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Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008


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Since the early 1970s, the Norwegian music scene has received increasing international exposure, first through the German ECM label, but over time with an increasing number of Norwegian labels including Odin, NorCD, Curling Legs, Rune Grammofon and Jazzland. For a country of less than five million people, what is perhaps most remarkable is the sheer number of exceptional musicians, as well as the degree of sophistication that can be found, even amongst young players still in their teens.

While the Norwegian scene—which, from a jazz perspective, runs the gamut from straight-ahead to free jazz/improvised music and electronica-based Nu Jazz—continues to gain exposure internationally, another remarkable aspect of the country is the degree to which government—from municipal to federal—support arts of all forms. With the past decade representing perhaps the greatest growth in the scene since the early 1970s, Norway is trying hard to get the word out to the world, to spread its distinctive approach to jazz and other musical forms.

The country also has a remarkable approach to music that says, essentially, that there are no rules, and that anything is possible. At Norway's Punkt Festival, it's as likely to see Karl Seglem playing goat horns through an array of processing effects and loops as it is a thirty-piece string section, four samplers, a turntablist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist and guitarist take the music of Wagner and turn it into something entirely new and rife for improvisation.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008 (JNiaN) is a junket designed for media, promoters and programmers from around the world to experience the vast diversity of Norwegian music, but by including trips around the country to soak up the country's distinctive culture, it creates an even deeper understanding of how the music has evolved. Jazz is, after all, a cosmopolitan melting pot of influences, as capable of incorporating the folk music of Norway as it is the American blues form. The tour is also a means of creating a social network, not just between the artists and the attendees, but between the attendees themselves, where new ways of linking jazz activities from around the globe are encouraged and cultivated.

Chapter Index
  1. Bergen
  2. Ivar Kolve
  3. Rosendal and Albatrosh
  4. Haugesand, Bugge Wesseltoft and Arriving in Stavanger
  5. The Mayor's Reception and Arild Andersen—Sagn and Arv
  6. Bokna Fjord and Lysefjorden, Tore Brunborg Trio and Hilde Kjersem Band
  7. Jon Balke/Siwan and Mathias Eick Quartet
  8. Andy Sheppard's Saxophone Massive and Oregon
  9. In the Country, Jan Garbarek Group and JazzNorway in a Nutshell Ends

Beginning on May 6, 2008 in Bergen, on the southwest coast of Norway, the trip wound its way down the coast, with stops in Rosendal and Haugesund, before settling in Stavanger for four days, where the annual Mai Jazz festival was already in full swing. Traveling down the coast one of the most noticeable aspects to the country's population is that, while there are major centers like Bergen and Stavanger (Oslo, on the east cost, is the country's largest city with a population of about half a million people), small communities can be seen everywhere, largely linked together by boat, although more roads—and tunnels, to allow traveling under the countless waterways and fjords that define the craggy coastline—are being built every year.

Like many of the stops along the way, Bergen is a city with countless waterways and mountains. With steep hills rising from the numerous waterfronts, it's no surprise that there's a pervasive sense of health and well-being amongst the Norwegians. Centuries-old architecture lives side-by-side with modern buildings, and yet there's never a sense of incongruity. And Norway may be an old country, but it's progressive-minded in its adapting of innovative ways to conserve energy (despite being energy rich) and preserve green space.

Ivar Kolve

JNiaN's attendees were treated to a number of performances from artists known and unknown, in concerts that were open to the public and, in some cases, were small private shows organized especially for JNiaN. Vibraphonist Ivar Kolve was the first performance on May 7, preceding lunch at Kafe Kippers, a beautiful restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating along one of Bergen's many waterfronts. While Kolve's recordings—Innover (2004) and View From My Room (2007), both on Curling Legs—are trio efforts, here he performed solo. Still, with the inclusion of electronics and a number of extended techniques that included bowing the keys, Kolve delivered a unique solo performance that ranged from spare atmospherics to knotty complexity and repetitive motifs redolent, at times, of minimalist Steve Reich.

