Losen Records: New Norwegian Sounds

Losen Records: New Norwegian Sounds
Jakob Baekgaard By

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Mention the phrase "the Norwegian sound" and many listeners will get an image in their head. An image of a natural, deep echoing sound influenced by the mountains and hills of the Norwegian landscape. Such an image is, of course, a cliché, but to some critics it has stuck and distorted the rich fertility of the Norwegian jazz scene.

Just like a postcard doesn't represent the true image of a country, it would be wrong to assert that there is one type of Norwegian jazz and producer Odd Gjelsnes, who runs the Oslo-based record label Losen Records, isn't in the business of manufacturing myths. Instead, he immediately corrects this wrong when being asked about the so-called Norwegian sound: "I don't know If there is such a thing as a Norwegian sound, I think this was more likely to be found in the past when Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek came into the jazz scene with their strong and distinctive sound. The ECM sound has sometimes been confused with being The Norwegian Sound. For some time, some Danish critics have had fun pigeonholing Norwegian Jazz as "mountain jazz." When asking what mountain jazz is, I got an answer that "we" did not play real music when using lap tops etc. It did not make me any wiser."

As Gjelsnes concludes: "Maybe they just envy us all this talent. There just seems to be an endless flow of new talented musicians that are having success not only in Norway, but in many other countries as well. Not only are all these new kids very competent and good musicians, but they have the guts and the ability to mix all sorts of music and find their own way in the jazz jungle without any prejudices."

Elaborating on the cosmopolitan nature of many Norwegian jazz musicians, Gjelsnes says: "We have several musicians that have moved to other countries, for instance USA, like the trombone player Jens Wendelboe playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears apart from having his own New York Big Band. There is also the keyboard player Håkon Graf, who lives in California and plays with all the big names and has a trio with Gary Grainger and Dennis Chambers. The bassist Eivind Opsvik is playing with "everyone" in New York. The saxophonist Ole Mathisen is also a strong force on the New York jazz scene. And, of course, the guitarist Lage Lund that I am happy to have on Losen Records with his OWL Trio. In Oslo, the old band Magnolia Jazzband is keeping the traditional New Orleans music alive. Paal Nilssen-Love is a driving force worldwide as a drummer on the free- jazz scene only to mention a few."

In conclusion to the question of a special Norwegian jazz sound, Gjelsnes says: "If there is anything distinctive about Norwegian jazz it must be the fact that the whole range of jazz is covered in a professional way by Norwegian musicians. The openness and will to search for new expressions is probably also a factor. With the fact that we are only 5 million people living in Norway, it is obvious that the market is too small for all these musicians and that has more or less forced them to seek abroad for a bigger market."

Like the Norwegian musicians he works with, Gjelsnes has a cosmopolitan nature himself and has built his own studio in Spain where many of the projects on Losen Records will be recorded in the future: "Studio Barxeta is just one corner of a 1600m2 big Finca (farm house) situated on the top of a hill in the middle of a gigantic orange plantation with no next door neighbours or any outside noise that can interfer with the recordings. We are situated about 40 minutes south of Valencia close to the city Xativa."

Not only are the surroundings beautiful, the accommodation is also convenient: "The musicians are living in a flat just around the corner of the studio. We have a brand new swimming pool for studio visitors only and the studio can be used any time, even far into the nights if that is a wish. If the musicians hire the studio for one week, we are not counting hours within this week. It is one price for one week regardless of working hours. We are all living close together in the process of making good music. A side effect of this is many good conversations, long nights with good wine and food. In total, a week that the musicians will hopefully remember with a good feeling. We have experienced that musicians appreciate having plenty of time for the recordings compared to most other studios where every hour is counted."

