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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.

Stavanger-based Cirrus was a young group with a highly original approach that tastefully brought together jazz vocals, French chanson (waltzing) and strong traces of Indian music. Singer Eva Bjerga Haugen often sang in French, her dreamy lines above the rhythmically complex instrumental ostinatos played by saxophonist Inge Weatherhead Breistein, bassist Theodor Barsnes Onarheim and percussionist Stein Inge Braekhus. Together, Brækhus and Onarheim emulated tabla drumming very often and the music fluctuated between noble elegance and childlike humming. Its meditative qualities work quite well when listening to its debut album, Méli Mélo, which includes a Robert Creeley poem set to music. Live, it was a different story, however. The group's performance went smoothly and flawless but did not really connect to the audience, lacking in a lasting, deeper impact. It was a bit too introspective and the place of performance—in the restaurant during dining—also did not support this kind of music. The qualities of the album's more visceral pieces, like "Not The End," did not pan out sufficiently during the live performance.

The first Nattjazz night presented two parallel opening concerts: Hakon Kornstad's Tenor Battle and Chicagoan trumpeter Rob Mazurek's São Paulo Underground. Considering the Nutshell context, the choice of Kornstad's new thing was clear. During the past fifteen years, saxophonist Kornstad has acquired his very own special place on the Norwegian scene, situated between different directions and schools. Even knowing Kornstad and his work, how he would combine "good and solid old" tenor sax playing with his newfound bel canto operatic singing within a unified program was something to look forward to. Admittedly, there are a lot of examples of combining elements from classical opera in jazz, from Claude Thornhill to Enrico Rava, and from Miles Davis (whose Tosca version was never realized) to Paul Motian, Han Bennink and Uri Caine. And that's not to forget that early jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet were heavily influenced by Italian opera tunes and opera singing at the New Orleans Opera.

Kornstad has indeed integrated both in a really surprising, convincing and highly enjoyable way within one unified program. What made it work; how did he make it work? In the first place, because of the excellent sense of orchestration and dynamics that he was able to achieve with an even more excellent lineup consisting of organist/harmonium player Sigbjorn Apeland; harpsichord and hackbrett/hammered dulcimer player Lars Henrik Johansen; Per Zanussi on double bass (with some great arco work); and percussionist Oyvind Skarbo. These musicians were able to modulate sounds and sound levels in a most flexible and colorful way, adjusting it to the dynamic subtleties demanded by Kornstad's bel canto voice, as well as his soaring saxophone.

Despite dynamic differences and contrasts they held the performance together as a whole on one and the same imaginary level. All the musicians took it to a third place, keeping the essentials intact. Kornstad did not go for big, bombastic tenor singing, but instead for musically sensible and subtle singing in the popular tradition of bel canto, thereby never overwhelming the group's other voices. On the contrary, his singing gave the music emotional depth and touching qualities as a whole, so that his performance culminated into the apogee of the first night of Nattjazz 2014. It was not only an extraordinary example of using these specific elements but an example of leaving behind reproduction and fixation, and gaining access to the inner richness of other worlds applicable to other musical genres and projects from which to absorb and draw. It was not just a question of adding, combining or so-called mixing. Behind it there lay a specific approach to deal with known music, known routine frames of performance and listening as a musician like Uri Caine or Ennio Morricone might have explored and/or done before. But apart from these backgrounds, the surprise and fascination in the audience was truly sensible which no doubt had to do with Kornstad's clear sense of well-dosed drama.

Øystese, Hardánger: Art House Kabuso and Storeteigen

On Friday, May 23, a bus ride to and along the Hardánger Fjord (stress on second syllable), south of Bergen, to Øystese, was accompanied by Brit Aksnes from the Nutshell organization, a woman originating from the area. She provided a series of lively stories about life as a child and adolescence in the Hardánger area, stories which made more of a ride along an already picturesque route.

The theatre of the Art House of Kabuso—impressive for this relatively small settlement in the Hardánger area—was the place for a show-case by Ballrogg. Originally a duo featuring reed multi-instrumentalist Klaus Ellerhusen Holm and double bassist Roger Arntzen, Ballrogg now operates as a trio with the addition of guitarist Ivar Grydeland, known from Norwegian groups Huntsville and Dans Les Arbres. Holm works in the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Arntzen is a member of In The Country and Chrome Hill. Originally, Ballrogg connected the musical worlds of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman with Morton Feldman. Grydeland, however, has injected different kinds of string sounds (pedal steel guitar, banjo, acoustic guitar) into Ballrogg's sonic universe, making it more electro-acoustic and more cinematic, with more intertwined layers, contrasts and a larger capacity for projection.