Overall, Kolve is a deeply melodic player, bearing no small reference to Gary Burton's music of the early-to-mid 1970s. Combining bowing with one hand and dexterous double mallet work with the other, he managed to create a richly textured sound. When he incorporated looping and sound processing, there were times when his music approached the ambient space of artists like Brian Eno. But when programmed beats and harmonies entered, Kolve took the opportunity to demonstrate his improvisational acumen in a Nu Jazz context. Closing with "There Will Never Be Another You, " Kolver proved himself completely conversant with the conventional jazz tradition, although his short performance focused largely on his own writing. Like many Norwegian musicians Kolve may be capable of straight-ahead jazz; but he chooses, instead, to create a personal voice, more distinctly reflective of his own culture and life experiences.

Rosendal and Albatrosh

Traveling, by boat (Hardangerfjordekspressen's Rygerfonn) to Rosendal, JNiaN attendees received their first exposure to the beauty of the Norwegian coastline. White-capped mountains coexist with smaller hills and seemingly countless inlets where communities as small as half a dozen homes pepper the waterfront. After checking in at the Rosendal Fjordhotel, while there was little spare time there was enough to take in the beauty of this small coastal town, couched at the foot of a number of mountains.

After a brief break, a twenty-minute walk—through pastoral landscapes with bubbling streams and fields filled with sheep and newly born lambs—took the group to The Manor of the Barony of Rosendal, a 350 year-old structure that housed rooms decorated in styles from various past centuries. Prior to dinner, a house performance by Albatrosh—a duet featuring pianist Eolf Dale and saxophonist Andre Roligheten—demonstrated the degree of musical sophistication and maturity amongst many of Norway's youngest musicians. Generous financial support of the arts—coupled with innovative grade school tours that expose children to adventurous music from a very early age—prove that cultural education works. As more and more music programs are dismantled in North America, Norway's inherent support is one of the fundamental reasons for its emergence as one of the most forward-thinking countries when it comes to music, regardless of the genre (or, more importantly, in defiance of genre stereotyping).

Roligheten and Dale's music provided a jumping board to considerable free improvisation, where the saxophonist demonstrated a wealth of extended techniques, coming not only from American artists including Albert Ayler and John Zorn, but from emerging Norwegian artists like saxophonist Hakon Kornstad—a young player himself but one who, through his work with Wibutee and his remarkable solo album Single Engine (Jazzland, 2007), is becoming increasingly influential. Dale creates his own sonic space by often exploring the high and low registers of the piano, rather than soling largely in the piano's middle range, the more conventional home for soloists.

While there was an air of rigor about Dale and Roligheten's music, there was also the occasional hint of a dry sense of humor. The two have been playing together for a few years now and, while they've yet to release a CD, the effortless communication they demonstrated suggests that, when they finally do document their work, it's going to be well worth checking out. While there were moments of greater extremes, there was also an inherent attention to space that created a much more appealing dynamic arc to their performance. And while the music is a form-based means to a freely improvised end, that doesn't mean the music is simple. Complex polyrhythms, sometimes more implicit than direct, and lengthy, high velocity themes created very specific contexts for the duo to explore, making its performance an example of the kind of as yet undocumented musicianship that will keep the Norwegian scene alive and continually growing.

Haugesand, Bugge Wesseltoft and Arriving in Stavanger

An early morning departure from Rosendal on the "Helgoy Express" provided JNiaN attendees with even more access to the beauty and diversity of Norway's western coastline, as it wound its way south towards Stavanger, the trip's final destination and home of the annual Mai Jazz festival. The trip stopped approximately half-way to Stavanger in Haugesund, another coastal town that has its own annual jazz festival, Sildajazz. Norway has, in fact, over twenty different jazz festivals, ranging from the electronic/remix Punkt Festival in Kristiansand to the 35 year-old Vossa Jazz Festival (where many live albums, including guitarist Terje Rypdal's outstanding Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006), have been recorded), the legendary Molde International Jazz Festival, where bassist Arild Andersen recorded his equally fine Molde Concert (ECM, 1982) and the modernistic Kongsberg Jazz Festival.