The engineer in the studio is Dani Castelar who gets the following testimonial from Gjelsnes : "He has experience from working with Michael Jackson, R.E.M, Paolo Nutini and many others. With Dani I feel very safe. The experience we have had is that the musicians too are happy with the cooperation they have with Dani. It is not so much one kind of sound I am looking for, but a good sound that works for that particular music. Dani has experience from all kinds of music and we have an open studio for everyone whatever kind of music they are playing"

The adventure in Spain is a fairly new chapter in the story of Losen Records. Gjelsnes also has a long history of collaboration with the famous engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug: "For many years, I had the privilege and the pleasure of staying in the Rainbow Studio together with Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug during several ECM recording sessions. This way I got to know Jan Erik quite well and I am sure I learned a lot about the recording process and how to listen to the music during the recordings. It only feels natural to continue my cooperation with Jan Erik—even with my own studio in Spain. For some recordings, it might be more practical to do the recording in Oslo rather than in Spain."

Gjelsnes knows Eicher from his job as a music distributor. This was his entry into the record industry, but he has a long history of working with records: "I never was a talent for being a musician, but wanted to work in the music business and got myself a job as an export manager in Express Record Service in England around 1973/1974. They were one of the biggest mail order companies for LPs at that time. After 1 year in England, I came back to Norway and started a record shop (Ausonia) in the small town Kongsvinger. I soon found out that no one in Norway was specializing in taking care of the distribution of jazz LPs from all the fine independent jazz labels around. With my shop as a base, I started a distribution with SteepleChase, Nessa, Gramavision and a few other labels.

This business was growing quickly and not before long, I got a message from Manfred Eicher that ECM was looking for a reliable distributor in Norway and wanted me to come down to München for a meeting. At the same time, a group of people in Oslo were planning to merge the Norwegian classical music, the folk music and jazz into one strong independent company. I closed down my shop Ausonia, joined them and moved to Oslo, brought ECM and all the other labels I had into this company. This way Musikkdistribusjon was born. My career in Musikkdistribusjon lasted about 10 years until 1995. In 1997, I started my own distribution company, MusikkLosen. Most of the labels that were under my responsibility in Musikkdistribusjon followed me into MusikkLosen."

When Gjelsnes later started a record label, he chose a name that was related to his distribution company: "MusikkLosen means The Music Pilot so when finding a name for the label, it obviously had to be Losen Records."

Gjelsnes was happy working as a distributor, but then the crisis of the record industry came, which, ironically, allowed him to change track and do what he had always dreamt of doing: "MusikkLosen had some fantastic years as a distributor for jazz, classical and world/folk music. I have always wanted to have my own record label, but due to very good sales and very busy days in MusikkLosen, I did not have the time until the downloading and the streaming issue started to be a bad competitor for the CD sale in 2009-2010. I was annoyed by the fact that most record shops closed down and it became very difficult to sell CDs. I have always liked the CD as a media and I thought, as strange as it may sound, that maybe now is the right time to start a record label. It was more or less in protest against most of the music journalists in Norway that every week predicted the death of the CD and kept on with this negative writing. Like they had an agenda to get rid of the CD."

Reflecting on the development in the record industry, Gjelsnes says: "Now a couple of years later, the journalists have to admit that they were wrong on one issue. Downloading and streaming are good for the major companies (Sony, Universal etc.). For the independent smaller labels it has proven to be a disaster, at least so far."

Gjelsnes took another path. He had known the pianist Dag Arnesen and his trio from his work as distributor and asked them to become part of his new label: "They were looking towards Sony and Universal for their next release, I asked them—what if I started a record label. Would that be of interest for you? This was the start of Losen Records." The record was the third installment of Arnesen's Norwegian Song trilogy and became an instant success and later Gjelsnes re-released the other parts of the trilogy on his new label.

To this day, the record still has a special place in his heart along with two other albums: "I like all the releases in my catalogue, but I can pick three of them for a special reason: Acuña- Hoff-Mathisen: Barxeta (Losen Records, 2012) will always be a special recording for me. Not only because it is good music, but it was the first recording in our studio in Spain and we all had a fantastic and memorable week together. Dag Arnesen Trio with Norwegian Song 3 (Losen Records, 2010) was the first recording for Losen Records and very much a reason and a possibility for starting the label back in 2010. And little did I know when buying my first jazz LP, the record that got me into jazz: John Surman's double LP, The Trio (Dawn, 1970), that so many years later I would be able to release new music with John Surman on my own label."


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