Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013
Vossa Jazz's final day started early (11:30am) and ended early (10:30pm, leaving plenty of time to hit the overnight train to Oslo, the first leg of a long trip back home to Canada), but amongst a number of these fine shows, two must-sees stood out.
Sinikka Langeland has been on the Norwegian scene for many years, releasing a number of fine recordings in Norway, based on either folk or classical traditions; but it was with the release of the sublime Starflowers (ECM, 2007) that she finally showed up on the international radar. The singer and kantele playera plucked member of the dulcimer/zither familyhas been exploring the music of Norway dating back to mediaeval times through to Norwegian folk hymns and Bach chorales since Langt Innpå Skoga (Grappa, 1994),but it was with Runoja (Heilo/Grappa, 2002) that, with the recruitment of trumpeter Arve Henriksen, she began to form the group that would eventually coalesce with Starflowers and continue with The Land That Is Not (ECM, 2011), an ensemble also featuring saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Markky Ounaskari.
Henriksen was not available for Langeland's Sunday afternoon performance at Osasalen, another venue situated a short five-minute walk from the Park Hotel, but while it would be difficult to ever say the trumpeter's presence wasn't missed, the remaining quartet certainly sounded no less complete without him; the only thing the group missed, during its early afternoon show, was the inevitable interaction between Henriksen and Seim, but in a show that drew heavily from her two ECM group recordings, the saxophonist simply assumed a more central role. Still, as a player whose interest in improvisation is one that eschews meaningless demonstrations of virtuosityand as one of Norway's most important composers to emerge post-Balke on albums like Different Rivers (ECM, 2001) and Sangam (ECM, 2005)Seim played with characteristic restraint, his tone on tenor and curved soprano as inimitable as ever, his curious ability to bend notes and play microtonally the result of significant time spent studying in the Middle East, and his strength in evoking melodies redolent of his country's tradition as unmistakable as always.
Jorminperhaps better known for past tenures with American saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, and his ongoing partnership in pianist Bobo Stenson's triomay have been at a disadvantage, with his bass lost in transit and performing on a borrowed instrument, but if he was working any harder to achieve his characteristic singing tone, nobody could have noticed. Ounasakariwho has certainly been getting around since he recorded > Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs, also appearing in the Fugara (DNL, 2012) quartet, with pianist Stevko Busch, trumpeter Markus Stockhausen and saxophonist Paul Van Kemenade and, earlier in the naughties, Brutto Gusto (Challenge, 2003), with Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimanswas his characteristically sensitive self; capable of delicately moving the pulse forward with the gentlest of cymbal work but equally able to imbue the music with more power and drive when required.
But as superb as the entire group was, it was hard pull attention away from Langeland. Her playing on the kantele was a revelation; her singing a perfect combination of vulnerability and effortless power. The kantele is a much broader instrument, when it comes to range, than it might appear in photos, and Langeland's mastery of the instrument was even more impressive live than her recorded performances suggest. Combined with Jormin's soaring tone, Ounaskari's textural intuition and Seim's unfailingly perfect choices, it made for an afternoon performance evocative of sweeping images of barren landscapes and almost painful beautyone that will not soon be forgotten.
The same can be said for the late afternoon performance by Trio Mediaeval, billed as the Trio Mediaeval Ensemble because, in addition to its three singers, the group was augmented by violinist/viola d'amore and Hardanger fiddler Nils Oklandheard just a few evenings back in Oslo with drummer Thomas Stronenand percussionist Birger Mistereggen, who accompanied the trio on Folk Songs (ECM, 2007), an album that broke the mold with the rest of the trio's ECM discography by focusing on a repertoire of traditional Norwegian folk music, rather than the early and contemporary classical music of albums like Stella Maris (ECM, 2005) and A Worcester Ladymass (ECM, 2011).
But in addition to Økland and Mistereggen, there were other changes to be found. Singer Berit Opheim Versto, who replaced Trio Mediaeval regular Anna Maria Friman during the 2011 North American tour that took them, amongst other places, to Toronto, Canada on a cold, snowy winter's eve, was back, this time replacing Torunn Østrem Ossum. Versto, with her strong folk music background, was the ideal choice for Folk Songs II, the new book of music unveiled in Voss that, arranged by Friman and fellow Trio Mediaeval regular Linn Andrea Fuglseth, returned to the Norwegian traditional music of Folk Songs.
The addition of Økland allowed for even greater musical breadth and depth, as the trio once again demonstrated its remarkable ability to pass melodies around like a tag-team baton, each singer moving from lead to supporting vocalist in a seamless fashion that, were it not possible to identify each singer's distinctive timbre and style, it would have seemed to have been sung by one singer alone, accompanied by two others. With Mistereggen's generally soft hand percussion and remarkable use of a Jew's harp (later demonstrating how it's possible to achieve overtones to actually make the small metal instrument capable of melody), and both men occasionally adding their voices to Trio Mediaeval's soaring sopranos, it created a much broader soundscape and allowed for more expansive and ambitious arrangements.
Even bigger surprises were in store, however, as Friman went to the back of the stage, returning with Hardanger fiddle to play both alone and in duet with Økland; it was her first time performing live, she said after the show, but rather than it being at all obvious, it felt more like a hidden secret that she had chosen to unveil, like a gift, here at her Vossa Jazz performance. Fuglseth, too, revealed another instrument to be added to the overall audioscape as she brought out a harmonium halfway through the performance and, like Friman, performed with the kind of effortless fluency that suggested this was something she's had up her sleeve all along, just waiting for the right moment to bring it out.
The trio also used handchimes to create soft harmonic settings around which their vocals swirled with grace, elegance and, at times, unexpected power. If Versto was a fine singer but clearly a replacement in the Toronto show, here she seemed more fully integrated into the trio's sound. Ossum is still listed as a member at the group's website, so it would appear that Versto is, once again, a temporary member; as part of the Trio Mediaeval Ensemble, however, she waslike Økland and Mistereggena perfect addition and important evidence that, together now for more than a decade, Trio Mediaeval is entirely not content to rest on the considerable laurels it has achieved since the release of the aptly titled Words of the Angels (ECM, 2001). Instead, with projects like Folk Songs II, it's clear that Trio Mediaeval is always on the lookout for new means, new ways and new contexts in which to use its truly heavenly voices. With a performance as superb as the Vossa Jazz show, here's hoping it won't be long before Folk Songs II is recorded and released.