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Hanna Paulsberg: Home Grown Concept

Ian Patterson By

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I’m very critical about my own stuff. I’m always thinking of the next thing. —Hanna Paulsberg
Norwegian saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg is slowly but surely building a reputation as one of the brightest young jazz musicians to have emerged from Norway in recent years. Her debut at the head of the Hanna Paulsberg Concept, Waltz for Lilli (Ora Fonogram, 2012) introduced a composer/musician with strong melodic and rhythmic sensibilities and made a convincing case for the HPC as a quartet worthy of wider international attention.

Paulsberg's quartet is arguably more inclined towards the American tradition than many of its Norwegian contemporaries but that didn't stop it wining the Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition in Stockholm in 2011. The HPC's second CD, Song for Josia (Ora Fonogram, 2014) largely follows the blueprint established on its critically acclaimed debut, though there's an even greater sense of freedom in the band's dialog and a confidence born of several years gigging together.

The twenty-six-year-old Paulsberg grew up on a farm in Rygge and was introduced to jazz at a very early age, though it was not, as Paulsberg recalls, love at first squonk: "My father was a jazz drummer. As a jazz drummer he was kind of active and he would play a lot of jazz records. I remember when I was very young I hated it. I didn't understand it; I just thought it sounded like random notes." The young Paulsberg was more into Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and in particular The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Her life took a very significant turn one day as a result of one spin of a record: "I heard Stan Getz," explains Paulsberg. "It was a bossa nova compilation album of Antonio Carlos Jobim's music and I was dumbstruck. I just loved Getz's tone and his melodic sense, the way he creates melodies when he improvises. I wanted to sound exactly like that."

Paulsberg soon picked up the saxophone—she was sixteen at the time—though thankfully, having absorbed many other influences along the way, she has managed to forge quite a personal sound of her own. Getz's music, however, still holds a special place in her affections: "He's always going to be number one for me in some ways, I guess," Paulsberg acknowledges.

Paulsberg's path was pretty much decided. When she finished school she went to the Toneheim Folkhogskole where she delved deeper into her craft, despite the relaxed nature of the school: "It's a one-year thing you do in Norway after you finish school. You don't get a degree there. It's a year where you meet a lot of new people and socialize. I think it's special to Norway," says Paulsberg.

Music—and for Paulsberg jazz in particular—was big on the curriculum: "We had a big-band and some choirs and some smaller jazz bands," she explains. "I had a really good teacher, Anders Lønne Grønseth; he was the first one who told me I had to transcribe things, so I did a lot of that during that year. That was the most important thing I learned."

The next natural step for Paulsberg was to study jazz at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim. The methodology in the jazz department was perhaps not typical: "It was very open and you were left to figure things out for yourself in a way," explains Paulsberg. "There weren't too many people telling you what to do. For some people maybe it's not so good but if you're going to be a musician you have to find the way in yourself, so I guess it's a good method."

By her own admission it took Paulsberg a while to find her own way: "I was pretty shy, particularly in my first year and it took some time to find some confidence and to play with people. It takes a long time. You just need to grow up to find out what kind of musician you want to be." Whilst studying, Paulsberg was recruited to the ranks of the internationally renowned Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. With the TJO Paulsberg played at the Molde Jazz Festival 2010 with Motorpsycho and Stale Storlokken, which was then recorded in the studio as the stonking The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon, 2012):"I was very happy, excited and terrified," says Paulsberg, recalling the collaboration. "The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra didn't have such a big artistic role; we didn't shape it. Parts were written down and we were just like a very good horn section for a rock band."

Another significant development in Paulsberg's journey also took place at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim when the time came to select a band for her final graduation concert: "For the final graduation concert I felt I should start something that could continue after the exam," says Paulsberg. "I spent a lot of time thinking about who I would pick and I'm very happy about the people I chose because they are really a good match."

Bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske, drummer Hans Hulbækmo and pianist Oscar Grönberg were the three musicians that caught Paulsberg's attention. The four got off to a flying start: "From the first rehearsal things clicked just great with us," recalls Paulsberg. "I was very influenced by Wayne Shorter's quartet at that moment and I knew that these guys had some of the same ideas sound-wise as me."

The Hanna Paulsberg Concept made musical strides very quickly, winning the 2011 Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition. It was a defining moment for Paulsberg and her quartet: "I think it meant a lot for us to get that recognition, to have somebody say 'you're good,'" says Paulsberg. "Up to that point when we played we thought, hey, this is cool, but nobody else said it. It means something when you get that kind of confirmation, especially when you're young. I guess everyone needs confirmation, throughout their life."

