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Norwegian Digital Jazz Festival 2020, Part 2

Photo credit: Big Ears Festival

Mark Sullivan By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Norwegian Digital Jazz Festival
Sentralen
Oslo, Norway
November 24-December 1, 2020

November 24

Silje Nergaard

Silje Nergaard is one of the new breed of jazz singers who writes most of her material—rather than singing jazz standards and songs from the Great American Songbook—occupying a stylistic space somewhere between traditional swing-oriented vocalists and singer-songwriters. "Based On a Thousand True Stories" opened the concert in a lovely medium tempo. Sung in English (as was most of the set) it recalled Joni Mitchell, and not for the only time. After "Be Still My Heart" she introduced her accompanist, pianist Espen Berg as "my orchestra, my wonderful orchestra." The up-tempo "While You Were Gone" featured a powerful two-handed piano solo.

But Berg really demonstrated his orchestral capabilities on the first cover of the night, Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" from So (Charisma/Virgin/Geffen, 1986). His introduction was entirely strummed inside the piano—for a guitar-like sound—to which he added muted keyboard bass with his left hand. The chorus was sung deliberately, using the full keyboard, followed by a piano solo self-accompanied by percussion inside the piano. A grand piano climax led directly into the second cover, Freddie Mercury's "Love of My Life" from Queen's A Night At The Opera (EMI/Elektra, 1975). It was given a respectful slow ballad treatment, after which Nergaard told the story of first meeting Berg during a Japanese tour, despite them both growing up in the same small Norwegian town.

"Take A Long Walk" was a sharp kiss-off of a former lover. Accompanied mainly by muted playing inside the piano, they both had fun with it, with the singer joining in by tapping on the piano body at the end. "Tell Me Where You're Going" was Nergaard's first hit, recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny. She introduced it by playing a cassette demo recorded with Metheny and a drum machine, which Berg joined in for a seamless transition into the live performance. The show concluded with the only song sung in Norwegian. "En Og En" was also one of her first compositions, bringing her musical story full circle.

Ketil Bjørnstad

Pianist/composer Ketil Bjørnstad was initially trained as a classical pianist, but he discovered jazz at an early age. As an ECM artist he has collaborated with others on the label, including cellists Svante Henryson and David Darling, drummer Jon Christensen, and guitarist Terje Rypdal. In this solo concert, Bjørnstad improvised over songs from more than 50 years as a recording artist. The 75 minute set was played continuously, without pause. Beautiful, but challenging for anyone who was not a longtime fan (at least in terms of recognizing the songs as they flowed by). The show had the feel of a classical recital, with Bjørnstad wearing a black suit and shirt and given especially sedate stage lighting.

"The Sorrow In Her Eyes" from the trio album Floating (Emarcy, 2005) made a rhapsodic opening Bjørnstad revisited the album again later in the set with the title tune. "The Sea No. 9" from The Sea (ECM, 1995)—originally recorded with Terje Rypdal, David Darling and Jon Christensen—featured a beautiful melody, as well as unsettled tremolo chords in the bridge. This album also received another look with "The Sea No. 2" later on. True to its title, "Lost Chords" had a mysterious sound, reminiscent of French composer Erik Satie. "The Token" was first recorded on The Shadow (Kirkelig, 1990) with vocals. It was notable for its driving rhythms, a contrast to the previous music. Mention should be made of the creative camera angles employed to maintain visual interest. Similar to the Bugge Wesseltoft concert earlier in the festival, but slightly more conservative.

"The Personal Gallery" was likely the most recent selection, coming from the album of the same name with violinist Guro Kleven Hagen (Grappa Music, 2020). Reflective and melodic, it had an almost pop music melody, calling Pat Metheny to mind. The last part of the program included "Fragment of Piano Sonata No. 7" by Sergei Prokofiev and "Ray of Light." The playing revealed more aspects of Bjørnstad's style: frenetic chromatic bass lines; moto perpetuo; dissonant clusters; and some explicitly bluesy improvised lines. Closer "Karl Danser" was a gentle cool down, ending with a single repeated note plucked inside the piano.

