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Norwegian Digital Jazz Festival 2020, Part 1

Photo credit: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen

Mark Sullivan By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Norwegian Digital Jazz Festival
Sentralen
Oslo, Norway
November 6-17, 2020

With the physical 2020 festival cancelled, the Big Ears Festival has turned its attention to broadcasting filmed and live streamed concerts, under the moniker "Sites & Sounds From Big Ears." Many of the shows have taken place in the Knoxville area, but for this ambitious series of filmed concerts they have turned to Norwegian partners Musikkprofil Booking & Management, Oslo's Sentralen performing arts center, and Hes & Falck: each performance was beautifully filmed on-site at the Sentralen in Oslo, Norway.

The Norwegian connection should not be surprising, as Norwegian jazz musicians have frequently played at the Big Ears Festival over the years. The 2017 festival was especially notable, when a partnership with Music Norway, the Norwegian Jazzforum, the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival and the Norwegian Consulate General in New York brought a large contingent of Norwegians to the festival (including double bassist Mats Eilertsen and keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, who appear here). The Mathias Eick Quintet played the 2019 festival.

All but one of the digital concerts is a double bill, making for a total of 15 hour-long sets of music. Instrumentation ranges from solo to quintet.

November 6

Bugge Wesseltoft

The festival opened with a solo set from pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, primarily playing music from his most recent solo album Everybody Loves Angels (ACT, 2017). The set list was an unusual one, mostly made up of modern rock and pop songs, along with a few original compositions. Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" began with a slow rumination on the melody, also incorporating passages from the well known original arrangement. After an exciting buildup to end the bridge, Wesseltoft ended the song by expanding on the original harmonies. A creative interpretation that respected the original while still placing a personal stamp upon it.

"Koral" was an arrangement and expansion upon a J.S. Bach piece (koral means chant or hymn in Norwegian). It was very chorale-like, and at one point the melody recalled Paul Simon's "American Tune." it may have been a quote, or it may just have sounded like one because Simon's melody was based on a hymn which Bach had also used. This part of the performance was marked by an especially creative use of camera angles (as was the entire concert). Switching perspective between the pianist, the keyboard and the inside of the piano helped to make a solo performance look more dynamic. "Hoping" was an original which featured mbira (thumb piano) played into a sampler: Wesseltoft then used the sampler keyboard and a tablet to create an ostinato, which he played over on the piano. At some point it morphed into "Reflecting," another Bach arrangement. The mbira part ended, and rhapsodic two-handed playing took over, shadowed by live electronics.

"Morning Has Broken" is an early twentieth-century Christian hymn that is often credited to Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens because of his famous, 1971 recording of it. Stylistically it was very much in keeping with the preceding songs, and was again played with a deliberate, almost classical approach—which did not stop Wesseltoft from playing some dazzling fast lines at one point, an indication of technique tastefully held in reserve. "Bridging" took the concert into more contemporary, experimental territory, beginning with a bass ostinato using synthesizer and tablet. After adding piano the ebb and flow included frenetic synthesizer and an energetic burst of piano.

Bob Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" was played very slowly, as well as re-harmonized, enough to make it hard to recognize at first. The Beatles' "Let It Be" was another hymn-like modern selection. The performance was notable for a dramatic field of white lights—like stars—and a big re-harmonized climax, followed by a gentle coda spun off from the song proper. Last but not least, Henry Mancini's hopelessly romantic ballad "Moon River" provided a final bit of beauty to a lovely (and often surprising) concert.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity

Led by drummer Gard Nilssen, Acoustic Unity included double bassist Ole Morten Vågan and saxophonist Andre Roligheten. The music was all original, roughly equally divided between the leader and Roligheten (including four co-written selections). Most of it came from the group's album To Whom Who Buys A Record (ODIN Records, 2019). "Masakråke"opened the set with a frenetic rhythm. After a drum introduction, soprano saxophone and drums joined in for a theme reminiscent of Ornette Coleman (an acknowledged inspiration). The tempo slowed to a hesitant half-time for the saxophone solo, which sometimes happened in Coleman's music. Nilssen made announcements (in Norwegian), including band introductions.

"Omkalfatring" had a march feel, and featured Roligheten playing tenor and alto saxophones simultaneously, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It included a gentle, rubato double bass solo accompanied mainly by cymbals before moving into a swinging tenor sax solo with walking bass and full drum kit. "Rat on a Skateboard" went straight into its start and stop theme, fast swing all the way. After an unaccompanied double bass solo the unison final theme came to a dramatic hard stop. "Broken Beauty" was the first ballad of the set, played rubato on tenor saxophone. The reprise featured the subtle accompaniment of arco bass and drums played with brushes. "Dancing Shadows" was played on soprano saxophone over a double bass ostinato reminiscent of John Coltrane's music (another possible influence that could be heard elsewhere in the set). It featured the leader's drum solo, punctuated by accompanying riffs from the other instruments.

"Bötteknott" was another tenor saxophone ballad. After lyrical double bass and saxophone solos Nilssen took a distinctive solo using cymbals only at first, then adding drums played with mallets. "Elastic Circle" was played over another bass ostinato, but this time Vågan played part of the solo with both horns, sometimes alternating with tenor sax alone. "Cherry Man" sounded like Ornette Coleman's "Broadway Blues" (the title is perhaps a reference to trumpeter Don Cherry). The lighting was green rather than red, but concluded with a striking lattice of vertical and horizontal spotlights. After the group's namesake tune "Acoustic Unity," "Jack" concluded the set with a driving bass ostinato and both horns on the head. The soprano saxophone solo again recalled Coltrane, and the group mustered a great rush of energy to bring the tune and the concert to a dynamic close.

