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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."

The festival faces the same challenges as any other: how to bring in acts that attract large numbers in order to subsidize smaller, lesser-known acts that might not draw as many people? And even more important, how to balance the roster to include the international acts Stavanger residents want to see while still supporting Norwegian acts, both from around the country and from the region? "That's something we focus on and I think we've managed to balance it," asserts Kvinnesland. "It's important for us to have Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, the big stars that people in Stavanger would like to see on their home turf. We present most of the big names because we've built a solid reputation and because we're lucky to live in Norway—which has so many good musicians and jazz artists—so we've built longstanding relationships with everyone one from Arild Andersen to In the Country. Most would like to perform at the festival, so it's easy to present Norwegian jazz.

"But developing the local region has also been important to us," continues Kvinnesland. "When we look back at the '90s and the early 2000s, Stavanger was very well-known for a small free improv scene, with artists like Frode Gjerstad, Paal Nilssen-Love and Per Zanussi; but when they established the jazz education program at the university, it created an environment where it became even more important to present local jazz artists. But students and professors are now looking more outward, so very often we present local musicians collaborating with other Norwegian musicians or artists from farther abroad, like the Phil McDermott project or the Norwegian/Czech project (NOCZ). That's important for us and it's kind of become a profile for the festival, as has our collaboration with the local Symphony Orchestra. Since 1994, there's been a grant for us, which we haven't used every year, but close to every year, with different kinds of music."

One defining characteristic for most Norwegian jazz festivals is that it's not acceptable to just present existing groups, so new constellations have to be created or existing acts are encouraged to collaborate with other people—for example, this year's partnership between In the Country and poet Frode Grytten. "We try to compose and encourage new projects to happen at the festival," says Kvinnesland. "We have a history of doing that. Frode and Morten [Qvenild, In the Country keyboardist) have worked together before, so we thought why not with the whole trio? There are also a number of local projects that have been produced specially for the festival. And while the E.S.T. Symphony was not a new commission, it was Mai Jazz that decided who would be the guest soloists."

We need to have a broad profile," Kvinnesland continues. "We can't focus on just one kind of jazz when we need to attract a broader audience. We have to bring in other things, but it's important to us that the quality in their style is there—Lava [a pop/funk band, but one which has clearly been influenced by jazz], for example. We ensure Mai Jazz has a jazz focus primarily, but when we step outside of that, I think we bring in interesting and prestigious acts, including one or two world music acts like Zap Mama. For us it's also important to put on new acts which have been experienced in Stavanger—or even Norway—before. To get people curious about new things, it's still a challenge, so when we present something like radio.string.quartet.vienna for the first time in Norway, it's a brilliant quartet but it's a bit of a challenge to convince people to go. Still, it's easier in the framework of a festival than it would be in a jazz club."

Unlike festivals in North America, one thing at which jazz festivals in Norway seem to be succeeding is to attract a younger demographic. "My impression is that with the growth of younger musicians in the area, we have seen changes in the audience as well," Kvinnesland says. "Of course you have a lot of gray hairs and no hairs too, but I'd say it's more twenty to late forties now. Of course, that varies from venue to venue. If you have a show in a student hall, it's much easier to attract young people, but if you have a show at the Stavanger Konserthus, it can be more difficult—and, of course, ticket price can also impact that."

So, where does Kvinnesland see the festival going? "Some of the programming needs be planned way in advance," he says, "for example, when you collaborate with the Symphony Orchestra, which is already booked sometimes three, four or five years in advance. So we are already in the process of planning next year's program, but most of the programming will happen between September and December. We feel that we have a kind of framework at the Festival, but still we try to challenge ourselves and push ourselves to expand and do things differently. The new thing for this year was that we just took over the venue Spor 5 and have developed that in a good way; there are lots of good things that we could do there; I think it has good potential."

Kvinnesland views the festival as an entire entity; something with a rhythm of its own that encompasses the entire event. "We have meetings where we try to see the program as a whole and a kind of rhythm for each day with some variety—you don't put three piano trios back- to-back, for example. To have a headliner—or two or three—is important for the festival, and so we try to settle that first and then build the club program around those headliners."