A noon-hour solo performance by Jazzland label head and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft featured the seamless integration of acoustic and electric instruments with live sampling and sonic alterations, also incorporating a video screen of images responding to Wesseltoft's playing, as well as speakers set up around the hall so the audience was, at times, literally surrounded by the music.

Compared to earlier solo performances at Punkt 06 and his Jazzland Community tour, which made a stop in 2007 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, Wesseltoft's approach to solo performance continues to evolve. While Wesseltoft would make his virtuoso talent crystal clear in a performance later that day in Stavanger with Arild Andersen, in Haugesund he demonstrated an increasing attention to space and economy. Perhaps the result of increasing confidence in a solo context, Wesseltoft's approach to evolving largely freely improvised music that possessed the complexion of scored music was both starkly beautiful and unfailingly engaging.

Combining his instruments (and use of them in unorthodox ways, making every part of the piano a potential source for sound) with voice, live sampling/looping and electronics, Wesseltoft created in-the-moment music that ranged from ethereal melancholy to viscerally driven grooves. Harmonic sophistication led to folkloric simplicity and a sound that was far removed from the conventional jazz tradition but, like Kolve the previous day, Wesseltoft demonstrated that, underneath his own voice lies a conversance in that tradition. Still, with bold emphasis on its familiar bass line, Wesseltoft closed the set with a version of Paul Desmond's "Take Five" unlike any you'll hear on the west side of the Atlantic.

Continuing to Stavanger, the JNiaN attendees had little time to settle in before hitting the first evening shows. Mai Jazz combines a program of well-known Scandinavian artists with those not-so-well-known or up-and-coming, and a small roster of artists from abroad. The city is in the midst of a year long cultural celebration of the arts that will bring together a multiplicity of artistic disciplines.

The Mayor's Reception and Arild Andersen—Sagn and Arv

Before diving into the Mai Jazz festivities, JNiaN were invited to the home of the Mayor of Stavanger, where the acting mayor further demonstrated the unparalleled hospitality that attendees had been receiving since the beginning of the trip, thanks to organizers Lars Mossefin, Bo Gronningaeter, Ann Iren Odeby and Aud Grete Ekestad. After brief speeches from the acting Mayor and Mary Miller, Director of Stavanger, 2008, a gorgeous buffet and the opportunity for conversation with some of Mai Jazz's organizers prepared JNiaN attendees for four days of outstanding music.

One of the most exciting and innovative aspects of Norwegian art in general and music in particular is its approach to stylistic cross-pollination, where boundaries are dissolved and genres twisted in new and often very unusual ways. Bassist Arild Andersen's performance at the beautiful Randaberg Kirke was the perfect introduction to the stylistic and cultural blending that's such a defining marker. With a group including Bugge Wesseltoft, saxophonist/vocalist Bendik Hofseth, drummer/percussionist Paolo Vinaccia and the stunning singer Kirsten Braten Berg, Andersen's performance consisted of music culled from two albums that mix the traditional folk music of south Norway with Andersen's own writing, filled with rich melodicism and free-wheeling improvisation—Sagn (ECM, 1991) and Arv (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1994).

As outstanding as both Andersen's albums are, hearing the material in performance is an entirely different experience. Bold themes are meshed seamlessly with elegant melodies, with Anderson's robust double-bass a voice as definitive as that of Berg's. What was most unexpected, however, was the group's entry into seriously swinging modal territory, where Wesseltoft soloed with intensity and dexterity rarely demonstrated so vividly in his own music. Vinaccia, who moved to Norway many years ago from his native home of Italy and has since played regularly with Andersen and Terje Rypdal since the mid-1990s, looks like he'd be more comfortable in a metal group. But looks can be deceptive as he demonstrated an encyclopedic understanding of percussion, giving him the freedom to be a powerful rhythmic anchor, a colorful textural contributor and, in support of solos from Wesseltoft and Hofseth, an intuitive rhythm section partner with Andersen.

