JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2014

JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2014
Henning Bolte By

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JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2014
Bergen, Norway
May 21-25, 2014

Bergen, the second largest city of Norway along the northwestern coast of the North Sea, is situated along an impressive mountainous bay. Protected against and open to the sea, to the world it is an illustrious place of a centuries-old merchant tradition, originating from the times of the Hanseatic League which connected important places along the Baltic and North Seas. Trade, fish, important natural resources, industry, education and culture: Bergen, the place of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and star-violinist Ole Bull; Bergen, a major urban cultural centre in the north of Europe. Just a few indicative keywords for the place of the annual JazzNorway in a Nutshell event, which coincides with the city's Nattjazz festival.

Nutshell and Nattjazz

Nutshell 2014, connected to this year's 42nd edition of Bergen's Nattjazz (nightjazz) jazz festival, was organized by the West Norway Jazz Center in cooperation with The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the City of Bergen, the County of Hordaland, the Norwegian Jazz Forum and the Bergen International Festival. It offered opportunities to experience music by a selection of Norwegian musicians at various culturally marked places in and around the city of Bergen: a brand new house of literature; an old fish factory; an old rural furniture workshop; a regional art house; an illustrious old music room; and a restaurant room on top of the highest of the mountains that surrounds the city.

The music and the musicians on location required access by boat, bus, funicular and some walking/climbing, thereby experiencing some of the impressive landscape around Bergen including the area of the Hardánger fjord. Landscapes, big and impressive and nowadays totally wired with electrical lines are (inter)connected by roads, trains, lots of tunnels and bridges as well as high speed boats which allow comfortable crossing through and along places that create striking contrasts. And the snow and glaciers that can be seen on satellite pictures? They are real—a permanent accompaniment when traveling through Norway.

When traveling, meeting and talking, food and meals were another accompaniment organized carefully by JNiaN's hosts: as much as possible, local food; local vegetables, grains, fish and meat, cheese and butter; lamb, whale, winter-codfish, barley and brunost/gjetost.

Nattjazz was a ten-day event that took place at four venues at the old United Sardines Factory of Bergen, now a busy art production center. Jon Skjerdal's programming had a 50:50 proportion of domestic and international musicians and groups. Among the domestic musicians and groups there was also a firm representation of Bergen residents. Additionally, Nattjazz strove to program new configurations of musicians and groups/musicians who have not performed at the festival before. Most, but not all, of the musicians/groups who participated in Nutshell were also involved in this year's Nattjazz program. Presenting between six and eight overlapping concerts every night, complete coverage of the four days spent at the festival was impossible.

There was, however, one remarkable concert at Nattjazz which will be addressed first, preceding a report of all the other events. That was the performance of Norwegian bassist Steinar Raknes's group Stillhouse. When joining this concert some confusing doubt arose. Tom Waits in disguise? Yes; there were some similarities in Raknes' bass playing and singing, but nonetheless it was different on a deeper level and many people were drawn in, and in a remarkable way. It had some special, enigmatic intensity. There was also some fine interaction in the band but not always. Even Hermansen (of Bushman's Revenge) played some guitar, Erlend Slettevold, at certain moments, some kind of organ. When discerning the drummer, who was shrouded in darkness, the high level of intensity and deep feeling got a name: Paolo Vinaccia. His playing got more and more intense, deeper and deeper, more and more forceful, every beat striking, vibrating, causing lucid trance and flowing joy, going on, full-stop. The group sang blues beyond cliché—abundant, heartfelt, unlimited.

Bergen House of Literature

Nutshell started at Bergen's brand new House of Literature, a new cultural centre which was revealed to be successful beyond expectation right from the beginning, a year ago. It was a place not only for poetry and literature but for cultural, social and political debate and the arts connected to it. Starting there set the tone in a clear way for JNiaN 2014, which presented two groups the first night, Cortex and Bushman's Revenge.

Cortex is a strong up-and-coming quartet configuration instigated by cornetist Thomas Johansson, with saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer and the increasingly ubiquitous drummer Gard Nilssen. Sawing the air with rhythmically dense and edgy melodicism, the group beat its very own track crossing through the fields of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. The group sounded heavy in the {Atomic}} way, but also soared and swung like heaven due to the strong cohesion between the two horns, combined with strings and skin, as well as its remarkable power of projection. The group has made its way into bigger European festivals and North American venues. Its second album, Göteborg, has been released on Gigafon, a young label founded by drummer Gard Nilssen and guitarist Petter Vågan. Gigafon not only supplies high recording quality releases; its cover design—done by bassist Rune Nergaard—is one of the most original of this moment in time.