The Stavanger Konserthus, to which Kvinnesland refers, wasn't there in 2008. The impressive, state of the art venue has two rooms: a roughly 1,500-seater main hall that, sporting a ceiling that, movable up or down as much as six meters, manages to avoid the boomy acoustics such rooms normally suffer when used for anything beyond symphonic music; and a smaller "black box" room used for both seated and standing room performances.

Tuesday, May 6: Pat Metheny Unity Group

It was in the main hall of Stavanger Konserthus that Mai Jazz 2014 opened—and opened with a bang. Guitarist Pat Metheny has been on tour most of this year with his newly minted Unity Group (an expansion of the Unity Band responsible for its 2012 Nonesuch debut that, with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi, allows the hard-blowing group the greater textural breadth required to navigate more epic, cinematic writing that the guitarist has traditionally reserved for his (at least currently) MIA flagship Pat Metheny Group.

The group is touring its debut as Unity Group, 2014's Kin (<—>) (Nonesuch), and Stavanger had the prestigious position of being the first date of a four-city Norwegian leg that was followed by dates in Bergen, Molde and Oslo. A subject of considerable controversy, Metheny continues to use the massive solenoid and pneumatic-driven behemoth first debuted on 2010's Orchestrion (Nonesuch). There are those who think of it as gimmickry, but the truth, as revealed by Metheny's Mai Jazz performance and his 2011 Enjoy Jazz performance with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart (not to mention the 2012 Unity Band tour), suggests something else entirely.

Metheny has long been a sonic searcher as much as a guitar innovator, introducing new colors to his palette including his horn-like guitar synth, 42-string Pikasso guitar, baritone acoustic guitar and more. While the seemingly unwieldy size of the Orchestrion suggested that the album and subsequent international tour—documented on 2013's The Orchestrion Project (Nonesuch)—would be a one-time affair, just as Metheny has forged a career based on an ever-expanding sonic toolkit, so, too, is the Orchestrion just one more addition (albeit one heckuva big one) to that toolkit. When touring with Grenadier and Stewart, as well as the Unity Band, however, the Orchestrion was a reduced version that was used relatively sparingly. Here, with the Unity Group, however, what became much clearer was just how important the Orchestrion was to the music on Kin.

As Metheny has been doing in recent years, he opened his set with a solo piece on the Pikasso guitar ("The Sound of Water," from Quartet (Nonesuch, 2007), the second of two recordings from a successful collaboration with Brad Mehldau and the pianist's trio)—an unwieldy instrument in and of itself. The story goes that, before luthier Linda Manzer sent the instrument she build for Metheny to the guitarist, she collected a group of some of Canada's finest acoustic players in a room, and they passed it around with a lot of head-scratching and, ultimately, no idea what to do with it. When Metheny received it, he apparently just tuned it up and started playing...no small feat given that his instructions to Manzer, for building this double-necked expansion of the traditional harp guitar, was simply to build him a guitar "with as many strings as possible."

In Metheny's hands this combination of strummed harp strings, tapped bass strings and more conventional guitar design was played with the same ease with which he seems to tackle every instrument—and that includes the Orchestrion, which can either be programmed or triggered in real time from Metheny's MIDI-capable electric guitars. A second Pikasso piece signaled the entry of Unity Band—Chris Potter, Ben Williams and Antonio Sanchez—for a set culled largely from Unity Band plus a buoyant, re-harmonized version of "James," from PMG's Offramp (ECM, 1982). Switching to his blonde Ibanez hollow body electric, Metheny and the Unity Group kicked into "Come And See," one of three songs from the Unity Band record that also included the guitar synth-driven burner "Roofdogs" and much gentler, Latinesque "New Year."

Like "James," a similarly updated "The Bat," from the guitarist's twin tenor saxophone classic 80/81 (ECM, 1980), and the first of "Two Folk Songs" (from the same album) gave the Unity Band further room to stretch and, before Carmassi joined in to turn Unity Band into Unity Group, act as its own opening act, Metheny later quipped.

