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Kongsberg Jazz Festival, July 6-9, 2011

Josef Woodard By

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Kongsberg Jazz Festival
Kongsberg, Norway
July 6-9, 2011
By now, it's a self-evident truth that Norway has become something of a hot spot on the global jazz map... again. This is hardly a late-breaking news sensation, given the long arc of jazz lore and fanaticism and support systems in place in this Scandinavian corner, not only in the care and feeding of its own jazz musicians but also the strength of the Norwegian festival scene. Molde celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, a formidable number in the still relatively-young shelf life of jazz festival culture, and the mighty mid-sized Kongsberg Jazz Festival—widely considered just behind Molde in terms of importance among Norway's jazz fests, and one with a sturdy reputation for its avant-garde leanings—isn't far behind, closing in on its own 50th in 2014.

Like Molde, the Kongsberg festival heeds the bold, workable festival model of annually taking over its humble small hosting city, in the most benign, cooperative and mutually beneficial way. Kongsberg, a ninety-minute journey east of Oslo, is a town born of silver, discovered in 1623 and mined through the 1950s, and currently is known for its industrial strengths in weaponry and technology, not to mention the long-time host of one of Norway's great jazz festivals.

And then there is the river, a powerful and poetic force rushing through the middle of the city and helping to define its character. The Numedalslågen river roars beneath a central bridge separating two sides of town, and becomes an inherent part of the spirit and the cartography (to borrow Arve Henriksen's album title) of a festival goer's experience here. You move from shows in the brick Energimølla (Energy Mill) club venue or the theater space in the Kongsberg kino, proceed across the bridge to the luminously beautiful 18th century Kongsberg kirke, next to the Tubaloon.

As festival programming goes, something special this way comes in Kongsberg, a festival which craftily satisfies multiple specific appetites within the jazz constituency, and particularly the taste of avant-garde and free improvisational sounds. In the latest festival edition, this year's heroes, from that outside-leaning world: veterans saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and bassist Barry Guy, and, from a generation down, Norway's own drummer of note, Paal Nilssen-Love, all presented in different settings and venues.

For this listener's money, the most ear-opening show, and the most riveting "aha" moment, came when Nilssen-Love demonstrated his uniquely expressive way of dealing with the challenging context of a solo drum performance. In the space of 25 minutes, N-Love summoned up delicate narratives, painterly textural adventures and well-placed bursts of drum kit powerhouse-ing, in the cloistered haven of the Smeltehytta venue, down by the river.

Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann

In that same strange secular sanctuary of a room, we also caught the pummeling winds of a rare duet with free jazz sax legends Brötzmann and Evan Parker, and an intriguing, surprisingly successful Baroque-meets-contemporary jazz meeting of bassist Guy and his wife, Baroque violinist Maya Homburger. In another memorable afternoon encounter in this room, Brötzmann gave one of his bracing—but also occasionally ruminative—solo sets, cutting the image of a roaring lion in lamb's clothing, or vice versa. It somehow served as analogous to the great river outside, a force both awesome and meditative, by turns.

On the same afternoon triple-bill called "Avanthagen" (translating roughly to "Avant-garden"), the proudly old school tape recorder/mixer magician, French experimentalist Jérôme Noetinger worked up more of the abstract but visceral, anti-digital soundscaping with literal tape loops and machinery, and, thankfully, no laptop in sight (we'd heard him work his magic earlier, in an interactive improvisatory trio with drummer Will Guthrie and saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet). Also in the "Avant-garden," the bill, the captivating experimental vocalist Sofia Jernberg and cellist Lene Greneger were sympathetic and highly sensitive sonic event-sculptors.

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