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Mai Jazz 2014

John Kelman By

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While Spor 5 was packed for In the Country/Frode Grytten, it was unfortunately not so for NOCZ's 10PM set. NOCZ—its name based on the participation of musicians from both Norway and the Czech Republic—was a chord-less quartet that featured saxophonist Radim Hanousek, bassist Marian Friedl and drummer Václav Pálka (all Czechs) and the lone Norwegian, trumpeter Didrik Ingvaldsen, none of them particularly well-known but, based on their performance, all worthy of attention.

NOCZ's set began with the group entering the stage one-by-one: first, Hanousek on soprano, combining oblique lines with dissonant multiphonics, followed by Friedl and then Pálka, gradually bringing a pulse into the picture, and finally Ingvaldsen, whose playing was somewhat reminiscent of Dave Douglas in his approach to lyrical freedom and, in particular, when the entire group coalesced for a single-note theme that signaled the end of the opening piece.

A more distinct groove defined the second composition—all of the set's pieces seemed more like spare sketches rather than full- fledged composition, creating contexts for improvisation not unlike Ornette Coleman's early '60s Atlantic recordings. But if the writing was sparse, the performances more than made up for it; Hanousek a fountain of ideas and Ingvaldsen a virtuosic player who moved comfortably (and seemingly effortlessly) from low register growls to stratospheric screams. The third piece was another free bop excursion, where Ingvaldsen built his solos around repetitive motifs from which he briefly broke away, only to return to a slightly altered version of the same phrase.

NOCZ successfully married a more European approach to improvisation that began in the '60s and groups like Spontaneous Music Ensemble with an allegiance to the American tradition of collective spontaneity that began with Coleman and continued through Coltrane and others. But while its roots were clearly in acoustic music, NOCZ nodded to more contemporary concerns with Ingvaldsen's spare but significant use of electronics, sometimes using a harmonizer to create vertical harmonies that, bolstered with a wah wah pedal, created a chordal underpinning for Hanousek, who demonstrated a similarly broad range. Muscular solos from both Friedl and Pálka rounded out a quartet that may have only drawn about 15-20 people to Spor 5, but which will hopefully pick up steam through word of mouth for future performances.

Friday, May 9: E.S.T. Symphony / Jøkleba / Pixel

When pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a diving accident in 2008, it put an end to e.s.t., the massively popular trio that had already conquered Europe with CD sales in the realm of rock and pop acts and consistently packed concert houses. The trio, also featuring double bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, was also making serious inroads in North America, having toured the United States and Canada on more than one occasion, slowly building an audience for its music—oftentimes complicated compositional structures that, nevertheless, allowed for plenty of solo space.

Since Svensson's passing, Berglund and Öström have reappeared with their own groups, both completely different from the music of e.s.t. (and each other). But with the trio's back catalog still selling, it seemed that the group may have been over, but the music has lived on. And so, the idea of E.S.T. Symphony was born: a symphonic approach to the music of e.s.t. that, with Berglund and Öström on board, also included orchestrator/conductor Hans Ek. The approach is to have the three collaborate with symphony orchestras in various locations, inviting local musicians as featured soloists. While there would be a pianist, he/she would not replace Svensson; instead, the orchestra became Svensson, as the scores took his often rich and contrapuntal playing, and divided it up amongst the strings, horns, harps and other instruments.

After a few days of rehearsal with the Stavanger Symfoniorkester, E.S.T. Symphony was performed at the Stavanger Konserthus with a quartet of superb Norwegian guest soloists: guitarist Eivind Aarset, pianist Helge Lien, trumpeter Mathias Eick and saxophonist Tor Yttredal. Each received plenty of space and was uniformly excellent, but the two that were the most revealing were Aarset and Yttredal. Aarset, because his usual approach to creating sound worlds that often sound like anything but a guitar were not really appropriate to this music, and so he played more conventionally—albeit still absolutely identifiably. And while he still contributed plenty of color, it was great to hear him almost shredding at one point, with superbly controlled use of his whammy bar and some visceral swells and swoops. Yttredal was also a revelation, simply because the Stavanger native is not particularly well-known outside of Norway but, based on his performance, he should be.

Lien was the most challenged of the four; a fine pianist whose own trio recordings like Natsukashii (Ozella, 2011) have garnered him increasing recognition, he had the unenviable task of sitting in Svensson's chair, but as expected, rather than in any way imitating the late Swedish pianist, Lien remained true to himself, delivering a particularly impressive solo during the title track to e.s.t.'s Seven Days of Falling (ACT, 2004). Eick—whose career has taken off so much since the release of his 2008 ECM Records debut, The Door, followed by the more ambitious Skala (ECM, 2011), that he has recently left Jaga Jazzist, the popular Norwegian group with whom he has played since 2001's A Livingroom Hush (Ninja Tune) in order to focus more completely on it—also contributed what is becoming a signature brand of lyricism, touched with hints of melancholy that, despite being a celebration of e.s.t., equally fit its intrinsically bittersweet nature.