For many festivals that would be enough of a show, but that was only the halfway point in a set that, with one encore, stretched past two-and-a-half hours. Throughout, Potter— hard to believe, given his résumé, that he's only 43, and who revealed, after the show, that the follow- up to his stellar ECM debut, The Sirens (2013), will be an even more ambitious project with a much expanded cast—played with the combination of extreme firepower and unabashed lyricism that has made him such an in-demand player with artists like Dave Holland, and who is a clear fit for Metheny's desire to have a band that's considerably looser than Pat Metheny Group, a revolving door ensemble which, as classic as it was, had become increasingly structured to the point where there was little room for open-ended playing. That Metheny gave hand cues to his band mates to wrap up solos suggested that there was much greater freedom, allowing everyone the latitude to go as far as they wanted rather than being confined to a set number of choruses.

When Carmassi joined and the group launched into a set of tunes from Kin, beginning with the 11-minute title track, the difference between Unity Band and Unity Group was unveiled. It's not, perhaps, so obvious on the record just how much the Orchestrion is a part of how Metheny has written for Unity Group, but as lights went off all around the stage every time a specific instrument in the Orchestrion was triggered, it became crystal clear. This was far more detailed, complicated music, though still allowing room for plenty of soloing from everyone, and a few surprises, including Potter joining Metheny on acoustic guitar for the fast-strummed opening section of "Rise Up."

While Metheny did use a real acoustic guitar at times—including one that, bringing back memories of PMG in its earliest days, was brought out by long-time guitar tech Carolyn Chrzan attached to a stand so that Metheny could sling his Ibanez behind his back and switch between them with ease—more often than not he used a piezo pickup on his Ibanez that was usually balanced with the warm sound of its other pickups to provide more attack but, on its own, allowed the guitarist to play acoustic parts without having to constantly switch guitars, as he did on The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005) world tour that wrapped up at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal with an outdoor closing concert in front of about 125,000 people.

A mid-set series of duets gave everyone but Metheny a brief break from the long, exhausting for them but exhilarating for the audience set. The guitarist played the title track to his leader debut, Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), with Williams, a young bassist whose star is clearly on the ascendance, and who is, in fact, preparing to release his second album as a leader. Potter joined Metheny for Miles Davis' "Solar," first recorded by the guitarist on his trio date with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes, 1990's Question and Answer, reissued in 2008 by Nonesuch, as the image of a full moon suddenly appearing on the rear curtain high above the stage. Potter then left the stage, and Metheny and Sanchez engaged in an incendiary version of "(Go) Get It," from Trio 99>00 (Nonesuch, 2000).

The only brief moment when Metheny was not onstage was at the start what began as the only solo feature for Carmassi—described by Metheny as a "utility player" in that he largely did not solo and was, instead, there to simply add necessary parts to the Unity Group's music, positioned behind Sanchez so that he was rarely very visible. Still, while some Metheny fans have been offended by the term "utility player," the truth is, for Carmassi—an Italian multi-instrumentalist now living in New York—having "World Tour with Pat Metheny Unity Group" on his CV can only help his career and, based on his performance of the melodic yet dramatic "Más Allá (Beyond)" on piano and voice—joined mid-point by Metheny on nylon-string guitar—it became clear that he was a talented player recruited by Metheny for a reason, later explaining in an email that his audition for Metheny was to record a solo version of the title track to the same album on which "Más Allá (Beyond)" first appeared, First Circle (ECM, 1984), where he had to play all the instruments. Impressive stuff, indeed.

Following the duo segment, with the entire group in tow, Metheny launched into "Have You Heard," a set-opener for many years from 1989's Letter from Home (reissued by Nonesuch in 2006), and it proved to be an equally strong set-closer. Enthusiastic applause brought the group back for a revamped version of Offramp's "Are You Going With Me?," with Potter replacing pianist Lyle Mays' original synth part on flute and the Orchestrion creating sweeping washes to make it even more expansive, leading to a characteristically heated guitar synth solo from Metheny that brought the evening to a definitive close. There were a couple of other concerts taking place that night, including Danish pianist Carsten Dahl, but after more than 150 minutes of Metheny, seeing anything else felt like it would be overkill.

