JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2018

Jakob Baekgaard By

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JazzNorway in a Nutshell
Bergen, Norway
May 23-27, 2018

If anyone should be in doubt, Norwegian jazz is thriving. Through many years, the musicians in Norway have continued to refine what might be called a particularly Norwegian approach to the jazz tradition. It is not about repeating any preconceived ideas of what jazz is, but rather a curious take on what music can be that is not bound by any genre. New forms emerge and yet there are certain characteristics of the many different sounds that make up such a broad category as contemporary jazz in Norway, among them a connection to folk and free music. One of the best ways of experiencing the state of Norwegian jazz is by going to JazzNorway in a Nutshell that takes place in and around Bergen. Here, it is possible to hear Norwegian jazz as it sounds right now.

Formally, Nutshell is hosted by Vestnorsk Jazzcenter (West Norway Jazz Centre) in cooperation with Nattjazz and Bergen International Festival, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, City of Bergen, Hordaland County and Music Norway. Practically, it is a yearly gathering of music industry people from around the world, who are invited to experience Norwegian jazz through showcases held at many different places and attend a specially curated part of the Nattjazz Festival (Night Jazz Festival) in Bergen. This year's event also included a trip to Voss, home of the acclaimed Vossa Jazz Festival.

The purpose of this admirable initiative is to find ambassadors of Norwegian jazz and create a network of professionals that Norwegian musicians can connect with and the benefit goes both ways. It all boils down to spreading the word about good music. This has been done through many years and Nutshell has succeeded in building a strong identity that is supported by a friendly atmosphere coupled with professionalism and a sense of the finer details, which means that the music is presented in a culturally and geographically diverse context.

This year, Project Manager, Brit Aksnes, Managing Director of West Norway Jazz Centre, Nina Torske, and Head of jazz, Music Norway, Aslak Oppebøen, could welcome another delegation of writers and industry professionals to attend four days packed with wonderful music, Norwegian food and culture. The artistic program director was Gard Nilssen who in cooperation with West Norway Jazz Centre had put together a program that spanned many generations of Norwegian jazz musicians and not only the new and up-coming crop.

Day 1

Arriving to the beautiful city of Bergen, surrounded by towering mountains, the scene was immediately set for something special, but the inherent sublimity of the setting is balanced by the people who inhabit the city. They are friendly and down to earth and the same thing goes for the music. It is both open and inviting and yet it often has an experimental edge. This was also the case with the showcase on the first evening, presenting a group, Øyunn, led by drummer, singer and songwriter, Siv Øyunn.

Bassist Audun Erlien opened with an electric bass ostinato that slowly developed into a spacious groove with Øyunn singing about "busting the illusions." The lyrics of the compositions were existential, dealing with the problem of finding one's way in the world, but there was also a protest song. Using a hip hop-beat, Øyunn conveyed the message that we should "speak up and let truth flow."

The music also flowed with Andreas Stensland Løwe's use of keyboards, including the sound of Fender Rhodes. He both provided layered textures and supported the mellow groove. Trumpeter Hilde Marie Holsen changed effortlessly between transparent lyrical lines on the trumpet and electronically manipulated click sounds. Øyunn was literally in the middle of it all with her drum set and a vocal that one participant suitably connected to the Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam. However, Øyunn has her own personality and her message that the search for acceptance starts inside the individual and not outside in the world was a clear statement from a promising musician and singer who is in the process of finding herself.

The concert concluded with a song that Øyunn had written for the Peer Gynt Project initiated by Music Norway. Øyunn revealed that there was a hidden reference to the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in the song. It was a subtle way of incorporating a piece of Norwegian classical music, but in a song- based form with elements of jazz, indie-rock and electronica.

Day 2

The next day started with a trip to Voss. The first showcase took place in the remarkable Finnesloftet, a very old Norwegian treehouse that is considered one of the oldest buildings in Norway, dating to the time around 1295. The fascinating craft and architecture of the building could be compared with the iconic stave churches, but this building was used for more profane purposes, hosting banquets with good food, entertainment and beer. The guide promised that the audience would get at least two of these things and he was right. The beer was not missed as delicate apple juice was served to a hot soup made from organic, local vegetables and tender meat from free-range cattle.

Food aside, the main course was the concert by a group led by local musicians, saxophonist Elizabeth Lid Trøen and flutist and pianist Ingrid Øygard Steinkopf. They met the rest of the musicians in the group, alto saxophonist Christian Cuadra, trumpeter Sturla Hauge Nilsen, bassist Morten Berger Stai and drummer Rino Sivathas, in the jazz program at University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and took the name Bounce Alarm.

