wind makes it possible to find out what it's like to actually fly—and, unlike real-deal sports like skydiving and paragliding, in a completely safe environment. But with a relatively tiny room outside the glass-enclosed wind tunnel, there was room for, perhaps, forty or so people to watch as Westerhus delivered a 30-minute free improvisation in concert with trained skydivers, who seemed to be utterly locked in with him as he ran the gamut from harsh angularity to periods of profound beauty that remained unorthodox in their approach, with Westerhus slapping and scratching the strings of his guitar as often as he flat-picked or bowed them, all fed through four amplifiers and a massive array of effects pedals on the floor.

Westerhus' most recent recording, the superb but enigmatically titled The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012), took advantage of the 20 second-plus delay of the Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo. Here, set up outside the wind tunnel, he was back to a more normal acoustic environment but was, as always, focused so deeply, so intently on his in-the-moment creations that by the time the short set was over, he was drenched in sweat and clearly exhausted but, just as clearly, thoroughly invigorated.

As many as four skydivers were in the wind tunnel at the same time, doing everything from coordinated spinning movements to unfettered improvisational choreography that, in its seemingly joined-at-the-hip responses to Westerhus' music, was all the more remarkable when it became clear that, between the loud noise generated by the wind tunnel (but kept separate from the audience by some remarkable soundproofing) and the ear plugs and helmets meant to protect the skydivers' hearing, they couldn't hear the guitarist at all. Instead, a man situated by the entry door to the wind tunnel gave the skydivers hand signals to help them coordinate with the music.

Any chance to hear Westerhus play solo is worthy of attention; but with Vossa Jazz's commitment to bringing extreme sports together with its sometimes equally extreme music, it was a show that the small but enthusiastic audience—bussed, conveniently, from the Park Hotel and back again when the show was over—will not soon forget. Nor will Westerhus, who later took advantage of a chance to try the wind tunnel himself, about which he enthused, the following evening, "It was the experience of a lifetime; the most incredible thing I've ever done." Strong words, indeed, coming from such an intrepid musician whose own risk-taking aesthetic is hard to match.



Vossa Jazz, for those with strong dispositions, runs well into the wee hours of the morning; many festivals sport midnight shows, but Vossa Jazz goes further, with its last shows starting at 2:00am. A midnight show at Fraktgodsen, a converted freight building behind the train station, brought together two drummers—renowned Dane Alex Riel
Alex Riel
Alex Riel
b.1940
drums
and his godson, Stefan Pasborg—for a Scandinavian project called Another Universe, which teamed them with Norwegian saxophonist Petter Wettre, rising star Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and Danish organist Jeppe Tuxen. Well known Danish pianist Carsten Dahl
Carsten Dahl
Carsten Dahl
b.1967
was also meant to appear, but had to pull out at the last minute, due to illness.

It was a largely mainstream set, with plenty of blowing space for everyone, including the two drummers. Approaching 73, Riel, over the course of a career now in its sixth decade, has played with everyone from saxophonist Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
to singer Karin Krog
Karin Krog
Karin Krog
b.1937
vocalist
, and was part of a one-time performance at the 2010 Molde Jazz Festival that brought him together with vibraphonist Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton
b.1943
vibraphone
, saxophonist Tommy Smith
Tommy Smith
Tommy Smith
b.1967
saxophone
and bassist Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
b.1945
bass, acoustic
. Pasborg has no shortage of jazz cred, either, as founder of the independent ILK Music label and member of bands like Free Moby Dick (scheduled to perform Saturday night at Vossa Jazz); still, his playing demonstrated there are other sources in his pedigree, especially clear each time the two drummers entered into a cappella trade-offs with one another.

Without Dahl, Tuxen was left to carry a lot of additional weight in the band, from chordal accompaniment to bass pedal support. Perhaps a reflection of this unexpected additional responsibility, he proved himself capable but not particularly memorable, especially in light of having heard organist Larry Goldings
Larry Goldings
Larry Goldings
b.1968
keyboard
with guitarist John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
's Organic Trio in Burghausen, Germany a couple weeks back. Pohjola, while blessed with a lovely tone and as good set of ears, seemed equally out of his depth, his own projects considerably distanced from the American tradition. Beyond Riel and Pasborg, the only player who really appeared comfortable in this context was Wettre who, beyond studies with saxophonist Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
(a perfect match, considering Liebman's Brooklyn background and Wettre's admirably outspoken character), gained some international attention a couple years back, replacing saxophonist Tore Brunborg on tour with drummer Manu Katche
Manu Katche
Manu Katche
b.1958
drums
when the group regular was unable to make it. Wettre's understanding of the American tradition runs deep, and it was only when he soloed that the music really began to take off.

It was a fine set of straight-ahead jazz to round out a first day at Vossa Jazz that may have started out on shaky ground, but gradually found its legs as the evening progressed, and bode extremely well for the following day when both the Ekstremjazz performance by Jøkleba! and a new commissioned work from Stian Carstensen promised to be festival highlights.


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