Wednesday, May 7: Ron Carter / Lava / Phil McDermott "Crossing Borders"

Few bassists alive today share Ron Carter's pedigree. A musician who has played with just about everyone imaginable in the world of American jazz ,he is still remembered best for his tenure in Miles Davis' second great quintet, the group that broke new ground with every record thanks to the participation, in addition to Carter, of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams.

Carter's career as a leader has been somewhat inconsistent, but his decade-old Golden Striker Trio remains one of his best. Still, this intimate trio took a heavy hit a year ago when its pianist, Mulgrew Miller, passed away too young at 57. Such a loss in such a small group might be enough to dissolve it, but instead, Carter has decided to continue the trio by recruiting Donald Vega to round out a trio that, along with the bassist, also features well-known guitarist Russell Malone. A young pianist whose career to date has largely been spent in Afro-Cuban territory, Vega has turned out to be a perfect replacement for Miller by not trying to fill the late pianist's shoes but, instead, by bringing his own voice to a trio that plays so elegantly, so delicately, and was amplified so sparingly at its Mai Jazz performance— just enough to ensure the sound filled the room, but no more—that it almost felt necessary to lean forward in the seats of the old Stavangeren hall (capacity: roughly 450) to hear the trio's 6:30PM set.

A dark, woody room with red curtains and correspondingly lovely sound, it was the perfect venue for Carter, whose repertoire that evening included a number of tunes paying tribute to friends past and present. Opening with "The Red Hawk," dedicated to the late Oscar Pettiford (one of Carter's influences as a young bassist), it set the tone for the evening: largely down-the-center mainstream jazz, but with just enough hints of abstraction to distinguish it and keep things unpredictable.

Carter's tone was, as ever, warm and resonant, his ability to make a single note fill the room, even at such low volumes, a marvel in and of itself along with glissandi that were visceral despite their comfortable restraint. Malone, using a large hollow body electric and small amplifier, was equally subdued in volume, though he demonstrated tremendous virtuosity in his solos, moving from complex voicings to rapid-fire linearity with equal aplomb. Vega's touch was light, his accompaniment spare but perfect, and his solos motif-driven and responsive to his trio mates just as they were gently pushed into new places by the pianist's cultured phrasing.

A highlight of the three songs caught, prior to heading off to Folken to catch Lava, was "Candlelight," a piece dedicated to Jim Hall. While Malone's a cappella intro was a perfect combination of the recently departed guitarist's signature less-is-more approach and Malone's own lithe tendencies, a very slight tuning problem in his similarly unaccompanied outro prevented it from being the gentle tour-de-force that it should have been. Still, it was impressive enough, with Malone delivering some beautiful Lenny Breau- inspired harmonics. Beyond supporting Malone with his ever-unshakable anchor, Carter also joined the guitarist, mid-song, with some fast tremelo'd chords, their tension built on subtlety and nuance rather than more overt displays of volume and pyrotechnics; the trio's levels were so controlled, in fact, that the slightest change in dynamics seemed far more dramatic than they might have been under higher volume circumstances.

It was a show where patient development was king, quiet delivery was queen, and refined dignity was prince. A performance from one of jazz's true royalties, Carter may have been weeks away from his 77th birthday, but as he greeted the audience with "Welcome to our living room," it was clear that performing is keeping this living legend young, as his Golden Striker Trio delivered an intimate set that demonstrated mainstream jazz still has plenty of room for surprises.

Lava was another group dealing with the loss of a key member, in its case bassist Rolf Graf, who passed away in July, 2013. Still, recruiting Johnny Sjo from another Norwegian pop band, D'Sound, was a great choice, as he worked hand-in-glove with founding drummer Per Hillestad to anchor the danceable grooves for which Lava has become known. Performing for a packed audience at Folken—about a 10-minute walk from Stavangeren and conveniently located across the street from the hotel where the festival office was located and most media and artists were staying—that was clearly familiar with the group's history and material, Lava 2014 only has two of its original members left: Hillestad and guitarist Svein Dag Hauge. Still, singer Egil Eldøen has been with the group for more than 30 years, as has keyboardist Per Kolstad, the two joining in 1982 for Lava's third album, Prime Time, which also featured a young guest singer, Sidsel Endresen —already a Norwegian pop star with the Jon Eberson group for the hit song "Jive Talking," though she would soon leave pop music behind and reinvent herself as one of the world's most innovated experimental vocalists. Saxophonist Kåre Kole fleshed the group out to a sextet, and rather than being informed by saxophonist Jan Garbarek—a massive influence on so many Norwegian saxophonists—Kole's biggest touchstone seemed to be America's David Sanborn, especially when the saxophonist switched from tenor to alto.