It was a smaller-scale version of Norwegian ambient music that still demonstrated traits of contemporary composed music in its structure and dynamics, next to strange and beautiful music around—to apply an expression of John Lurie. Ellerhusen Holm, Arntzen and Grydeland performed at the Art House Kabuso and reaffirmed their class, capacity and the importance of their productive role on the Norwegian scene, playing a quite steely piece of committed ambient music with spontaneous compositional qualities. Grydeland's pedal steel playing gave the music a strong floating characteristic which was shaped and underpinned by Holm's clarinet and Arntzen's great interconnecting and textural bass playing.

It was just a few steps to Storeteigen, a collection of old wooden houses at the shore of the fjord, a museum with a couple of old workshops from former furniture producers. This was the place for some music on the Hardánger fiddle, stories about singing and dancing in schools a few decades ago and an open air meal with local food from a local kitchen. It was in one of the old workplaces that Håkon Kornstad presented some of his music.

During the past fifteen years, Kornstad has acquired his very own special place in the Norwegian scene between different directions: the musicians of the ECM school and the free musicians of groups like the Norwegian/Swedish power quintet Atomic. Starting up with the successful group Wibutee, he also had a trio with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Mats Eilertsen and worked in a duo with pianist Håvard Wiik as well as bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the great singer Sidsel Endresen. He was one of the first saxophonists to sample himself using a rather old and limited memory sampling device, resulting in remarkable solo albums like Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009) on which he also featured his flutonette work, a clarinet mouth piece transposed onto a flute body.

In a five year-old interview related to Dwell Time Kornstad revealed that he had developed an interested in opera right before, during a stay in New York City. It sounded quite serious, but it could not be imagined then that five years later he would sing in a Mozart opera at the Oslo Opera House. It was also inconceivable he would succeed in developing a convincing, fully integrated program with his saxophone playing and opera singing to perform in prominent jazz venues during that period—witness his show the night before at Nattjazz. In a former furniture workshop at Storeteigen, Kornstad gave an enjoyable as well as instructive presentation of all these facets of his work.

The rural environment of the fjord apparently invited more to his singing than the urban environment where it was presented by professional musicians. Songs from various European areas, central, south, east, west—and from near and far—were heard during the bus ride back. Also the common singing of a uniting repertoire filled the air, a good Nutshell tradition reverberating.

Fløyen Mountain

The next morning it was up to Floyen or Fløyfjellet, the highest of the seven mountains (425 m, 1394 ft) surrounding the Bergen bay, by a funicular system originating in 1918. These days, many Bergenites run up and down the mountain one or more times a week for fitness and health reasons.

Up on the mountain participants not only had an impressive view on the bay, mountains and fjords, but also—again—an exquisite meal and two top-notch performances. The first one was by well-known trumpeter, drummer and vocalist Arve Henriksen, who came in from Hamburg—the old Hanseatic connection—where he had performed the previous night with Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur's Cave Spirit, together with guitarist Eivind Aarset and live sampler Jan Bang at the ELBJazz festival. Henriksen performed with Bergen resident and percussionist Terje Isungset, best known for his ice music enterprises. Their completely improvised performance went for making space and sonic beauty interact in intriguing ways, employing sounds of various trumpets, flutes, stones, skins, wood, metal, glass and human voice.

It was a way of sound-making that allowed sounds to fit into space and—by the ears of the audience—find its own consonance and concordance, at some moments dense and intensified musically by projective melodic elements and vocalizations. Henriksen and Isungset had the courage, power and confidence to also be open and receptive, during that process, to the vibrations and impulses from the audience. Henriksen immediately connected to the cry of a young child in the audience and transformed it into musical waves. It almost inevitably ended in the audience's collective percussive participation, incited and cheered on by Henriksen blowing two trumpets simultaneously. These were 30 rich minutes spent in a maximal musical and experiential way.

The finishing act was the phenomenal saxophonist Marius Neset's quartet, comprised of Swedish keyboardist Magnus Hjorth, Canadian double bassist Graig Earle and English drummer Joshua Blackmore. Neset, Hjorth and Earle know each other from the Copenhagen scene and Blackmore is from the connected London scene. Earle won a Canadian and two Danish Grammies. While Blackmore is known from his group Troyka, with Chris Montague and Kit Downes. The quartet started full force and kept it highly focused and uncompromising throughout its set, all playing urgently and giving the impression that they all really needed it. With the same commitment, they switched into ballad mode and rendered a moving finale. Great pieces by a great burning band that was far from any routine.

At the top of the mountain, the energy and sun shone brightly—a wonderful invitation to take the long walk along the winding path down the mountain into town to make it to the final gathering at Kalleklev's garden. No music: only fresh air, sun(set) and good food.