Öström acted as the project's spokesperson, introducing a number of suites where a selection of material was culled from albums like Tuesday Wonderland (ACT, 2007) and Viaticum (ACT, 2005), but it was a symphonic look at one of e.s.t.'s most enduring songs, the driving "Dodge the Dodo" from From Gagarin's Point of View (ACT, 1999), that was, perhaps, most significant: a score written for symphony orchestra by Svensson himself, it made clear that while E.S.T. Symphony didn't get off the ground until after the pianist's passing, the idea of collaborating with an orchestra was something the trio was already entertaining before his untimely death.

Berglund and Öström were also featured, Berglund a reminder of just how unique his approach to arco double bass was, heavily overdriven and informed as much by hard rock groups like Deep Purple as it was anything from the jazz tradition.

While attendance left a little to be desired, it didn't affect the performance, and the group was still called back for an encore after a standing ovation—a rarity in Norway— performing Seven Days of Falling's hidden track, "Love is Real," a vocal version of the album's instrumental track "Believe, Beleft, Below" that, sung by surprise guest, Norwegian pop star Morten Abel, ended the show on a truly poignant note.

After a quick visit to the E.S.T. Symphony after show, a grateful drive by Mai Jazz staff to Stavangeren meant coming in well into the performance by Jøkleba, the Norwegian super group featuring trumpeter/vocalist/percussionist Per Jorgensen, drummer Audun Kleive and keyboardist/percussionist Jon Balke. Almost entirely spontaneous, the trio's Ekstremjazz performance at the 2013 Vossa Jazz festival was a remarkable blend of improvisational élan and a bevy of visual treats, courtesy of other performers whose instruments were paraglides, parachutes, skis and other forms of extreme sporting, rendering it a particularly special performance. Here, in the more subdued environs of Stavangeren, there were few visuals, other than a curious series of apartment building slides courtesy of Balke, but the trio's performance was no less impressive.

Every night is a new one for Jøkleba, and on this night Jørgensen seemed particularly inspired, his ululating singing altered when he sang through his djembe. But it was when he picked up his trumpet that some real magic happened, the trio somehow evoking images of early '70s Miles Davis while sounding nothing like the legendary trumpeter's electric work. Moving between piano, synthesizer (for melodic, harmonic and percussive textures) and a small hand drum, Balke worked together with Jørgensen and Kleive—who, this time, had not just his electronic kit but a full drum set as well, allowing for some serious grooves to emerge—to shape an unpredictable set where there was no telling where it might go, other than to what has become a rallying point set-closer—the only real way for the group to find its way to a unified ending after extemporizing for more than an hour. It was a shame to have missed the first part of the show, but any Jøkleba is better than no Jøkleba at all.

A quick run downhill towards the train station (where Balke and Kleive caught trains home no more than half an hour after the end of their performance) it was time to hit Spor 5 once again, where Norway's Pixel was already onstage, delivering its exceptional blend of indie pop- based material played by a jazz quartet configuration of bassist/vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, trumpeter Jonas Kilmork Vernøy, saxophonist Harald Lassen and drummer Jon Audun Baar. With two exceptional records out on the American Cuneiform label—2012's Reminder and 2013's We Are All Small Pixels—Pixel is already a serious up-and-coming act in Norway, as clearly evidenced by the full house.

That the group's music was a quirky, catchy blend of pop hooks and jazz-centric soloing has helped position the group in a space with few (if any) peers. Walking in mid-set, the energy in the room was palpable and, for a quartet that was, like NOCZ the night before, a chord-less affair, it was in Pixel's use of trumpet and saxophone to create not just linear melodies but actual vertical harmonies that, with just a hint of electronics, suggested a far richer harmonic accompaniment for Wang's vocals on tracks like the slow-groove of "Passport" (with its only lyric the single word of its title) and more buoyant "Space," where the bassist possessed a more versatile pen, it was an exhilarating set by a group that, if there's any justice, will find its way to other places in Europe and, hopefully, North America. It's rare for a group so young to emerge with such a fully formed and distinctive concept, but Pixel seems to have accomplished just that.