This was pop music, plain and simple, but pop music touched by the language of jazz. Singing in English, the group's retro sound hinted at everything from Tower of Power to Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire, with hints of Toto-era Steve Lukather entering into Hauge's tasty and, at times, dexterous guitar solos. Despite looking his age, with a sizable belly and stringy gray hair, Eldøen's voice seemed untouched by time, with great range and plenty of feel, especially on the anthemic, Gospel-tinged "Shine a Little Light," a song that could easily have been a hit for a group like the Neville Brothers with a little rearranging.

It may not have been jazz per se, but Lava's 8:00PM show drew plenty of people to the festival , and no doubt helped to support some of the smaller shows, like the 10:00PM performance by Irish expat Phil McDermott, who was premiering his "Crossing Borders" project at Spor 5, situated about halfway between Stavangeren and Folken (with only a couple of exceptions, all the venues used by Mai Jazz were conveniently located within 10-15 minutes walking distance of each other).

McDermott has been living in Stavanger for some time, and for his Mai Jazz debut, he recruited a trans-European group that included fellow Irishman Kevin Brady on drums and Austrian saxophonist Heinrich Von Kalnein alongside two Norwegians: Inge W. Breistein, who McDermott met while studying and who, at the time was playing saxophone (and brought it out for one tune) but was armed, at Spor 5, with a laptop to provide the group with all kinds of synth colors; and electric/double bassist Magnus Rød Haugland.

McDermott opened with a guitar solo that defined much of the set—abstrusely melodic and gradual in its evolution towards the group's overall riff-centric approach (one tune was even called "The Riff") that was another touchstone of the set. Fusion-esque in its use of irregular meters but without the excess that sometimes defines the genre; there were also world music elements in some of the Afro-centric polyrhythms, particularly evident in Brady's impressive support—a drummer with strong chops, impeccable taste, creative blending of hand percussion with his kit and, most notably, terrific tone. In-the-pocket with Haugland, Brady supported solos from McDermott and Von Kalnein— another impressive soloist who commanded considerable attention visually and contributed softer textures later in the set, when he switched to flute on more than one occasion.

While jazz of the jam band variety was the overriding characteristic of McDermott's set, there were tinges of progressive rock and even hints of Kraut rock to be found. But it was when Haugland and Brady began to build a relentlessly propulsive pulse and McDermott began soloing with his distinctive angularity, with Breistein's electro-fueled washes panning across the stereo landscape, that things began to get really intriguing, as the guitarist began scatting along with his guitar.

The only criticism was that the material often rambled on a little too long, and ultimately became a tad predictable...until the encore, that is, a lovely, lyrical ballad featuring Von Kalnein on flute. It was a song that would have served the set better had it occupied a place in the main body, providing a little more variety in texture, tempo and dynamics. Still, first performances often reveal issues that cannot be found in rehearsal, and if McDermott continues to work with his "Crossing Borders" project, with a little judicious editing and the introduction of a little more variety in the order of the set, it could become even more compelling—and, based on the audience response, it was already reaching people in a very positive way.

Thursday, May 8: In the Country with Frode Grytten / NOCZ Quartet

When there are many choices it's always a tough decision whether or not to try and catch as many shows as possible or see a fewer number of complete performances. Thursday night it was the latter, with two shows taking place back-to-back at Spor 5.