Back to the Sardines Factory

Renowned trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer presented his new band with a new focus, a switch to less scree but more washing and wearing out of contrasts, liquid lines and shimmering, slow burning sounds. One of the main factors, sound-wise, was master steel guitarist Geir Sundstøl, a seeming antipode to Molvær's former rough and raw guitarist, Stian Westerhus. When Molvær's group started, listening with eyes closed could have given the impression that a heavily updated Ry Cooder band was at work. The group, with drummer Erland Dahlen and bassist Jo Berger Myhre subbing for keyboardist Morten Qvenild, played quite a long set with clear moments of rare beauty and some beautiful songs. For instance, the lost in dreams "traumverloren" piece following a dub-reggae. It would have been an adequate ending. Contrary to the just-released Switch (Okeh, 2013), the live version of this new configuration still has to grow into an arc of tension and grabbing dramaturgy, maybe relying less on (the jacket of) power electronics and more on the steps towards the special electro-acoustic textures and colors already found on the album.

The second night had the two Stians—the hyperactive musical genius Carstensen and the dark, rough outer lands man Westerhus, with his hidden delicate melodies and meteoric guitar. Carstensen, as usual, pulled out all his instruments, styles and modalities, including his skills as standup comedian, to fully entertain his audience; but despite of his first class lineup (amongst others, violists Ola Kvernberg and Frode Larsen, as well as drummer Jarle Vespestad, the spark did not ignite. Rather than being thrilling, it was just a fine, entertaining performance.

Westerhus premiered his new configuration Pale Horses with keyboardist Øystein Moen and drummer Erland Dahlen last year during the 2013 Molde Jazz Festival. Meanwhile, its first album, Maelstrom (2014), has just been released by Rune Grammofon. It is a working context differing from his infamous and extremely moving solo and duo performances of the past few years. That he would make a new move could be expected, but he made the move into a very much reduced but sound-wise oversized steady rock version, with his musical baggage, putting himself out front as a rock singer who delivered a mixed reception and mixed responses. Competing with his other work and roles will maybe not that easy but it is not expected that they will for long persevere riding the same way, these horses.

Torbjörn Zetterberg and Den Storan Frågan (The Big Question) is one of the most enjoyable groups around at this moment. A sextet comprised of four great horn players—trumpeter Susana Santos Silva; trombonist Mats Äleklint Quartet; and the two reed multi-instrumentalists, Per "Texas" Johansson and Alberto Pinto—along with drummer Christopher Cantillo and Zetterberg on double bass, every subsequent concert has been better and better. The group demonstrated a lot of elements in its bag, from folk to bebop, and from Ornette to varieté, which it used in a playful but nonetheless cutting edge manner. The group's Bergen performance had this difficult to describe light-heartedness, combined with a rough, loud and complex sound, which made it very attractive. A real encore group that will be able to fill plenty more—and different—places.

Sunday, the fourth night, presented pianist Christian Wallumrod's ensemble at the Sardinen venue, together with the renowned piano/violin duo of Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman. Wallumrød was this year's winner of the most prestigious Norwegian music award, the Spellemansprisen, in the category of Contemporary Music, for his album Outstairs (ECM, 2013).

The Wallumrød Ensemble was the only group so far that played totally acoustically. Even percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen's vibraphone was not plugged in; he just played it without electricity. Founded about ten years ago, its present outfit consists of the Streifenjunko duo (saxophonist Espen Reinertsen and trumpeter Eivind Lønning, both from the younger Norwegian generation), plus two string players (cellist Tove Törngren and violinist/violist/Hardánger fiddler Gjermund Larsen).

Wallumrød focused on the rediscovery and regaining of the enormous richness and dynamics of a pure acoustic sound. He achieved this by repeating small motifs—not monotonously, but by a sophisticated distribution of sound and silence. The articulation of the instruments was mostly open and pretty quiet. By repetition and sustain the perceived impact and loudness of the sound increased steadily, creating a special experience of sound intensity. The ensemble, in its present lineup—which played its last concert with Larsen at Nattjazz—has reached a high level of sophistication in the execution of its acoustic concept, revealed in a fascinating way during this Bergen performance and triggering a striking encore. It became clear that the Norwegian audience was highly receptive to the hidden and broken elements from folk, baroque and soul music. Only time will show how the ensemble will treat the open space caused by Larsen's departure.

Courvoisier and Feldman, who have a new live duo album out as well as Birdies For Lulu—a quite surprising album from a new quartet with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Billy Mintz—performed, among others, "Dunes" from their Hotel Du Nord album; "For Alice," a piece dedicated to Alice Coltrane from their recent live album; and "Shadim," a new piece by John Zorn from his just finished Third Book of Angels. There was clear contrast but also some similarity in the approaches and the sounding results of both configurations.

The motifs/themes of Courvoisier/Feldman were often splinters and fragments which did not succeed in a linear way but nonetheless fit together by way of forming contexts for each other and thereby yielding astonishing valences. These elements could also clash and cause lightning and thunder, highly imaginative effects due to the clarity of the nuclei or motifs they employed, even as Wallumrød's musical sources were transfigured and encapsulated to yield new valences and contexts and echoes. The differences were clear in the duo's sharp, glistening and subtly singing rendition of Zorn's "Shadim." Just the contrasting clearness in both approaches made it a great concert experience due to prudent programming.

Photo Credit
Henning Bolte

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