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JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2014

Henning Bolte By

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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

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Jazz Near Bergen
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