November 10

Tord Gustavsen Trio

In this concert pianist Tord Gustavsen was joined by his drummer of over 20 years, Jarle Vespestad, and double bassist Steinar Raknes, who was playing his first concert with Tord. Much of the music came from the trio's most recent album The Other Side (ECM, 2018), but the set list also reached as far back as The Ground (ECM, 2005). The show began with "Prelude" from The Well (ECM, 2012), with Gustavsen's delicate piano accompanied by arco bass and brushes. Its rhapsodic buildup led to the first of three classical arrangements, all from The Other Side. J.S. Bach's "O Traurigkeit" was given a surprisingly swinging arrangement. The improvisational section was an energetic departure from the original before resolving back into the theme. Norwegian composer/organist Ludvig Mathias Lindeman's "EKirken, deen er et Gammelt Hus" got a quiet, rubato treatment, leading into Bach's "Jesu, Meine Freude."

"The Tunnel" has a deliberate, folk-song like theme, and featured an intense double bass solo from Raknes, who never sounded less than comfortable in his new role in the trio. For the Norwegian traditional song "Ingen Vinner Frem Til den Evige Ro" arco double bass playing high harmonics doubled the piano melody, resulting in an almost electronic sound. "Wide Open" from The Well included a piano solo with the intensity of gospel music, recalling Keith Jarrett. "Interlude" from Being There (ECM, 2007) was true to its title: Gustavsen's calm piano was unaccompanied at first, later accompanied by arco bass as the solo erupted into intense flurries of notes.

Bach's "Schafes Bruder" has a bit of a funk feel on the album version. Here it was even more pronounced. Gustavsen stood up from the piano bench for part of his solo, as he had done earlier in the show during moments of great intensity. The funky bass solo was accompanied by the rest of the trio, so the groove never faltered."Tears Transforming" from The Ground was a lyrical, rubato finale to the concert. An earlier orange and white lighting scheme that evoked sunset switched to white light, like sunrise. An appropriate image for a beautiful, uplifting set of music.

November 17

Bendik Hofseth's Woodlands

Saxophonist/composer Bendik Hofseth played music from his recent album Trunks (C+C Records, 2020), which is the first of a four album set called Forest. He was joined by pianist Helge Iberg, guitarist Eivind Aarset, double bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Most of the compositions were written for, and dedicated to band members. "Maple (for Per Oddvar)" opened the show with an evocative saxophone melody reminiscent of Jan Garbarek. The music displayed impressive dynamic flow—Hofseth could be seen giving hand signals for transitions—and included a richly textured guitar solo.

The ballad "Sapwood (for Evalill)" began with unaccompanied piano. After being joined by a fine bass solo, the rest of the band came in. This piano/bass duet approach would be repeated later in the set. Fittingly, "Bark (for Eivind)" opened with a lush electric guitar soundscape full of textures and electronic treatments. Later in the piece Aarset played a beautiful melodic solo, calling Terje Rypdal to mind. "Heartwood (for Michael)"—the dedication is probably to vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who also played marimba on the album—opens with a kind of shuffle rhythm on the drums, a gentle fusion groove that made a nice contrast with the previous music.

"Bamboo (for Christer)" continued the rhythmic diversity with a calypso feel. "Norway Spruce (For Mats)" began with unaccompanied piano, joined by swelling guitar pads and light percussion (mostly cymbals and bells): all to set up the dedicatee's gorgeous arco double bass solo. The hushed ending was almost hymn-like. "Cambium (for Helge)" concluded the concert, opening with the dedicatee's piano accompanied by only drums. It included some of the wildest playing in the set, with animal sounds from the saxophone and percussion from the double bass. Not a word was spoken, but the music spoke for itself very well.

Mathias Eick Quintet

Trumpeter/keyboardist/vocalist/composer Mathias Eick focused on songs from his most recent album Ravensburg (ECM, 2018), but also featured a few tunes from earlier albums. He was joined by regular quintet members drummer Torstein Lofthus, electric bassist Audun Erlien, violinist Hakon Aase and pianist Andreas Ulvo. "Family" was a rubato concert opener which broke down to a duet between piano and electric violin. When Eick added keyboards and vocals it became chorale-like. Like fellow Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, Eick's delicate falsetto vocals have an identity quite different from his trumpet playing. "Children" began with another piano/violin duet before building to a full band climax; in symmetry another duet concluded it. At this point Eick stopped to address the virtual audience (in English) and introduce the band. A charming, humanizing gesture.

"August" went from a vocal introduction into a memorable, majestic trumpet theme. It spotlighted pianist Ulvo in a rhapsodic solo. "At Sea" comes from Midwest (ECM, 2015). Its initial slow, deliberate pace was driven by mallets on the drums: it featured a lyrical violin solo. After moving into a rock beat electric bassist Erlien added high lead lines. He has a distinctive sound; his tape wound strings produce a muted sound not unlike tuned drums. "Oslo" from Skala (ECM, 2011) continued featuring the bass, this time playing rhythmic riffs accompanied by the whole band playing percussion—like a drum circle.

After an opening bass riff "Parents" brought out drummer Lofthus' most assertive drumming of the night: really energetic and driving. After a breakdown to just vocals, piano and violin the full band returned to the theme (on trumpet). "Ravensburg" (named for the German town from which his grandmother came) continued the extroverted mood with a moderate rock beat, and once again included a melodic bass solo. Eick introduced "For My Grandmothers," a lovely trio for piano, violin and vocals. It sounded reminiscent of a Pat Metheny Group ballad. The other band members had left the stage, so the trio took a final bow.

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