Bushman's Revenge, a particularly scorching South African hot sauce, was also the apt name of the free-rock power trio of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen, bassist Rune Nergaard and drummer Gard Nilssen. With six albums out on Rune Grammofon—the most recent being Thou Shalt Boogie!, released at the end of 2013—Bushman's Revenge now belongs to Norway's collective of established groups. Its music was basically a raging electric guitar storm with compelling drums and an occasionally heavy Hammond hammering and curving. The storm sometimes quieted down for awhile, providing space for different temperaments, temperatures and tempo—slower, and even introspective. The rock-driven music was jazz-spirited in the sense that the musicians felt free to produce their own sheets of sound and go to other places and fields easily, distilling their own liquor throughout. At the House of Literature it was revealed that the trio could induce a full blown high energy level of storm in less than fifteen minutes and hold that easily. Together with the vital sounds of Cortex it provided a steamy start to JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2014.

Nilssen was involved in Nattjazz later that week with his new duo sPacemoNkey, with In The Country piano ace Morten Qvenild. The duo has just released The Karman Line on the Norwegian Hubro label, its music shuttling between high energy outburst and freak outs, and beautifully strange, still soundscaping. The duo played a fully improvised live set on Nattjazz's third night. After some fumbling and firing, a shimmering hot lava stream emerged, yielding moments of great musical intensity; Nilssen's comment? "That's what we go for every time again!"

Ole Bull's Lysøen

The second day brought us to an illustrious place of importance for Norwegian self-understanding and/by music. Lysøen (pronounced leeseuan) is a small island outside Bergen where Ole Bull (pronounced oule beul) built a fantastic fantasy residence. The residence is an amazing amalgam of eastern and western elements, Moorish with art deco. Its moderate size and its fabrication from wood and glass were strong unifying factors.

Ole Bull, this crazy Norwegian fiddler, was born in Bergen in 1810 into an era of virtuosos all around in Europe: Paganini, Gusikow, Spohr, Schumann, Liszt, Joachim, just to name a few. Bull caused a furor on stages in Europe, Canada, the United States and Cuba. Through his concert tours in the U.S. he amassed a considerable fortune. His fame rested on a few catching features which impressed his large public even as it did his peers, like his flaming improvisations, the spontaneous flow of his music and the way he could switch back and forth between different musical spheres. "He is simply extraordinary. He is a kind of wild genius with an abundance of original, compelling ideas. In short, he hit me and it's a long time since it happened to me so," as Franz Liszt put in 1860. Star violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim mainly fell for Bull's interweaving of Norwegian folk melodies in his playing. There were not only the special folk melodies but also the violin's sister instrument, the Hardánger Fiddle—with its sympathetic strings and a flatter, lower bridge, allowing more strings to be played simultaneously—both of which Bull grew up with. For his concert violin he used a flatter bridge and preferred an extra long bow.

Bull was not only a world famous musical star. His originality, self-consciousness, courage and clear identification with his indigenous culture and connectedness with his own people had a great impact on building and maintaining a Norwegian identity. He constantly encouraged his fellow Norwegians to be themselves, to carry out their originality and retain their own culture, an ethic which continues to this day, with violinist Nils Økland and pianist/harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland recording Lysøen: Homage á Bull (ECM, 2011) at Bull's home.

Four musicians had the honor of performing in the bigger music room in the centre of the house. First, young classical violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, who has just released an amazing rendition of Violin Concerto no. 1, by Max Bruch, and Prokofiev's second Violin concerto, together with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. She performed on one of Frits Kreisler's violins, rendering two short pieces with her finely grained, multifaceted sound: one by Bach and one by Bull.

Then came pianist Eivind Augstad's trio. Augstad and double bassist Magne Thormodsæter, both from Bergen, were joined by Trondheim-based drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen to form a quite decisive unit which moved with taste and clarity along the more interesting corners of trioism. Augstad and Thormodsæter are both staff members of Bergen's Grieg Academy and form Living Space, an all-Bergen group together with Bergen born saxophone-colossus Kjetil Møster and older generation drummer Frank Jacobsen, a central figure of the Bergen scene, in particular as a member of the Bergen Big Band that recorded Crime Scene (ECM, 2010) with guitarist Terje Rypdal. Living Space, a group of great potential and challenging contrast, also performed at this year's regular Nattjazz program, combining high energy, a big tenor sound, swing and enjoyable melodicism.

Drummer Johansen also performed in two other groups at Nattjazz: together with Thormodsæter on double bass in Trondheim pianist Svein Olaf Herstad's trio; and also in renowned guitarist Havard Stubø's quartet with Swedish bassist Torbjorn Zetterberg and saxophonist Knut Riisnaes—an older generation musician who started his career in the early ECM groups of bassist Arild Andersen—it was a remarkable cutting edge group with a unique odd twist. It seemed worthwhile to dig into the Bergen-Trondheim web of groups.

Hanne On Top Of the Hill (Hanne pa Hoyden)

Late afternoon brought us to another hilltop in town, to a meal offered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Hanne pa Hoyden, a quite new restaurant serving indigenous food from Bergen and its surrounding area, taken from local/regional farmers. It was the place for the second showcase of the day: the young quartet, Cirrus.


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