November 27

Mats Eilertsen

Double bassist Mats Eilertsen had appeared earlier in the festival as a member of Bendik Hofseth's Woodlands, but this concert consisted of a single solo improvisation entitled "Korone," inspired by the Covid pandemic. The stage setting was appropriately serious, with Eilertsen in black shirt and slacks accompanied by stark stage lighting. HIs improvisation began with high arco harmonics, which finally developed into a mournful melody. After adding a drone to a looping pedal Eilertsen played a slightly faster melody on top. Creaking noises produced with the bow went into the looper, followed by another melody in harmonics. After adding some preparations to the strings he created a low rumble by bowing on the bass' tailpiece—then played the first pizzicato notes of the evening, more than fourteen minutes in. Most jazz double bassists play arco only occasionally, but Eilertsen was clearly very comfortable with it. It was his default throughout the concert, and his tone and intonation were impeccable.

He finally set down the bow for a minute, playing rhythm and his first extended plucked solo. Returning to arco, he played a plaintive melody in the upper register, which in his hands sounded very like a cello. A solemn pizzicato melody was interrupted by occasional percussive slapping on the strings and body. After a series of arco glissandi Eilertsen reset the loopers and played a new arco melody using spiccato (bouncing the bow on the strings). Creating a new arco loop, he played pizzicato harmonics over it, moving into mbira-like rhythms. Rhythmic spiccato playing led into a melancholy melody.

At this point Eilertsen dramatically detuned the low E string on the bass to the point of flabbiness, using it to produce a very low arco drone. He joined this with a series of unusual sounds: alarms sounds and low rumbles with the bow, and a small tuned bell placed on the bridge. Tuning the lowest string back up to pitch, he played an arco solo over a looped arco melody. A final pizzicato solo led into a chordal sequence, and the set concluded with one final low note (played on the tailpiece), and a bow. A dramatic ending to a stunning performance. Technically the best bass playing this reviewer has ever heard, in the service of a fascinating, creative improvisational journey.

Trygve Seim

Saxophonist/composer Trygve Seim performed music from his album Rumi Songs (ECM, 2016), accompanied by bass clarinetist Håvard Lund (standing in for cellist Svante Henryson on the album), vocalist Ingebjørg Bratland (in place of Tora Augestad, who commissioned the song cycle) and accordionist Frode Haltli. The bass clarinet has a range roughly equivalent to the cello, but making the group effectively a reed ensemble made a substantial change in the sound. The two vocalists have very different specialties on the face of it: Augestad's focus is cabaret and classical, while Bratland's is Norwegian folk songs. Yet Bratland sounded completely at home here.

The band processed onstage, then launched into the beautiful melody of "There Is Some Kiss We Want." Seim introduced the tune on soprano saxophone, then provided obbligato to the vocal. It was the closing track on the album, but proved very effective as an opener. After a saxophone solo, both Lund and Haltli demonstrated a facility as soloists equal to their fine accompaniment skills. "Arabesque" was a mournful soprano saxophone/accordion duet, with a very different character from their collaborative tune on the album. Seim's keening saxophone often swooped into notes for a very vocal effect. "In Your Beauty" was a very slow change of pace, which also signaled the first use of tenor saxophone.

"Across The Doorsill" was given expansive treatment. It featured a ghostly rubato unaccompanied accordion section, full of warbling effects and lots of upper register, as well as a section of doleful unaccompanied bass clarinet. Lots of low register, but equally effective in the upper range. Both excellent showcases for these faithful accompanists. "When I See Your Face" introduced a sprightly, dance-like rhythm. At one point tenor saxophone and accordion joined to create a sound like the harmonium used in Pakistani music. The concert concluded with a song that was not on the album. "On The Day I Die" had a chorale-like sound, with the instruments playing slow repetitions to the end. Seim mimed calling for applause for each of the band members, then they bowed and walked off the stage.

