Bugge Wesseltoft at the London Jazz Festival 2008


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The woman next to me is surely not alone in whispering to her partner: 'It's all just a little bit too... the same.'
Bugge Wesseltoft
London Jazz Festival 2008
King's Place
London, England

November 15, 2008

Having attended the Peter Brotzmann gig earlier the same night, I arrived at Bugge Wesseltoft's show a little late. It's a surprise to see the Norwegian—best known for the embrace of electronics in so-called nu-jazz, or what he terms his New Conception Of Jazz—playing solo piano. It's even more of a surprise when he launches into that most hackneyed of jazz standards, Paul Desmond's "Take Five."

Yet just as I'm wondering what's coming next—"Summertime"?, or "The Girl From Ipanema"?— he stops. At least he removes his hands from the piano, but he's stamped on a loop pedal and the piano vamp rolls onwards on autopilot. After setting up another loop, this time of a crudely tapped rhythm part, he's soon soloing over the top. It's a bit of a gimmick, sure, but well-executed, and it also feels like a definite step back towards familiar, New Conception Of Jazz territory. But then Bugge stands up and leaves the stage— and doesn't return for over an hour.

Instead, Thomas Stronen takes up position behind the drum kit and, hit by hit, builds up an ambient percussive soundscape via a desk of electronics to his left. It's evocative enough at first, and it really comes alive when he drums over the top: Steve Reid and Keiran Hebden united in a single body. Yet these sections are frustratingly short-lived. When he leaves the stage after what must be half an hour, audience endurance is tangibly strained.

But it's not Bugge who appears next but Hild Tafjord, ostensibly a French horn player, though the majority of her set is in fact devoted to laptop electronics. More aggressive than Stronen's performance, at times it actually flirts with noise music, and several members of the audience have their fingers in their ears for extended periods.

This uncompromising approach certainly has a perverse appeal to a few of us, which only increases as people walk out. It's hard to say, however, whether the exodus' implied criticism is that the music is too far out or simply too boring. The woman next to me is surely not alone in leaning over to her partner and whispering in his ear: "It's all just a little bit too... the same." Certainly, Bugge himself is having fun—he's sitting stage right, apparently enthralled—but by the time Tafjord's set too breaks the 30-minute barrier, he's in an increasingly small minority.

It's 11.56 p.m. when Bugge finally returns to the stage, Stronen and Tafjord in tow. And they're excellent. Yet they barely get a chance to win back the audience: it's all over by 12:06 a.m.

To be fair, the night was billed as "Bugge's Room" rather than a straight Bugge gig, and the program blurb promised "a few surprises." But a ten-minute group performance in a two-hour set borders on the farcical. No doubt Wesseltoft is attempting to escape the shackles of so-called nu-jazz, increasingly necessary as nu-jazz is in fact sounding increasingly out of date. Give him credit for experimenting, but he's a way from a satisfactory conclusion.

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