First up: Norway's In the Country—a trio that, since its 2005 Rune Grammofon debut, the poetically titled This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat, has gone from strength to strength as its three members have grown significantly, both within the borders of the trio and in separate projects beyond. Keyboardist Morten Qvenild may be the most visible; the group's primary composer, he's been a part of everything from the melancholy pop of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, last heard on 2009's 3 (Rune Grammofon) to a duo with Solveig Slettahjell documented on Antologie (Universal Music Norway, 2012), after performing in the singer's Slow Motion Quintet and Orchestra over the past decade.

While This Was the Pace was all-instrumental, the trio's respect for song form became even more evident with its 2007 follow-up, Losing Stones, Collecting Bones, where all three members, also including double bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pål Hausken, began singing largely wordless vocals to expand the trio's sonic purview. But it's been more recently, with Qvenild's introduction of an electro-acoustic approach to the piano that he calls "hyper piano," that the trio has made even more significant evolution than already demonstrated on its third (and most ambitious) recording, Whiteout (Rune Grammofon, 2009) and the perhaps inevitable but, for In the Country, still forward-looking live CD/DVD set, Sounds and Sights (2011), the trio's final Rune Grammofon recording before moving to ACT for Sunset Sunrise (2013).

That the trio has occasionally introduced songs with lyrics, and that Qvenild has continued to work with singers, only made the trio's Mai Jazz performance all the more inevitable. As Managing Director Kvinnesland explained earlier in this piece, Qvenild had already worked with Frode Grytten, a Norwegian writer and journalist, and so it seemed logical to expand their collaboration to include the rest of In the Country. Spor 5 was packed for the event, and rightly so; nearly a decade after its first release, In the Country has achieved much, and Grytten's reputation is equally impressive. While, for a non-Norwegian, watching a trio work with spoken word in a foreign language might seem pointless on paper, as was already demonstrated when another notable Norwegian poet, Jan Erik Vold, brought bassist Arild Andersen and guitarist Bill Frisell together for the first time in 25 years for a performance at the 2010 Kongsberg Jazz Festival that was based, not on Vold's poetry, but on a recent Norwegian translation of poetry by American writer Wallace Stevens, it became clear that sometimes it's not necessary to understand the words being spoken; sometimes it's sufficient to feel the intent, if the poet is delivering well enough and if the musicians involved can find a way to capture the essence of the words through their music.

Vold, Andersen and Frisell were, indeed, so successful that their performance ultimately led to a recording, Blackbird Bye Bye (Hot Club, 2012); whether or not a similar fate is in the cards for In the Country's collaboration with Grytten is uncertain, but one thing is not: both Grytten's delivery and In the Country's music came together so as to make understanding the words unnecessary.

Culling music from recent recordings, In the Country's chemistry has become so profound that its performances have grown into events that, as illustrated at the 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival, are equal parts nuanced elegance and sinewy power. Hausken, in particular, has evolved into a player capable of simultaneously creating pulses of strength and subtlety while expanding his own sound world with a variety of different sticks, hand percussion—some played with his feet—and electronics. Arntzen, too, through his association with groups like Chrome Hill and Ballrog— whose Cabin Music (Hubro, 2012) represented an important step forward for the saxophone/double bass duo, now expanded to a trio with the addition of Huntsville guitarist Ivar Grydeland—has brought lessons learned from those projects back to In the Country, though he remains one of the country's most understated and unapologetically spare bassists, whose every choice seems nothing short of perfect.

Grytten utilized repetition to great effect, a technique that worked particularly well in its interaction with the trio. While some of In the Country's best moments were invariably the egalitarian ones, Qvenild nevertheless contributed some particularly fine solos, his hyper piano introducing everything from distortion to ring modulation while not neglecting the beauty of an unadorned piano, in particular during a mid-set solo redolent of gospel hints. There were even slight nods to rock and roll towards the end of the set, as the trio traveled to a place of greater power, leading to a set-closer where Qvenild, Arntzen and Hausken harmonized beautifully with wordless vocals—but not without the audience demanding an encore that turned out to be a ballad so slow as to be almost timeless, with pregnant pauses, long held notes and swelling bass lines. It was a lovely ending to a set that suggests this first-time collaboration with Grytten certainly deserves to be repeated.

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