Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013
Vossa Jazz's Ekstremjazz afternoon is one of its touchstones, one of its unmistakable differentiators. On an afternoon where a musical performance is combined with extreme sports to create a stunning audiovisual experience high up on Mount Hangur, with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and the town of Voss, what they don't tell you is it's something of an extreme experience for the audience as well.
The first part seemed easy enough: a cable car to a point about halfway up the mountain where, in the preceding days, helicopters flew up generators, gear and equipment to clear a flat surface in the snow to use as a stage. But that wasn't the end of it; a 350 meter walk might not seem like much, but when it's going down a snow-covered mountain where it's so steep, at times, that ropes were provided for assistance, the only thought going on during the trek down the mountain was: "After the show I have to climb back up?" Best not to worry about that until later.
After about a 20-25 minute climb down the mountain, a few intrepid journalists, traveling together, made it just in time for the performance by Jøkleba!, the super group of keyboardist Jon Balke, drummer Audun Kleive and trumpeter/percussionist/vocalist Per Jorgensen. Jøkleba! performed for the first time in over a decade at the 2011 Vossa Jazz festival, a show that went down as the best of the year for many of those in attendance. It dovetailed nicely with the reissue of the group's self-titled 1992 debut, along with an additional disc of unreleased material, Jøkleba!/nu jøk? (Universal Norway, 2011), even as it only happened when bassist Dave Holland was forced to pull out at the last minute due to family illness and Balke, Kleive and Jørgensen agreed to fill in at the last moment.
As exciting as that show must have been, it took place in the town; high up on Mount Hangur two years later, Jøkleba! delivered an hour-long performance that would have been stunning on its own, but became even more spectacular for the coordinated paragliders, skiers, dancers and other sports people who would appear, at times, high in the skybarely a pinpoint against the bright blue sky and bright, thankfully warm midday sunlightonly to slowly circle their way around the vast space between the mountains, to finally land nearby the white expanse of snow that served as Jøkleba!'s stage.
It may have been the first official day of spring, but up on Mount Hangur, sitting on the snow and even with the sun, it was cold; all the more amazing, then, that Balke, Kleive and Jørgensen were able to play with such dexterity, let alone such profound musicality. Kleivewho came to international attention as a member of Terje Rypdal's Chasers but has since become a much in-demand player, in addition to a leader in his own right, with two new releases on the go: Attack (POL, 2012), with his Generator X band, and Release (POL, 2012), a collaboration with Punkt Festival co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoréused only an electronic kit, similar to that used in his 2011 Nattjazz performance with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and percussionist Helge Norbakken, creating sounds that ranged from otherworldly electronic pulses to more recognizable percussion textures.
Balke, whose Magnetic North Orchestrarecently heard on the two-disc collection Magnetic Works: 1993-2001 (ECM, 2012)has garnered world acclaim and positioned him as one of Norway's most important composers. Like Kleive, he also had only a single electric keyboard and laptop. But he had an instantly recognizable sound palette, especially on the low end; assuming a more orchestral role with the trio, he built harmonic motion that sounded preconceived in its sometimes songlike construction but was, in fact, created in the moment. Few free improvising units sound as focused and form-based as Jøkleba!, even as the trio moved seamlessly from abstract impressionism to funk and even gospel-tinged balladry.
Jørgensen has been one of Norway's best kept secrets for the longest time, though that's slowly changing, both through his participation in Magnetic North Orchestra and on internationally available recordings like Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs (ECM, 2010), a deeply beautiful trio recording of religious music linked to pagan culture combined with psalms stemming from Russian Orthodoxy that also featured Finnish pianist Samuli Mikkonen and drummer Markku Ounaskari (who was in town for a performance with singer/kantele player Sinikka Langeland the following afternoon).
A trumpeter clearly rooted, at least in part, in the Miles Davis traditionespecially when the trio moved into a kind of spare jungle funk reminiscent of Davis' early '70s electric groups, but with far less densityhe's also a singer as capable of visceral yelps and ululations as a more fragile lyricism. He's always been a tremendously charismatic performer and here, situated a good five meters from Balke and Kleive, who were set up side-by-side near a small hut, he may have looked distanced from his trio mates, but musically it was as if he was connected at the hippushing and pulling, in concert with Balke and Kleive, to create a continuous performance that traversed broad musical territory, with change often instigated by the slightest of musical suggestions from any one of Jøkleba!'s members.
It was an exceptional performance made all the more so by the beauty of the day and the visuals both natural and constructed by the extreme sports folks. And while it may have been a long, hard walk back up to the cable car for the trip back down the mountainsome intrepid folks actually deciding to try the dangerous walk down the mountain from the performance spacebut it was a trip well worth taking, and a show that will resonate for a long, long time to come.