December 1

Hedvig Mollestad Trio

Big guitar night, leading off with guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen and her longtime heavy metal-influenced trio. The two women in the band usually perform in dresses, but the leader cut an especially striking figure in a peach Thule outfit. Bassist Ellen Brekken wore a red sheath dress, and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad sported the black shirt and slacks that have been almost a uniform during the festival. Opener "Approaching" from Black Stabat Mater (Rune Grammofon, 2016) was a blast of hard rock. The stage setting was like a rock concert, with a banner displaying the band's logo hanging overhead center stage, hot red stage lights, and tall vertical speaker cabinets flanking the drums. They went straight into "Ashes" from their debut album Shoot (Rune Grammofon, 2011), with a brisk double-time tempo. Highlights included shredding guitar, a brief bass guitar solo, and a unison riff with guitarist and bassist standing almost hip to hip, headbanging style.

There was a slow transition into "Indian Driving," Brekken's tune from All Of Them Witches (Rune Grammofon, 2013) as she switched to double bass. This may appear to be an odd choice for such a loud band, but it worked for the heavy riffing as well as the double bass solo that followed. "-40" from Black Stabat Mater included a breakdown for an electric bass solo, which was followed by a thoughtful guitar solo (although with increasing volume and intensity). "Lucidness" from the collectively composed Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon, 2018) could be called the ballad of the set. It opened with unaccompanied guitar—gentle chords with a faint reverb tail—joined by cymbal washes and arco double bass.

"Bewitched, Dwarfed And Defeathered" (also from Smells Funny) began with scattered rubato notes, before Mollestad introduced melodic over-driven lines, which grew into a riff played in time by the whole band. It employed a sequential build up reminiscent of King Crimson's epic "Fracture." "The Rex" from All Of Them Witches was notable for its fast tempo and Brekken's nimble finger style walking on the electric bass: surprising, as most of her electric playing had been done with a pick. After a false start—kudos to the band for leaving that in—"Beastie, Beastie" closed the concert with its slightly Middle Eastern sounding theme. Terrific sustained energy from the band, and it was a pleasure to see how much they enjoy playing with each other.

Eivind Aarset Quartet

Guitarist/composer Eivind Aarset (who appeared earlier in the festival as a member of Bendik Hofseth's Woodlands) was joined by electric bass guitarist Audun Erlien and drummer/percussionists Wetle Holte and Erland Dahlen. These players were all part of Eivind Aarset & The Sonic Codex Orchestra, whose earlier tour was documented on Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010). The band walked onstage and began with "Close (For Comfort)" from Dream Logic (ECM, 2012), Aarset's e-bow playing began unaccompanied, unwinding a slow, sinuous melody. Drums began a moderate tempo marching rhythm over a bass ostinato, punctuated by bells and cymbal crashes. "Wanderlust" was driven by Steve Reich-style repetitive xylophone and glockenspiel patterns: a good example of the range displayed by these two players. Guitar loops built to a final grand chordal theme.

"Cameo" from Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007) was built on a bass line, with start-and-stop drums. Aarset's snaking guitar line with harmonizer recalled trumpeter Jon Hassell. After the drums locked into a steady rock beat Aarset played octaves on his guitar for a slow fade. "Rask" began with an unaccompanied finger style bass solo. Gentle and melodic, with Erlien switching to playing with a pick for faster runs and harmonics. As the song moved into tempo the drummers began playing with mallets, with Aarset playing a steel-guitar like solo using the whammy bar and delay. After a brief bell solo, the drummers played a duet with increasing intensity.

"Hidden" included a section with an almost Bo Diddley-sytle rhythm, a striking bass solo incorporating a high doubler (producing the effect of a bass/guitar duet), and a guitar solo featuring high screams and intense rhythms. The concert concluded with "Still Changing" (originally on Sonic Codex, it was revisited on Live Extracts) which included a little of everything. Atmospheric guitar swells, xylophone melodies doubled by high bass lines and a big guitar solo with electronics finally gave way to quiet xylophone and a slow swelling guitar fade out. With that, the band walked off stage.

Aarset is a master of mood and texture: the sound he and his quartet produced together was magical.

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