The music was indeed bouncing as the concert started with the composition "Inspiration." A straightforward melodic theme was used on a tune that used the contrasts between Øygard Steinkopf's flute and the brass section of trumpet, tenor saxophone and alto saxophone as an interesting template for the exploration of textures. However, this template was more fully realized on "Expectations," another tune penned by Øygard Steinkopf, who also played piano convincingly. She used spare, skeletal, single notes and compressed chord patterns, but also had occasional bursts of romanticism. Her playing recalled the late German pianist, Jutta Hipp.

Many jazz genres could be namechecked as the group changed between whiplash bop breaks, detailed and restrained cool jazz, cooking hard bop and rock energy. The passion was there, but the drumming of Sivathas, whose elegant and light playing at times recalled Vernell Fournier, gave the music balance between cool and hot. The rest of the compositions: "Hans Tanks Gate," "Swing and Sweat" and "Bouncing Through Some Bankin Puppies" all showed the potential of a group whose musicianship was impeccable, but it still seemed like a group sound that was in the making and could be perfected even more. While the melodies and arrangements were tight, and the solos focused, it could have been interesting to hear the group take greater advantage of the light contrast that the flute provided and there was also the unanswered question of how the group would tackle a pure ballad and the type of fragile, emotional storytelling that it represents.

The concert at Finnesloftet provided youthful energy in the profane surroundings of a very old house, but the next showcase changed to a more spiritual setting and an experienced musician, who has arrived at a sound that is all his own. The drummer Erland Dahlen played a solo concert in Vangskyrkja and the church was the perfect place for the music where the sounds of various drums and bells could resonate in the room as Dahlen played against a background that changed between the static noise of a drone and what sounded like a loop of monumental guitar chords. He played with and against the background as he developed rhythmic motifs and variations that borrowed from different drum traditions around the world, but in the end, Dahlen created his very own universe of percussion, bells and electronics.

The many instruments listed on his album Clocks, reflected by the battery of bells and percussion in the church, underlined that Dahlen takes it very seriously to find the right source of sound. However, the great thing about the concert was really that he understood how to create a musical narrative. One movement gave way to another in a landscape where rhythms could be used melodically, meditatively and in a propulsive way.

The evening ended with a showcase in the wonderful garden of Trude Storheim, the leader of Vossa Jazz. Among the trees with white flowers, a strange species emerged with the name Rune Your Day, it could also be pronounced as "ruin your day."

They did anything but ruin the day. In fact, the band with electric bassist Rune Nergaard concluded a lovely day in Voss. They had an empathic approach to free jazz where the quiet brushes of drummer Axel Skalstad gave way to the honking sounds of a baritone saxophone, but the horn could also be the silky lines of a clarinet or dry saxophone tones entering a music that changed in nature as free form and melodic playing supplemented each other. The foundation with the electric bass added an extra touch and Rune Nergaard played somewhere between knotty, abstract playing and a rock approach with riff and figures.

Day 3

The next day the showcase took place at famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's villa, Troldhaugen (the garden of trolls). Grieg referred to the villa as his "best opus so far" and indeed the place is an attraction, now housing a museum and not least a concert hall, Troldsalen, with floor-to- ceiling windows and a spectacular view of Lake Nordås.

Here, the pianist, Dag Arnesen, played with his trio. Arnesen is an elder statesman known for his trio albums with focus on Norwegian songs that have brought him wide acclaim in his home country, but unlike Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, whose Jazz På Svenska (1964) gave him a breakthrough in Scandinavia, Arnesen is still waiting for international attention and has remained a national secret in spite of his success at home. His showcase at Nutshell was the first step to change this. Arnesen brought his trio with bassist Ole Marius Sandberg and drummer Ivar Thormodsæter and especially Sandberg seemed to enjoy himself as he smiled while anchoring Arnesen's sparkling melodies.

Fittingly, there was a piece by Grieg, "I balladetone / Ballad" from Norwegian Songs Vol. 3, but Arnesen also played his own compositions like "Yellow Feather" and "Grynta" from The Pentagon Tapes (2017). He described a tune as a song a child would like and indeed there was something playful and childlike about the simple, clear melodies combined with a grown-up sophistication where his runs across the tangents were soaked in a dwelling sense of detail. Essentially, these songs were made for early mornings and sweet summer nights, with emphasis on the bright tones on the keyboard. They were songs in the key of minor without any interference from threating night trolls.




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