Already part of the Match and Fuse festival created by another intriguing and entrepreneurial group, Britain's WorldService Project, Pixel has also participated in the Irish-born 12 Points Festival. If its performance at either of these festivals—by all accounts, superb—was anything like its Mai Jazz set, this is a group that has found a way to take jazz training and turn it into something that has eminent pop appeal without losing any of its credibility. If all goes well, there's a bright future ahead for Pixel.

Saturday, May 10: Jazzintro—PGA/Karokh / Mario Piacentini Sextet / Arild Andersen Trio

If the choices were becoming increasingly difficult to make on Friday—it being impossible to catch, amongst other things, a set from pianist Tord Gustavsen's Quartet that was, no doubt, wonderful—then Saturday was an even greater challenge. First off, the afternoon featured two groups participating in the Jazzintro competition at Spor 5 in the afternoon, where young performers compete throughout a series of Norwegian festivals including Voss' Vossa Jazz, Bergen's Natt Jazz, Mai Jazz, the Kongsberg Jazz Festival and, finally, Molde for a cash prize and, ultimately, a commissioned work to be performed at Molde the following year. PGA was certainly a curious duo: a drummer, Jan Martin Gismervik, who used nothing but a snare drum, bass drum, high hat, small cymbal occasionally placed, upside down, on his snare and a violin bow; and Moskus double bassist Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson, who employed a series of preparations including small metal bars and use of arco in places not normally bowed on his instrument. The duo's first album, Corrections, was released in 2012 on the Norwegian Va Fongool imprint.

The duo's short improvised set was challenging, an ever-evolving series of textures and techniques that evoked a series of intriguing tonalities. Dietrichson, in particular, was impressive, with extended techniques like strumming one string repetitively while bowing the others, holding his thumb down on the neck of his bass while strumming the string with the other fingers of the same hand...and then doing the same thing on another string with his other hand so that one note became two, and a gentle, lovely rhythm emerged. Gismervik used soft mallets on his snare, at times sounding surprisingly like a timpani, while other times he employed harder mallets and sharper rim shots to create a harsher timber as the bassist relentlessly bowed minimalist-driven harmonics with an impressive control of harmonics and an approach not unlike the late Stefano Scodanibbio.

After a short break Karokh hit the stage hard, a seven-piece group that featured two keyboardists (Jan Klippen Hovland and Jonas Cambien), trumpet (Thomas Husmo Litleskare), guitar (Christian Winther), bass (Magnus Nergaard), drums (Jan Martin Gismervik, back from PGA) and vocals (Ina Sagstuen). If anything, Sagstuen has been informed by some of the fine Norwegian vocalists who have come before, including Sidsel Endresen and Eldbjørg Raknes, but was already demonstrating some personality of her own. A group that featured, amongst many things, hints of Kraut rock, minimalism, noise rock and improv, its set was largely drawn from its eponymous 2014 Loyal label debut, a recording made after extensive touring following the band's inception in 2010. It was an impressive set—so much so that, after some deliberation, the judges chose the group to continue on to the next round at Natt Jazz on the 29th of May.

A short dinner break provided the opportunity to, if not actually see the group, then at least spend some time together with pianist Nik Bärtsch's Ronin. Having seen Bärtsch as recently as last fall in Mannheim, Germany, where he brought his expanded Ronin Rhythm Clan to the Enjoy Jazz Festival, it was the kind of reasoning necessary in making choices when the schedule was so full as to be absolutely impossible to navigate. And so, after hanging with Ronin for dinner and through to sound check, it was back to Spor 5 where Italian pianist Mario Piacentini brought his star-studded, largely Italian sextet to perform music from Néant (Incipit, 2014).

Piacentini's Sextet was billed as "Feat. Gianluigi Trovesi," and it was fair enough, given the Italian clarinetist/saxophonist's international presence on ECM Records with albums including Frere Jacques—Round About Offenbach (2011) and more ambitious Profumo Di Violetta (2008). But Trovesi wasn't the only known entity in the group: Russian French hornist/Alpine hornist Arkady Shilkloper has also appeared on a number of ECM recordings with pianist Misha Alperin, while Italian bassist Roberto Bonati, in addition to his own groups and running the Parma Frontiere festival, has worked with Trovesi over the years, including the reed player's superb octet project, Fugace (ECM, 2003). Lesser known but no less impressive were Norwegian saxophonist Tor Yttredal, back after the previous night's performance with E.S.T. Symphony, and Italian drummer Marco Tonin, who proved capable of everything from Paul Motian-like colors to more firmly grounded pulses.