Paulsberg's feelings about competitions in jazz are mixed: "It's stupid in a way but it can be important for a band if you win. It's cool that the YNJC is now a showcase [as of 2012] because you get to meet other people and there's not that element of stress that someone has to win the whole thing; it puts pressure on you and maybe makes people focus on things they shouldn't. When you play a concert you should have fun. You shouldn't have to think you have to do this or that to win."

The following year the HPC released its debut CD, Waltz for Lilli to internationally positive years. All About Jazz's own John Kelman rated it as one of the best release of the year and the HPC as one of his best new band discoveries of 2012. The Jazz Mann described Waltz for Lilli as a "superbly accomplished debut." Invitations to festivals soon followed.

In 2013 The HPC was invited to play one of Europe's most adventurous new music festivals, 12 Points. In reviewing the HPC, LondonJazz noted that "The mature, melodic streak running through their material was executed with exemplary style," whilst Gerry Godley, founder of 12 Points has said: "Paulsberg especially invokes the drama and lyricism of Wayne Shorter, not just in her playing, but also as composer."

Paulsberg herself, however, does not like to dwell on past successes: "Many people really liked that CD and I'm very happy about that but to be honest I'm very critical about my own stuff. I'm always thinking of the next thing."

Around the same time as the release of Waltz for Lilli Paulsberg was invited to represent Norway in the European Jazz Orchestra. The EJO is an initiative of the Danish-based organization Swinging Europe. Every year since 1998 a new conductor from some of Europe's best big-bands leads hand-picked musicians from across Europe to perform new music.

The EJO tours, which have taken in Europe, the Americas and Asia, reach millions of listeners through television and radio broadcasts. For Paulsberg, the experience was important on a number of levels: "It was amazing, especially socially," she explains, "to meet all these Eastern European musicians who have a much tougher working day than me, a spoilt Norwegian. We went to a lot of countries I'd never been to before so it was great."

Another tremendously exciting project Paulsberg was involved in earlier this year was with saxophonist Marius Neset. Neset's big-band arrangements of his music for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra proved challenging for Paulsberg: "I remember the feeling when I got the sheet music for the first time. He sent out the notes in December and we were going to have the first rehearsal early in January. I was like, 'Oh my god! Can I play this?' It was so difficult. I wanted to send an email to my old saxophone teacher with the notes and ask 'do you think I can do this?'"

Paulsberg bit the bullet and decided to throw herself into intense rehearsals. "That Christmas wasn't really a holiday for me," she says. "I rehearsed a lot." Neset's album Lion (ACT Records, 2014) is a gloriously vibrant affair and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra plays out of its skin. Paulsberg shines in a lyrical tenor solo on the episodic "In the Ring." All her hard work over the preceding Christmas was validated: "I'm really happy about though because it's been really a lot of fun and we've been playing so many festivals in nice places in Europe. Challenging but fun."

Working with Neset was perhaps a steep learning curve for Paulsberg but she has clearly relished the challenge of learning from one of contemporary jazz's most dynamic and original figures: "Marius is really an inspiration," admits Paulsberg. "We have a different sound and different aesthetic views but he's really genuine about his music and of course amazing technically; he's like no-one else."

The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra is, Paulsberg agrees, a little bit special: "People share the same way of thinking a lot of the time when it comes to music because the education in Trondheim is very unique. We learned everything by singing. It wasn't that theoretical. Even the jazz theory we learned mostly by singing. Everything was about embodying the music and not focusing on notes at all."

Norway itself is a special case in Europe, with a disproportionately large number of bands of all stripes compared to the size of the population: "Of course, there is a lot of money and a lot of young bands get the chance to go on tour. You can get support from the government and that means a lot. It really means a lot" emphasizes Paulsberg, "because it allows people to focus on doing what they want. People are not concerned about doing what sells—they are exploring their own tiny genres and it's become a tradition here in Norway to do something else that's not in the American tradition. I'm more traditional than most of the young jazz musicians in Norway."

The American jazz tradition is certainly felt on Song for Josia, Paulsberg's second CD as leader with the HPC. The rhythm section swings, there's a blues current running through the music and the influence of Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane also seem to be present. Paulsberg takes the critics comparisons with a little pinch of salt, but is also appreciate of the flattering comparisons.