While the music was heavily scripted, with Berg's strong voice often acting as a rallying point for the group, it was the passages clearly left open to the group that were the performance's most exciting. Hosfseth, who has his own discography that leans at times towards a pop complexion, proved himself to be one of Norway's secret treasures, a saxophonist who, with a tone that clearly comes from Jan Garbarek, still possesses a slightly warmer sound and an ability to build fiery solos that still retain a narrative quality.

Andersen, who has cited Jaco Pastorius as a seminal influence despite playing double-bass rather than fretless electric, is also expert with the use of electronics, bringing looping, pitch shifting and more into his own solos, which were filled with imaginative motifs and deep, in-the-gut low notes that resonated throughout the beautiful acoustics of Randaberg Kirke.

Bokna Fjord and Lysefjorden, Tore Brunborg Trio and Hilde Kjersem Band

With the opening of the JNiaN Key Club at the Skagen Brygge Hotel, there was an opportunity for attendees to kick back, listen to some music, have a few drinks and pick up some promotional music from the many artists performing at Mai Jazz. The downside was a lack of sleep, but the excitement of the festival and the entire trip kept energy levels high. An early morning departure on May 8, on the boat "Sadnes," took JNiaN attendees on what was undeniably the most striking part of the week-long tour. Traveling through fjords created during the ice age, with sharp cliffs rising 2,300 feet above water that sank to depths of nearly 2,000 feet, it was impossible not to be in awe of the natural beauty that's endemic to the country.

One of the most remarkable points of the trip was The Pulpit Rock, a large outcropping that has, over the centuries, slowly been cracking and falling into the sea. In recent years trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer gave a solo at the top of Pulpit Rock to an audience of 600 people, all brought to the rock by helicopter. A stunning example of the natural integration of nature and mankind, it's another characteristic of Norwegian culture—rather than destroying the country's inherent natural beauty, Norwegians work with it, and find new ways to blend millennial landscapes with modern approaches in ways respectful of the past but never fearful of the future.

The organizers also provided two musical performances during the six-hour boat trip. Saxophonist Tore Brunborg is best-known outside continental Europe for his work in Masqualero, the 1980s group that recorded one album on Odin and three for ECM, including the particularly outstanding Band a Part (ECM, 1986), featuring Arild Andersen, drummer Jon Christensen, a young Nils Petter Movaer and, in some cases, pianist Jon Balke. He has also appeared on ECM albums including Arild Andersen's Hyperborean (1997), Misha Alperin's North Story 1997), Jon Balke's Nonsentration (1992) and Further (1994). But it's his own disc, Tid (Curling Legs, 1993), that provided insight into his significance as a player and performer.

Unlike the quartet setting of Tid, Brunborg performed with a trio including bassist Ole Morten Vagan and Erik Nylander, two young and flexible players. The music was loose and open-ended, but Brunborg's strength as a writer of both memorably melodic and contextually complex themes was an equal component. Fiery intensity juxtaposed with relaxed gentility, as Brunborg layered carefully developed solos over the elastic support of Vagan and Nylander. Vagan was a fine soloist as well, with an approach that created considerable contrast between aggressive attack and lithe linear constructs.

Towards the end of the trip back to Stavanger, the Hiilde Marie Kjersem Band performed a set that was heavily compromised by playing outside, where the wind created problems for Kjersem in maintaining pitch. Far removed from jazz, this was more a pop group with an occasional aggressive edge that allowed Kjersem the opportunity for greater extremes, but it was on the softer tunes that her voice, strong but equally capable of understatement, was at its best. The members of the group were all fine enough players, but sadly there was little to distinguish them, and there are other groups mining similar territory who are far more successful.

