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Mai Jazz 2014

Mai Jazz 2014
John Kelman By

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Mai Jazz 2014
Stavanger, Norway
May 6-11, 2014

After visiting Norway as often as four or five times annually, a first trip to the country in early May is surprisingly late for a first visit of the year. The last time visiting the west coast city of Stavanger was in 2008, part of the annual JazzNorway in a Nutshell event that brought international guests from around the globe to sample Norwegian culture but, most importantly, the vibrant Norwegian scene that has been steadily building (some might say exploding) over the past four decades, but in particular since the seminal years of 1997-98, when a series of recordings—Supersilent's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1997), Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1997), Eivind Aarset's Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998) and, in particular, Nils Petter Molvaer's Khmer (ECM, 1997)—signaled a paradigm shift in this small country of five million people that makes more compelling music than many larger countries.

Last time, Stavanger was celebrating its year as European Capital of Culture, and so there were a lot of activities built around the event. Mai Jazz 2014 may not have been as auspicious from an international perspective, but as jazz festivals go, it has managed, in 26 years, to maintain a balanced program that places famous international acts alongside others deserving of much more attention, as well as a healthy collection of Norwegian artists from around the country and from the region as well. The festival also participates in an annual competition that, in conjunction with other jazz festivals in cities like Bergen, Molde and Kongsberg, encourages very young up-and-comers with a prize of 150,000 NOK, and has, in past years, selected groups like In The Country, Puma and Albatrosh—all now firmly established acts with multiple albums to their names and, in the case of In the Country, a contract with Germany's ACT label that is helping it attain greater international visibility.

The 2014 program was no different than previous years; alongside major performers like Pat Metheny and his current Unity Group, Tierney Sutton, Lizz Wright, Nik Bärtsch's Ronin and Ron Carter's Golden Striker Trio, the festival featured established Norwegian acts like In the Country, in a very special collaboration with poet Frode Grytten, sublime improvisers Jøkleba, balls-to-the-wall extemporizers The Thing, legendary bassist Arild Andersen's current trio, and the near-whisper ruminations of pianist Tord Gustavsen's Quartet. It also provided an opportunity for rising stars like Pixel, new projects like Irish expat/Stavanger resident Phil McDermott's "Crossing Borders" and the Norwegian/Czech Republic collaboration NOCZ to get some attention, while Italian pianist Mario Piacentini's sextet, featuring well-known Italian reed multi- instrumentalist Gianluigi Trovesi, delivered a sublime set that may well be Mai Jazz 2014's most talked about performance—a real sleeper hit.

Yes, there were bigger shows, most notably the ambitious E.S.T. Symphony, which celebrated the music of the sadly defunct Esbjorn Svensson Trio—a group forced into past tense when Svensson died, tragically, in a diving accident in 2008—with original trio members Dan Berglund and Magnus Ostrom employing local symphony orchestras (in this case, the marvelous Stavanger Sinfoniorkester), arranged and conducted by Hans Ek, and a group of (relatively) local featured soloists. But as terrific as the big shows often are, it's sometimes the unexpecteds that stay in the memory even more after the festival is over, and if there was one group that fit that description this year, it was Piacentini's remarkable sextet.

Helleik Kvinnesland, the festival's Managing Director, has been with the festival since its inception, though he started as a volunteer with, surprisingly, very little knowledge of jazz. "I wasn't born and raised with jazz music, so it was my experience, as a student, to experience the music of jazz through Mai Jazz," says Kvinnesland, "and so I became a very active volunteer. Then, after a few years it became clear that it was too busy to continue as a volunteer, so I was asked to become Managing Director in 1995. I quit my day job and have been working full-time for Mai Jazz since 1997. I feel very privileged to have had my hobby turn into my day job."

It's a little odd, given Stavanger's population of over 120,000 people that Mai Jazz is, at 26 years, relatively young compared to other Norwegian jazz festivals in Kongsberg and Molde, which have been running for nearly twice that time. "Stavanger's jazz club was one of Norway's best-run jazz clubs in the '80s," Kvinnesland explains. "Most of the artists who came to Norway played in Oslo and Stavanger. Then the club went bankrupt, and out of that a few people said, 'We have to do something,' and out of that came the idea to start a small festival. We had—and still have—a good collaboration with Natt Jazz in Bergen; at that time they already had their festival going and a working administration. So we started out as one weekend with four concerts in 1989 and in the second year we named it Mai Jazz. That was actually Stavanger's first festival and the only one which still exists; it's the oldest festival in Stavanger.

"So we built it up bit by bit, stone by stone, and there were some milestones," Kvinnesland continues. "For example, in the fifth year we almost went bankrupt because the festival was just too big and Stavanger wasn't ready for it. So we reorganized; that year may, in fact, be the most important year for us because we learned so much from it. We built a more solid organization, focused on the economy and didn't take quite as many risks. Now, we have a strong organization and a healthy economy, which allows us to present things that don't sell as many tickets."

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