Néant is a recording that could easily fit on ECM Records, with its gentle disposition, spare lyricism and carefully constructed solos. But the group could burn too, as it did on "Kaleidoskop," an elegantly swinging track that featured an incendiary alto clarinet solo from Trovesi, followed by a sparer but equally impressive turn from Shilkloper, on an instrument long considered to be one of the toughest instruments on which to improvise, but for whom it was clearly no problem here. Yttredal, too, burned brightly, as did Bonati, a bassist whose warm, resonant tone was a warm-up for the act to follow.

Piascentini's writing for three horns was especially appealing, in particular at the end of "Kaleidoskop," where Shilkloper, Yttredal and Trovesi were heard alone, without any accompaniment. The only problem with "Kaleidoskop" was that it was the last tune heard before having to leave, mid-set, for Folken, where Norway's Arild Andersen was performing with his now seven year-old trio with Italian expat drummer, Paolo Vinaccia, and Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, whose debut, Live at Belleville (ECM, 2008), documented its first date while the recently released Mira (ECM, 2014) demonstrated just how far this trio has come in the intervening years.

Meeting Vinaccia at the hotel earlier in the day, he suggested that because Folken is typically a rock club (where Lava performed just a few evenings prior), the trio was going to have to "rock out." There may have been no doubt that what was witnessed was a jazz performance of the highest order, but Vinaccia was correct in one sense: if Live at Belleville was an uncharacteristically incendiary date from Andersen, the trio's Folken performance truly did turn things up to eleven.

From the very start, it was clear that this was a particularly good night. Andersen, whose singing tone is the result of a very specific technique, was absolutely on fire from his very first solo, crossing the range of his double bass with the kind of dexterity that belies a player a year shy of 70, whose career has spanned fifty years and who was one of the "Big Four" Norwegians brought to international attention in the late '60s/early '70s by ECM's Manfred Eicher on classic recordings including saxophonist Jan Garbarek's Afric Pepperbird (1970) and whose own early recordings only (finally) saw the light of day on CD with the 2010 release of Green in Blue: Early Quartets .

Vinaccia, who moved to Norway from Italy more than a quarter century ago, had a serious brush with a terminal illness a few years ago, but has not only beaten it completely— releasing the aptly titled Very Much Alive (Jazzland) in 2010, a collection of his trio work with another of the "Big Four," guitarist Terje Rypdal and keyboardist Ståle Storløkken (Supersilent, Elephant9)—and looking every bit as imposing and powerful as he did before he became ill, though he's really a big guy with an even bigger heart. A drummer known for the lettered black T-shirts he always wears—ranging from "Almost Musician" to "Not Loud Enough"—Vinaccia was barely lit, the result of a sensitivity to light that is, perhaps, the only residual of his serious illness. Still, he was as charismatic as ever, pushing and pulling his trio mates with the kind of loose interaction that has kept him gainfully employed in Norway in everything from rock bands to jazz trios—seen, the last time in Stavanger, as part of Andersen's combined Sagn (ECM, 1991) and Arv (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1994) projects. Yes, he could be incredibly powerful, and groove like a mo'fo on the aptly titled "Blussy," but he was equally capable of tremendously delicacy as well.

Smith's own career has been on the ascendance since returning to Scotland in the late '80s, his most recent recording with his Scottish National Jazz Orchestra— American Adventure (Spartacus, 2014)—on the cusp of US release this summer and the record that, with the participation of a host of American guests including saxophonist Dave Liebman, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern and vibraphonist Joe Locke, is poised to bring him and his flagship orchestra the attention it deserves on this side of the pond. Some of his best playing on his own recordings can be found on Torah—a suite of music written for (and first performed live by) Joe Lovano, but ultimately recorded by Smith as featured soloist—but it's with Andersen's trio that he seems to fully let loose, with a pair of musicians who understand how to respect structure while, at the same time, using it as a jumping off point for some individual and collective improvisations that, by the end of the set, had moved from incendiary to positively nuclear, with the exception of the near-primal "Raijin," where he switched to Shakuhachi flute, and "Reparate," a tune defined by Andersen's use of a looping device to create soft layers of arco bass over which he could solo with even softer lyricism, a tune also redolent of the Norwegian folk tradition.

It was a tremendous finish to a great festival, and a trip that saw—with Estonia's Jazzkaar Festival and Bremen's Jazzahead! trade fair and showcase—four weeks of travel that meant crossing the Atlantic not twice but four times. With a 5:30AM pickup for the airport the next morning, it was also a grueling way to end a long overdue return to Stavanger, but it was a small price to pay for a week of outstanding music, some of the best treatment by a festival staff ever, and a chance to return to one of the country's most dramatic fjords. What's a little fatigue when compared to that?

Photo Credit: John R. Fowler

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