Jon Balke/Siwan and Mathias Eick Quartet

Less known than he should be in North America, keyboardist/composer Jon Balke has, in the past two decades, emerged as one of Norway's most influential artists, cited by many as a seminal reference point. Albums including Diverted Travels (ECM, 2004), with his long-standing, but ever-shifting Magnetic North Orchestra and the percussion-heavy Statements (ECM, 2006), with the relatively new Batagraaf, have highlighted his interest in combining music from many cultures with a contemporary edge, while his recent solo album, Book of Velocities (ECM, 2007) illustrated an entirely different side, one where improvisation was so well-conceived that the line between form and freedom was almost completely blurred.

When the word began to spread about his newest project, Siwan, expectations were high. A sixteen-piece group that placed musicians from North Africa including virtuoso violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kacich, percussionist Pedram Khavarzamini and singer Amina Alaoui alongside a Baroque ensemble (The Baroque Soloists), archlutist Andreas Arend and Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken would be intriguing enough. But when Balke recruited trumpeter Jon Hassell, another artist whose influence may be felt more than his own work through the music of artists including trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen (who performed with Hassell at the closing live remix of Punkt 07), Siwan became an even greater cross-pollination project. Hassell has long worked in various areas of World Music, and to have two innovators as distinctive as Balke and Hassell together on one stage, performing music that brings together Baroque classicism, North African music, ambient textures and no shortage of improvisational opportunities made it one of the highlights of Mai Jazz 2008.

For nearly two hours the audience was treated to music that had so many fundamental parts as to transcend any single source. While the reference points could be identified, the whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts; a new kind of music that was undoubtedly challenging to play, but represented some of Balke's most accessible writing to date. While most of the players were given an opportunity to stretch, the most impressive and moving solos came from Hassell, Balke (who, despite this being his project, contributed but one solo towards the end of the set), Alaoui and M'Kacich, who interacted directly and beautifully with both Hassell and Copenhagen-based violinist Bjarte Eike. When Khavarzamini and Norbakken soloed, either individually or in tandem, the two percussionists' clear enjoyment of working together was palpable.

Trumpeter Mathias Eick, while only 28, has clocked up a significant number of achievements, most notably for his work with ECM on albums including guitarist Jacob Young's Evening Falls (2004) and Sideways (2007), drummer Manu Katché's Playground and Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's long overdue debut, Northbound (2004). Trumpet may be his main axe, but this vibrant up-and-comer turns out to actually be a remarkable multi-instrumentalist, a fine writer and generous but focused bandleader. While most think of him as a jazz musician, he plays far outside of that definition, working with rock bands and singer/songwriters.

Eick's debut as a leader, The Door (ECM, 2008) was released in Norway only days before his CD release party at Stavangeren (the album will be out in the rest of Europe in June and in North America in August). While Jon Balke played on the disc, Eick's touring band now features bassist Auden Erlien and drummer Audun Kleive—both from the album—and keyboardist Andreas Ulvo. While the recording of The Door had a number of rules, including an intentionally acoustic complexion, and no processing, programming or sampling, live the group was another beast entirely.

Eick's penchant is for memorable melodies and solos that create strength out of a Garbarek-like attention to tone and avoidance of unnecessary displays of technique, and The Door's generally more subdued tone reflects his aesthetic. Still, his inimitable technique—equal parts Molvaer, Henriksen, Kenny Wheeler, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker and Miles Davis—was more visible during a performance that nearly blew the roof off Stavangeren. Ulvo, another young player on the cusp of great things in a variety of contexts including the more progressive rock-focused Shining, was afforded considerable solo space and, while his technique was as unmistakable as Eick's, he was an unorthodox player who often found sonically unexplored nooks and crannies, creating a denser backdrop behind Eick when he wasn't front and center himself.