"I feel that I am influenced by everything all the time," says the saxophonist. "It's not a conscious thing when I write. A lot of times when people write reviews they say thing like, 'it sounds like she's listened to Sonny Rollins a lot' but I haven't listened to him that much, actually. What I've heard is amazing, so I take it as a huge compliment. It's fun when people hear these connections and always a compliment."

The CD cover features a picture of an elephant, which might lead you to think that the animal is the Josia of the title: "A lot of people ask that," says Paulsberg, setting the record straight. "Josia is actually a drummer from Madagascar. I played at the Madajazzgar Festival there last year. It was very special. I played with some young musicians from there and one of them was Josia. The day after I came back to Norway from the festival was the day we were going into the studio to record this album. I was very influenced by the trip and I felt I should dedicate the album to the people I met there."

The first impression on listening to Song for Josia is that the music follows a fairly similar pattern to Waltz for Lilli. The quartet, however, seems to have evolved significantly and Paulsberg is quick to agree on that score: "Yeah, it has, a great deal," she says. "We're freer and more confident. We take bigger risks. The music has changed too; it's more open and maybe more modal."

The recording process was also smoother second time around: "It was easier to be in the studio this time. The first record we did was really difficult. I remember after the first day I went back to the hotel room and just cried, " Paulsberg laughs. "This time was fun actually and I think you can hear that we are more relaxed."

The playing may sound relaxed but that's not to say that the music is in any way unchallenging. The HPC strikes a balance between swinging fare such as the title track and less rhythmically defined numbers such as the highly evocative mood piece ""De Ensomme (The Lonely Ones)" and the gorgeous ballad "Diamond (Ra)." Subtle calypso rhythms cameo on the infectious Africa-influenced tune "Hemulen"—an album highlight. Song for Josia is an album of contrasts where the common denominators are intuitive quartet interplay, strong melodic contours and engaging improvisations.

Paulsberg recognizes that the strength of the music lie in the quartet's chemistry and the fact that her band mates are proactive: "I like that they push me," says Paulsberg of Waldemar Fiske, Hulbækmo and Grönberg. "They challenge me musically me in a lot of ways. Sometimes it can be frustrating but in the end I think it means a lot and I evolve a lot because of that. I think they're just amazing. I've grown very fond of them."

Paulsberg is in a good place musically but she still has ambitions and dreams to fulfill, like leading her own big-band, for example. When writing for her quartet Paulsberg acknowledges that she can imagine the music carried by a large ensemble: "Yeah, a lot of times I can hear it but to write it down is something else. I would have to practise writing first. It's a dream actually," she admits.

"I would love to write for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra one day. That would be amazing. There's this scholarship that you can apply for. That's what Marius [Neset] did. He won this prize. So, maybe one day I will get to do that. I hope so."

For the time being the HPC is Paulsberg's main focus. Besides the music, she's also responsible for booking gigs for the band, a role she finds both demanding and rewarding: "I do it all myself so I know that things will be done properly. I also make a lot of contacts. It's challenging for sure but I think you get a lot back from it."

One recent gig that calls the attention was played at home, on the family farm in Rygge to be precise: "My father and I had been talking for ages about doing something here. We love the place a lot and it means a lot to us. So we just did it and it was a big success." Over three hundred people turned up to listen to Paulsberg and her singer-songwriter father, Håkon Paulsberg.

"It was really fun," says the saxophonist. "We played my Dad's music because it's easier for me to jump in than for him," she says laughing. "We're already planning next year and planning maybe a couple of days, like a small festival."

Paulsberg's trajectory thus far has shown that there are no limits to what she can achieve. She has another burning ambition, which until now has proved elusive to realize: "I have this dream of playing with Bobo Stenson. He's a giant in Scandinavia. I actually called him and asked him if he wanted to play but it sounded like he thought I was trying to sell him something," recalls Paulsberg laughing. "You know, the language difference; it didn't turn out so well."

With Stenson, Paulsberg may have lost the first round but she has no intention of throwing in the towel: "It doesn't look like it's going to happen but I'm not giving up just yet. You never know."

Stenson could do a lot worse than lock creative horns with Paulsberg and it would certainly give the young saxophonist the wider international platform that her talent deserves. Whatever musical adventures Paulsberg throws herself into she recognizes that it's all part of a learning curve: "I feel like I am changing all the time, discovering new confidence—and also new insecurity—when it comes to playing," she says. "I guess it's a never-ending process."

Photo Credit: Johannes Selvaag

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