Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008

John Kelman By

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2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011

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.


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