Erlien's approach to electric bass exists in its own space as well. Anchoring the often strong rhythms alongside Kleive, he was an equal, often contrapuntal partner to Eick and Ulvo, pushing things forward with muted string bass lines and occasional four-to-the-floor pulses. Kleive, a highly in-demand drummer with his own discography as a leader on Jazzland, often ratcheted the energy up to eleven while with his strong backbeats; yet he was an equally strong textural player, and was constantly looking around the stage at his band mates, finding ways to both lock in with them and drive them into unexpected places.

If Eick on record is largely refined and melodic, in performance his quartet kicks hard, turning already powerful tunes like the aptly titled "Stavanger" into an energetic vehicle for the entire group to collectively search for new avenues of expression. While there were delineated solos, the best moments were when, Joe Zawinul-like, everybody soloed and nobody soloed. Eick's ability to weave strong melodies like that of "The Door," while remaining interpretive and intrepidly investigative, made his Mai Jazz performance one of the hottest shows of the festival.

Andy Sheppard's Saxophone Massive and Oregon

Saturday in Stavanger brings everyone out to the streets, especially when the weather was so warm and clear (as it was for the entire duration of the JNiaN trip). British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, known for his work with Carla Bley and collaborative albums including his fine duet disc with guitarist John Parricelli, P.S. (Provocateur, 2003), put on a performance that could possibly end up in the Guinness Book of Records for the most saxophonists on a single stage. With one hundred saxophonists performing in a piazza before periodically heading onto a small stage in subsets or as a whole, Sheppard created an electronics-augmented soundscape that took advantage of the great range and aural depth of saxophones ranging from soprano to baritone.

Sheppard's ability to vertically layer so many saxophonists to create a sound that went beyond normal expectations, coupled with a number of strong soloists, created a 45-minute set that was as impressive for its musicianship as it was for its pure spectacle. Periodic passages of dark electronics set a context that contrasted with the bright and sometimes buoyantly rhythmical playing of over one hundred saxophonists of ages ranging from juniors to seniors. With a conductor positioned in the crowd, perhaps fifteen meters from the stage, what was equally remarkable about the performance was how well coordinated it was, given that the musicians didn't have any sheet music with them. The leader of the project may not be Norwegian, but his fearless ability to pursue an unwieldy idea to such a successful conclusion fit in with the Norwegian aesthetic of no boundaries, where nothing is impossible.

One of the few non-Norwegian groups to be featured in an evening performance, Oregon arrived in Stavanger on May 9, hot off a tour of the American west coast. Arriving at their hotel at 6:30 pm, rather than settle in, they immediately went to Jon Balke's performance, further evidence of the pianist's reputation amongst musicians. Playing in the same venue (St. Petri Kirke), the group, together now for 38 years with the exception of drummer/percussionist Mark Walker—who joined guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless and bassist Glen Moore in the mid-1990s, beginning with the 1996 Intuition disc, Northwest Passage—put on a performance that makes clear the benefit of long-term musical relationships.

Playing material largely from its last two discs—Prime (Cam Jazz, 2005) and 1000 Kilometers (Cam Jazz, 2007), the latter receiving two unexpected but well-deserved Grammy nominations—Oregon performed with an energy and connectedness that was rare, even for a group who has always achieved an uncanny simpatico. Towner's "Redial," from Ecotopia (ECM, 1987), was an early highlight, with a new intro and slightly brighter tempo. Walker's ability to simultaneously work with an array of hand percussion and a conventional drum kit continues to evolve, sometimes sounding uncannily like two percussionists. The arrangement of an older Towner tune, the title track to Distant Hills (Vanguard, 1974) but featuring a new passage first heard on Live at Yoshi's (Intuition, 2002) and driven by Towner's arpeggiated programming, was unexpectedly powerful, despite the tune's inherent darkness.

