Kongsberg Jazzfestival: Music from the Hall of the Mountain King

Anthony Shaw By

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Kongsberg Jazz Festival
July 2-5, 2008

Ever since David Lindley's The Sweet Sunny North reached distant shores in the early 1990s, Norway has been on many musical radar screens. Maybe it is impossible to think of the country without the fjords and the fells, so let's get them done and dusted. A country of five million people, 25% of which is forested and over 70% empty, leaves a lot of space to spare—for individuals, animals and jazz aficionados. Go there in the winter and undoubtedly there is plenty of inspirational bitter cold, and no doubt like in other Nordic countries, much of the country hard at work, keeping proverbial wolves from doors.

But now it's the height of the summer season, and when the sun shines there it glares from skies made bluer by the green hills rising on all side. And of course it shines almost around the clock. People respond by casting hard work aside, and devoting themselves to partying, or more particularly festivalling.

Of Scandinavian jazz festivals Kongsberg is the second oldest and one of the largest with around 30,000 ticket sales this year according to director Tor Dalaker Lund. The range of artists at a festival of this size is impressive too. This summer the Norwegian roster covered the range from pop and big band, combined in singer Sonje Lerche with the band of the Norwegian Navy, to the roughest of volume jazz in the form of Swede Mats Gustaffson and The Thing. International artists were also represented by a broad spectrum including 'aging punk violinist' from the UK Nigel Kennedy, Wayne Shorter playing with Imani Wind of New York, and USA's own Tierney Sutton. The music was invariably of the highest quality, played in venues of exceptional attractiveness (including a refurbished silver smelting factory and a quaint local tea-room), appealing to an audience as diverse as the fare.

Add to this the accompaniment of immaculate weather and you have the recipe for a stellar festival experience! Indeed, walking between the 18 different sites is frequently a pleasure, not the least due to their separation by 70 metre bridge across a raging torrent of Grade 5 white water. The air shimmers with positive ions and one's ears sing with the roar of the water. To the spread of streetside fashion and craft shops were added the usual set of handicraft and accessories stalls, Asian food booths as well as traditional Norwegian hotdog stands. Even the portable toilets, lined up along the kerbside at one point, fail to diminish the air of quality that pervades this quiet town during festival week.

Here follows short reviews of those acts that I found time to sample from Days 1 to 4, July 2—6, as well as comments on those that I managed to miss.

Day 1 - Wednesday, July 2

The first luxurious afternoon I found myself in the dungeon like hall of 'The Smelting Room' where Dans les Arbres, an assemblage of Norwegian players with a French clarinettist Xavier Charles, wooed the audience with a near ambient experience of dream-like acoustic music. The band comprises Ingar Zach on percussion (a horizontally mounted bass drum attacked from all angles and with all manner of implements), Ivar Grydeland playing acoustic banjo and guitar (although pizzicatoing would be more accurate), and renowned keyboardist Christain Wallumrod a very dampened, minimalistic piano as well as occasional finger harp. These three are led by Charles, whose equally muted playing and often staccato phrases mesh seamlessly with the mellow timbres of his fellow members, though at times seeming rather distanced from them. In the darkness of the long stone-walled room, the effect of the two extended pieces was mesmeric. Despite the quality of the sound suffering from the room's unfriendly acoustics, I drifted between conscious presence of the room and far, distant places.

Also appearing that evening drawing positive comment were the Pettre Wettre Quartet playing a number of his own 'catchy tunes' with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. The band features Erlend Slettevoll on piano, the Dane Jonas Westergaard on bass and Anders Mogensen on drums, going down well as festival opener on the main stage. By contrast in the small Energy Mill the first of the festival's Smalltown Superjazz label's evenings kicked off. This featured the ferocious The Fat is Gone, with Messrs Gustafsson, Brotzmann and Nilssen-Love, probably the three most extreme Scandinavian free-jazzers currently active, laying down the guidelines for what was to include a wealth of sweaty musical evenings in this steamy, 100-seat, power generation workshop.

Day 2—Thursday, July 3


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