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Norwegian Jazz 101: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008

John Kelman By

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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.

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