A mid-set duet with Moore and Walker was another high point. Moore has always been an undervalued bassist with a deep sense of melody coupled with a dry sense of humor that imbues the music, even at its most serious. Both seemed possessed with a Puckish sense of mischief, and created a more energetic contrast to Towner's pastoral "Green and Golden." Walker's "Deep Six," from 1000 Kilometers and the track nominated for the Grammy, was a blend of strong solos and a knotty but propulsive groove. Now with the band for thirteen years, Walker is nearing becoming the group's longest-standing drummer, despite the unmistakable importance of original percussionist Collin Walcott. He brings a stronger sense of swing to the group, even though that swing is rarely of the conventional kind.

Towner, whose classical guitar and piano work has evolved into a harmonic language all is own, continues to be the group's primary writer and, along with McCandless, principle soloist. But make no mistake, Oregon is a democratic collective, with Moore perhaps taking less solo space, but providing a strong contrapuntal contrast that goes far beyond rhythm section anchor.

With a history as long as Oregon's, one can expect any performance to be a good one, as their 2007 show in Montreal made clear. But its Stavanger performance was especially strong, with the set ending with what is most likely an Oregon first. Towner's new (and, as yet, unrecorded) tune, "In Stride" was nearly anthemic and, with a bright groove from Walker and Moore and joyful melody from Towner and McCandless, actually had the audience clapping along. Its often-played encore, Jim Pepper's "Witchi Tai To" ended the show on another high note. That Oregon only does limited touring each year is a shame; but the chemistry between its four members is such that whenever they reconvene for either a tour or recording, it's as if no time has passed.

In the Country, Jan Garbarek Group and JazzNorway in a Nutshell Ends

While some of the JNiaN attendees had to leave early on the final day of Mai Jazz, May 11, those who didn't were treated to a terrific last day. Driven to lunch at a hotel in Utstein Kloster, where those remaining took the opportunity to thank the organizers of JazzNorway in a Nutshell for a trip that for most will be remembered as one of the most memorable experiences of their lives, the real highlight of the trip was walking to the nearby monastery, where intrepid piano trio In the Country delivered a show in the chapel that combined ambient soundscapes and pop-like songwriting with remarkable free passages that, at times, were turbulent and tumultuous.

Keyboardist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pal Hausken recreated some of the best material from This was the Pace of My Heartbeat and Losing Stones, Collecting Bones, without the benefit of many of the additional instruments used in the studio, as well as the additional capabilities afforded by the recording studio to shape the aural landscapes of its repertoire. Like Mathias Eick two days prior, In the Country found a way to take the softer, more elegant material from its repertoire and infuse it with greater energy, making it a live band somewhat different from its recordings, but no less enjoyable. In the Country made it clear that it is not just a studio contrivance; it's a real performing act capable of a broad range of emotions.

Qvenild possesses a number of stylistic markers including a hint of a young Keith Jarrett's gospel, but unlike another Norwegian pianist, Tord Gustavsen—who has fashioned a remarkable career to date by exploring the nooks and crannies of a very limited tempo range—Qvenild can be an aggressive player when necessary. Arntzen possessed some interesting extended techniques, and an ability to cross the line between rhythmic support and melodic front-liner, while Hausken was as effective when simply bowing a bell as he was playing with greater fire. Lumping the group in with other contemporary piano trios like e.s.t. may be an easy way to contextualize them, but In the Country's compositions are less direct, more oblique and possessed of a vibe that is attractively resonant but not the least bit pandering. Accessible music that challenges the mind even as it touches the heart, In the Country's reputation has been steadily growing over the past three years, and with performances such as this, they'll no doubt continue to gain ground.

To finish off the festival, saxophone legend Jan Garbarek performed with his group at Imi Forum, the festival's largest venue. Seating approximately 1400 people, entering the hall it had a vibe similar to that of entering a Pat Metheny Group show. While the music is certainly not anything like Metheny's, Garbarek's stature is such that, Metheny-like, there's a rock-like spectacle nature to his shows, complete with large video monitors on both sides of the stage, allowing even those far back to see the performance in great detail.

