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

By Published: November 10, 2013
Looking back at Nordic music of the past 50-60 years, there appear to be two significant points where the music seemed to undergo an evolution so major that, thanks to the help of international labels like Germany's ECM Records (which also distributed Rune Grammofon in its early years, making that label similarly influential), it changed the shape of music to come. Like most European countries, the first half of the 20th century found Norwegian jazz musicians largely emulating their American touchstones. But the 1960s—and the freedom it seemed to engender within first world countries—seemed to be the time when countries finally began to assert their own musical identities. And when, in the late '60s, ECM's Manfred Eicher encountered Garbarek, Andersen, Rypdal, Stenson and Christensen, is it any surprise that the music that emerged—in particular, records like Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1971) and SART (ECM, 1971)—suggested something that, despite being informed by American free jazz, also referenced Norwegian traditionalism?

There's no denying a lot happened in the ensuing years, with ECM continuing to shine a significant spotlight on a country that had, beyond classical composers like Sibelius and Grieg, never before seen such regular exposure. The label also encouraged some significant cultural cross-pollinations, whether it was Garbarek and Christensen playing in both pianist Keith Jarrett's European Quartet (Belonging, ECM, 1974) and with American guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner (Solstice, ECM, 1975), Garbarek also collaborating with Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti and American bassist Charlie Haden (Magico, ECM, 1980), Rypdal coming together with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and American drummer Jack DeJohnette (Rypdal, Vitous, DeJohnette, ECM, 1979), Andersen putting a smoking hot group together with up-and-coming American guitarist Bill Frisell, British pianist John Taylor and American drummer Alphonse Mouzon (Molde Concert, ECM, 1982), or singer Sidsel Endresen collaborating with British pianist Django Bates and American cellist David Darling (Exile, ECM, 1994) for an early sign of even greater things to come.

Still, 1996-98 seemed to represent an even greater watershed, one where the electro-acoustic integration of technology emerged with full force- and shook the world with even greater force, thanks to the international reach now possible via the internet, with it now possible for people from virtually anywhere to gain access to music previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It meant that, more than at any other time, the world suddenly became extremely aware of Norway. Four particular releases—Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer (ECM, 1997), Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1996), Supersilent's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1997) and Eivind Aarset's Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998)—suggested new directions for jazz, and revealed a scene that had been growing, unbeknownst to most, for many years but which now reached critical mass.

Since then, the Norwegian scene seems to have exploded, growing almost exponentially. There's "festival inflation," with over 600 music festivals taking place across the country annually; a bevy of record labels to add to Rune Grammofon, ODIN, Curling Legs, Kirkelig Kulturverksted and Jazzland, including SOFA, NORCD, Jazzaway, Smalltown Supersound, Resonant Music, Inner Ear, Losen, Drolleholå, Gigafon, Optical Substance, Va Fongool, Atterklang and Hubro, amidst countless others. There's more music coming out of Norway—and from across the broadest possible spectrum—than ever before. So all seems well. Or does it?

Well, it's a tremendous plus that Norway's commitment to the arts has made it possible for so many musicians to pursue creative endeavors, both on record and in performance, and actually make some kind of living. But there are those who feel that the availability of such funding has given Norwegians a disproportionate and unfair advantage. Some question whether the music coming out of Norway is truly as innovative as some suggest, while some actually express anger that this music is not just diluting what jazz is supposed to be (in and of itself a heated debate with no empirical answer possible), but that it's actually denigrating "real jazz" (again, whatever that is) and taking work away from "real" jazz musicians. Are any of these accusations true?

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