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Arve Henriksen with Orchestra at London Jazz Festival 2008

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Arve Henriksen
London Jazz Festival 2008
Kings Place, London
November 14, 2008

The solo violin piece from Charles Mutter and the improvised duet between trumpeter Arve Henriksen and live samplist Jan Bang both have their moments, while John Orford's (intentionally?) hilarious distorted bassoon solo wins almost the biggest cheer of the night. Yet the highlights of this opening night of the London Jazz Festival's Scene Norway program were without doubt the ensembles, teaming Henriksen, Bang and fellow Norwegian Thomas Stronen (drums and electronics) with UK players including five members of the London Sinfonietta, Mutter and Orford among them.

Of these, only the finale was entirely improvised, but both Peter Tornqvist's "Crossing Images" and "Gold Acre"—the first an airing of a Radio 3 commission from Iain Bellamy, also playing sax tonight—left significant space for free expression. All three compositions manifested the poised, cogent restraint for which so-called Scandi jazz is both loved and loathed, yet there was sufficient emotion at play that only the most cynical could dismiss it as mere head music. And in both "Crossing Images" and "Gold Acre," the startling arrival—and equally sudden departure—of composed group motifs from apparently amorphous improvisation kept things unsettled, if not quite unsettling.

Henriksen's trumpet, as expected for someone who cites both Jon Hassell and shakuhachi flute as key influences, is delicate, breathy, contemplative, expansive. It's the tone heard on Cartography, hardly surprising as the concert coincides almost exactly with that record's release on ECM (although mercifully, the live version spares us the spoken word contributions from David Sylvian).

Perhaps more of a surprise, certainly to those more familiar with his "man possessed" vocal role in electronic quartet Supersilent, is Henriksen's occasional singing—most prominent in "Crossing Images," which constituted the entire first half if the concert. A naked, mournful, predominantly high-register sound, somewhere between a birdcall and the howl of a particularly benign wolf, it proved strangely emotive, despite—or because of—its perilous proximity to the absurd.

"Gold Acre," the central focus of an over-long second half, was bold by comparison, especially the moment when Stronen delivered not just a tangible beat but even a drum solo of sorts. How far one endorses the claim in the program blurb that the piece was an expression of "how the landscape influences our sense of place, and the idea that life is not just about digging for gold" may be a matter of personal preference, but it was during the applause that that this reviewer realized he'd been grinning throughout its 15-minute duration. The apex of an already impressive set, this, surely, is one use of the BBC license fee we can all applaud.

The solo clarinet and flute pieces that followed detracted somewhat from what should surely have been the climax, though the concluding piece of untitled group improv provided more than adequate closure.

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