Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008

John Kelman By

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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.

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