Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013
Back in town, still cold from the experience up on Mount Hangur, there was a good opportunity to rest up and warm up at Gamelkinoen, a venue just up the street from the Park Hotel, where saxophonist Tore Brunborg was unveiling his commission for the festival, YM (a local expression meaning "sound that comes from afar")a multimedia piece intended as a celebration of the festival's 40th anniversary. With a group that included guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Steiner Raknes and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, Brunborg's show was heavy on atmosphere as it combined compelling visuals, spoken word delivered both by the authors and, in film clips, Voss residents; it wasn't necessary to know Norwegian to feel the love of the piece, both for the festival and its location.
Aarsetbeyond the atmospherics that have been a signature since he first emerged, both as the guitarist in trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's band and for his own series of recordings, beginning with 1998's much-lauded Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998) through to his recent leader debut for ECM Records, Dream Logic (2012)played considerably more "guitaristically" than usual, with clear, chiming chords and gentle melodies that dovetailed with Brunborg's spare melodism.
The pair were driven gently by Raknes (brother of singer Eldbjørg and a member of violinist Ola Kvernberg's Folk (Jazzland, 2009) trio and post-Coltrane quartet the Core, heard on recordings like Office Essentials (Jazzland, 2008)) and Johansen, a member of The Source, last encountered on its eponymous 2009 ECM recording, singer Solveig Slettahjell's Slow Motion project, heard last on Tarpan Seasons (Universal Norway, 2010), and pianist Christian Wallumrod's ensemble's recordings, including Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM, 2010).
Programming music at the right time is sometimes as much a challenge as programming it in the right sequence, and beyond the soft, warm lyricism of this special and heartfelt project for Vossa Jazz's 40th anniversary, it couldn't have been performed at a better timea perfect mid-afternoon concert that, in its relaxed ambience and occasional humor, provided a comfortable respite and preparation for the long evening of music ahead.
With more music from which to choose, a commitment to attend a special dinner for commissioned artists and guests in order to experience the local, um, delicacy of sheep's head, and only so much time, there was really only one choice: Tingingsverk 2013, the festival's main commission which, this year, was awarded to multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen.
The word "genius" gets bantered about a lot in music writing, but few artists truly fit the definition. Carstensen is one of them, however; a musician who was already garnering attention in Norway at the age of eight, when he appeared on NRK (the country's public television station), performing a piece called "Dizzy Fingers" on accordion:
Since then a lot has happened. Aside from making his accordion MIDI-capable and picking up a variety of other instruments, including banjo, guitar, pedal steel guitar and kaval (a Baltic end-blown flute)and spending time around the world learning various cultural ornamentation approaches to these instrumentsCarstensen has also revealed himself to be a remarkable composer, most of the time for his group Farmers Market, whose 2012 release, Slav to the Rhythm (Division Records) is hands-down its best recording to datea staggering pan-cultural blend of folks traditions, progressive rock leanings and muscular fusion tendencies. That Slav was announced as winner of the 2012 Norwegian Grammy Awards, in the Open Category, the same evening as Carstensen's Vossa Jazz performance, only served to further highlight this remarkable instrumentalist/composer's work and the growing (and well-deserved) acclaim he's been garnering.
Carstensen took advantage of his Vossa Jazz commission to put together a much larger band centered around the core rhythm trio of Farmers MarketCarstensen, bassist Finn Guttormsen and drummer Jarle Vespestadbut with the inclusion of violinists Ola Kvernberg and Atle Sponberg, cellist Mats Rondin, harpist Sidsel Walstad and keyboardist/singer Torbjorn Dyrud, Carstensen had a much larger sonic palette from which to shape his characteristically episodic, complex yet irrefutably fun compositions.
And fun was a big part of the performance. He may have been playing in mixed meters, whistling staggering melodies as he played them in unison on accordion, or engaging with Vespestad and Guttormsen in a knotty percussion trio on three large marching band drums, but from the moment he took to the stage it was clear just how much joy was involved for Carstensen, as he encouraged everyone in his group and, when taking his own solos, played with facial expressions that ranged from puckish mischief to unfettered joy.
The music ran a broad gamut of styles, incorporating the Baltic music that has so clearly enthralled Carstensen for years, along with unexpected (or, with Carstensen at the helm, perhaps not) moments of contemporary classicism as suddenly, the music stopped, leaving a string trio and harp to deliver moments of delicate, elegant beauty. From Bach to rock, from Baroque to Bond (that's James Bond), Carstensen's octet navigated a complex route, where some whammy bar-driven surf guitar on a baritone electric was juxtaposed with strange but beautiful instrumental combinations, plus a very brief passage of just harp and pedal steel guitar, suggesting a pairing that should perhaps be explored further.
Carstensen's effortless mastery was mirrored by every one of his band matesthat many of the musicians onstage were playing this challenging music without the help of charts was just one more surprise in a show filled with thembut special mention needs to go to Kvernberg, a young violinist who, beyond his own recordings like Folk and the even more ambitious Liarbird (Jazzland, 2011), has quickly become one of the country's most in-demand violinists, putting in a terrific appearance on psychedelic rock group Motorpsycho's collaboration with Elephant9 keyboardist Ståle Storløkken on The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon, 2012). Like Carstensen, Kvernberg seems capable of fitting into any context, whether it's the Manouche of his early days on the Hot Club of Norway label, or the pedal-to-the-floor progressive fusion of Grand General, a young supergroup with members of Motorpsycho, the Core and Bushman's Revenge, and whose eponymous 2013 Rune Grammofon debut is an early contender for the year's "best of" list. Paired with Carstensen, and especially during passages where they were playing off one another, it was clear that Carstensen had found a likeminded virtuoso.
Walstad was equally impressive; a classical player who clearly had no problem stretching herself beyond the usual confines of her gig with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Like Walstad, Dyrud's background is in classical music, having worked as a church organist, conductor of the vocal group Ginnunhagap and the Oslo Chamber Choir, and a composer of a cappella vocal pieces including "Love Song In," which won the 2004 TONO Edvard award. But his reach is clearly even further; whether he was adding organ and piano parts to the rockier passages of Carstensen's cross-cultural musical mesh, making sudden switches to harpsichord for periodic moments of soft classicism, or singing the suitably satirical and Carstensen-esque encore about the inevitable progression (?) of marriage, Dyrud established himself, over the course of the performance, as a musician whose career needs to be checked out further.
As for Carstensen? His effortless virtuosity has been a given for years, whether it's in the context of Farmers Market or the more intimate confines of his Little Radio duo with British saxophonist Iain Ballamy, heard recently opening for pianist Michel Legrand at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, England. As much as Farmers Market affords him complete freedom to do what he will, this commission went further; by giving him the opportunity to work with a larger ensemble and take advantage of its richer orchestral possibilities, it raised his game even further. Hopefully this won't be the only performance of this music. More importantly, hopefully it will find its way onto a recording sometime soon, so that folks unable to catch him in his native Norway will be able to hear what all the buzz is about.