With a relatively new bassist, Yuri Daniel, drummer Manu Katché replacing Marilyn Mazur (Garbarek's touring percussionist for many years) and only keyboardist Rainer Bruninghaus remaining, the initial impression when the quartet hit the stage was how energetic it was. Garbarek has come under considerable fire, in recent times, by those who feel he has deserted jazz. The reality is that he simply isn't interested in such labels. His solo on Carla Bley's "Syndrome," from ex-Garbarek Group bassist Eberhard Weber's Stages of a Long Journey (ECM, 2007) proved that he can still navigate complex changes and work within the context of more conventional jazz harmonies. But his own writing is deceptive. The melodies may be spare, the predilection for synth programming pervasive, and the grooves having as much to do with rock as they do jazz, but there's plenty under the hood of even the simplest-sounding Garbarek tune.

Curiously, while Garbarek took his fair share of solos, it was Bruninghaus who was given the most opportunities. Another underrated player whose work with Garbarek and Weber over the years should have been enough to position him as an artist of no small significance, here he proved himself an imaginative pianist, thoughtful colorist and intuitive accompanist.

Katché, whose own career in the jazz sphere has taken off in the past few years with his two albums for ECM—Neighbourhood (2006) and Playground (2007)—lit a fire under this group that has almost reinvented it. A powerful soloist, it's Katché's ability to hold down the most unshakable of grooves while simultaneously responding to everything around him that makes him such a vital player.

While Daniel doesn't have as instantly recognizable sound as Weber's electroacoustic bass, as a fretless electric player he brings a certain modernity to the group through use of techniques like tapping and slapping. He may be more conventional in the way that he locks in with Katché—and Katché could be considered a more conventional drummer than Mazur—but together they form a rhythm team that gives both Garbarek and Bruninghaus the kind of rock-solid yet fluid foundation that let's them go where they will with complete confidence.

Garbarek, who has long since abandoned any form of virtuoso displays of technique, remains a distinctive virtuoso nevertheless. His attention to the purity and strength of his tone makes each note profound. He's long since abandoned any ties with the American tradition, but occasional bursts of multiphonics during the performance did draw a line right back to his post-Ayler day of Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1970) and Sart (ECM, 1971).

Based on his energetic closing performance at Mai Jazz, those who believe that Garbarek has deserted what made albums like Paths, Prints (ECM, 1982) and Eventyr (ECM, 1981) classics are making a mistake by deserting him. One of Norway's most influential artists, with more than one generation of saxophonists emulating his distinctively icy tone, he closed the festival with a performance that made it clear that there are plenty of places for the saxophonist to go. The only regret is that he records so infrequently that much of the material performed has never been documented.

With the Garbarek show and Mai Jazz drawing to an end, there was little left for JazzNorway in a Nutshell attendees to do but make one last trip to the Key Club for drinks and goodbyes, as they arranged to leave for points abroad the following morning, May 12.

The entire trip was a resounding success in exposing the forty attendees to music and artists known and unknown. It also conveyed more than just a sense of how vivid and vibrant the Norwegian music scene is. By taking a trip down the coast from Bergen to Stavanger and making several stops, attendees went home with a stronger sense of Norwegian culture in general. But just as important, while some of those attending knew each other prior to the trip, there were plenty of new connections made, creating a link between writers, photographers, festival organizers/programmers and club owners that transcended simple acquaintance.

Instead, friendships were formed and a commitment to maintaining contact that will not only help in bringing the music of Norway to the world, but also create situations where, through cooperative efforts, music in general can be kept alive across multiple continents and countries. From Canada to Japan, Slovenia to Portugal, Malaysia to France, thanks to Lars Mossefin, Bo Gronningsaeter, Ann Iren Odeby and Aud Grete Ekestad, there is now a group of forty people even more committed to working together as advocates for the music. JazzNorway in a Nutshell has successfully engendered, amongst its attendees, a collective goal of creating even more exposure for Norwegian music than existed prior to this remarkable journey.

2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011

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