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Music from Norway: Just How Important Is It, Really?

By Published: November 10, 2013
The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer: a commitment to music education from an early age. A more complex answer: beyond education, parental exposure of their young children—surely at their most malleable, despite certainty of the exact opposite by too many North American parents—to bands like Supersilent., In the Country and Splashgirl, classical composers like Rolf Wallin, Frode Haltli and Maja Ratkje, or more decidedly jazz-centric artists like trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and Terje Rypdal; the money to create an infrastructure which allows artists to make records and tour the country, even to some of the smallest towns; and an overall decision that culture is not a dirty word. When it's possible to visit Svalbard during the first week of February for a jazz festival that brings everyone from Solveig Slettahjell and Stian Carstensen to Beady Bell and Halvdan Sivertsen—not to mention a commissioned work, Arctic Moods, being premiered for the first time—you know you're not in Kansas anymore!

From an educational perspective, one of the key ingredients that is often missing in music education but seems endemic to the Norwegian approach—one need look no further than the heralded Trondheim Conservatory, which has turned out so many notable musicians, ranging from Arve Henriksen and Håkon Kornstad to younger musicians like Moskus pianist Anja Lauvdal, saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg and PELbO tubaist Kristoffer Lo—is the concept of creativity and finding your voice. When asked about his education at Trondheim, Kornstad once said, perhaps a little flippantly, that he was given a key to rehearsal room and told, "That's your curriculum." An exaggeration, perhaps, but indicative of an emphasis on the creative spark being as important—more so, even—than the acquisition of chops and technical knowledge. Of course, one has to learn the theory, the scales, the harmony, the rhythm. But if that's all one learns, then once you've graduated, what comes next? In Norway, in particular at Trondheim, musicians seem to emerge fully formed and, while they may still have growth ahead of them, they've already got an idea of their overall direction.

When it comes to jazz in Norway, one of the accusations from the US "jazz police" (by no means representative of everyone, any more than the right wing extremists represent the entire country) is that the music Norway is making may be good, but it's emphatically not jazz. The truth, if you dig beneath the surface, however—sometimes not very far at all—is that many of the musicians who are famous today, like Arve Henriksen, Stian Westerhus, Nils Petter Molvær, Thomas Strønen, Ståle Storløkken, Ola Kvernberg, Eivind Aarset and Håkon Kornstad, all have the background to play something more akin to American jazz; they just choose not to. Henriksen was, in fact, the featured soloist in a recorded performance of the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans album Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960)—a collaboration with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble and invited American conductor Maria Schneider. Jan Garbarek's recent music may have deserted the freer influence of Albert Ayler and latter-day John Coltrane from his earliest days, but he still makes clear, on German bassist Eberhard Weber's 2007 ECM recording, Stages of a Long Journey, that he can still swing hard with the best of them, and has no problem winding his way through complex changes, soloing with characteristic fire, relentless attention to tone and overall effortless aplomb on a version of Carla Bley's "Syndrome."

And there's plenty more. A most revealing passing comment with guitarist Eivind Aarset when asked, in a 2010 All About Jazz interview, about studying jazz theory and playing John Coltrane's rite-of-passage "Giant Steps," was his typically understated reply: "I can play 'Giant Steps,'" he said, "but at a very slow tempo." Nils Petter Molvær's current music may seem a very distant cousin to the American tradition, but he first came to international attention in the 1980s in Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen's Masqualero (named after a Wayne Shorter tune recorded with Miles Davis), a band that tread the fine line between American tradition and something more decidedly Scandinavian. And, to this day, Arild Andersen continues to prove capable of swinging his ass off, both in his stellar trio with Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinacchia, last heard on Live at Belleville (ECM, 2008), but also in other contexts, like his first time in a quarter century performance with guitarist Bill Frisell that, fleshed out by poet Jan Erik Vold's reading of American writer Wallace Stevens' work, was first performed at the 2010 Kongsberg Jazz Festival but later released on the Norwegian Hot Club Records imprint as Black Bird Bye Bye in 2012.

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