Norwegian Jazz 101a: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009

John Kelman By

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One of the challenges of any organization or festival is to find ways to top past performances, and certainly the breadth of exposure to Norwegian music, culture and geography at JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008 (JNiaN) would be hard to beat. A junket where approximately 40 people from around the world—writers, photographers, festival programmers, club owners and others—congregated in Norway for a few days of intensive exposure to all things Norwegian, the 2008 edition was an astounding success, with its combination of private performances for the group and access to the many shows at Stavanger's Mai Jazz 2008 festival.

Coupled with fjord trips and stays in small but stunning locations like Rosendal, it created the lasting impression of a country where no idea is too outrageous, and no border ever fixed and immovable.
If the recent American television documentary series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense taught anything, it was that jazz may have begun as an American art form but is no longer its proprietorship. An inclusive music where artists look for inspiration from sources far and wide to cross-pollinate into an ever-expanding continuum, jazz is now truly a world music.

Based on the various performers recruited specifically for JNiaN attendees and those performing at Bergen's Nattjazz festival—the focal point for JNiaN 2009—it's difficult to deny that Icons Among Us posited ideas that Europeans have known for years. If the beginning of jazz can be found in African-American roots music, it now includes the traditional music of cultures far and wide, with Norway's rich folk tradition but one of many now imbuing jazz with new life, and a healthy future.

Chapter Index
  1. Arriving in Bergen / Nils Petter Molvær / Speeq
  2. Mount Fløyen / JNiaN Begins / Kjetil Møster
  3. Nattjazz: Arve Henriksen Trio / Terje Rypdal, Crimescene
  4. Voss Extremes and Sidsel Endresen/Håkon Kornstad
  5. Nattjazz: Bobo Stenson Trio / Ola Kvernberg Trio + 1
  6. Cornelius på Holmen / Nils Økland
  7. Nattjazz: Jon Balke, Pratagraph / Lekverk
  8. JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009 Wrap-Up

Arriving in Bergen / Speeq / Nils Petter Molvær

Overnight flights can be a trial under the best of circumstances, and every trip to Norway is a reminder of the unsettled life of the traveling musician. While the best thing to do is stay up the following day until early evening so that a good night's sleep can be had (making it possible to quickly adjust to the six-hour time difference), sometimes it's simply not meant to be. While JNiaN didn't officially begin until May 21, 2009, arriving on May 20, the first day of Nattjazz, meant that there were shows impossible to miss—among them the Norwegian free improvisation group Speeq, with special guest vocalist Phil Minton, and Norwegian Nu Jazz progenitor, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and his trio.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell / Bergen

Bergen, Norway's second largest city next to Oslo and, at nearly a thousand years old, considered "the gateway to the fjords" is, like so many Norwegian towns, built in and around water on the country's west coast. An aerial view from Mount Fløyen—one of several mountains surrounding the city—reveals inlets and peninsulas that make navigating the city more than a little complicated. While the venue where Nattjazz was taking place—USF Verftet, with its multiple performance spaces—was but a five-to-ten minute walk from the hotel where JNiaN participants were lodged, the route between included a tremendously high hill: about a 45-degree angle straight up for about 75 yards, and then the same thing straight down. The trend towards obesity, so prevalent in North America, may be beginning to hit Norway, but with geography like this it's almost an uphill battle—literally.

Nils Petter MolvaerAttending Nils Petter Molvær's sound check—featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset and drummer Audun Kleive—revealed a much different group than last seen at Punkt 2007. While the group was smaller—no turntables, no live sampling—it was no less texturally rich and sonically expansive, with Kleive behind the drum kit making the trio a far more aggressive and improvisationally loose unit than the trumpeter's equally fine quintet of many years. Performing material from Hamada (Sula, 2009), there was considerably more weight on Molvær to create a broader palette of sound, and with a series of foot pedals allowing him to introduce various harmonies on top of his distinctive tone, even when Aarset was playing bass—reducing the group to a more straightforward trio—the music was surprisingly dense. And, as ever, the grooves were visceral and unshakable, even as Molvær's music moves further away from the techno rhythms that have been one part of his music until recently.

Attending the sound check also shed light on just how difficult the setup process is. With Molvær's rack of effects and myriad of foot pedals, and Aarset's setup looking like some portable mad scientist's laboratory, ensuring proper sound and, in the case of Molvær's performances where visuals are an equal part of the live experience, lighting (provided by Tord "Prince of Darkness" Knudsen), it's more than just hitting the stage and getting good sound in the room. It's a complex mix to ensure that not only does everything work, but that it works in concert with all around it. By the time the sound check was over, it was clear that everything was ready and that, even though the room itself was perhaps less than perfect acoustically, the sound was going to be impeccable.

Speeq, on the other hand, was as laissez-faire as could be, but in the best possible way. A trio featuring guitarist Hasse Poulsen—familiar to ECM fans for his work with French reedman Louis Sclavis on Napoli's Walls (2003)—bassist Luc Ex and drummer Mark Sanders, the group's performance was all about spontaneous invention of the most extreme kind, with Poulsen strumming so furiously on his acoustic guitar that he was breaking strings, and Ex completely avoiding any convention on his instrument as he also strummed with great abandon to create a dense, low-end rumble. In the arena of extreme, jagged improvisation, Speeq's performance was impressive, but was even more so with Minton's participation. Calling Minton a singer, however, is an understatement, as he was more a sonic partner in the freely improvised proceedings, evoking unpredictable, surprising and, at times, downright humorous sounds. But it was his clear empathy with Speeq that was most impressive; it's all too easy for music like this to sound random and disconnected, but Minton acted as a focal point for the group, pushing and pulling everyone else in ways that were undeniably connected, even as they sounded random and flagrantly spontaneous.

Mount Fløyen / JNiaN Begins / Kjetil Møster

As more of the JNiaN participants continued to arrive throughout the day on May 21, about half the group already present attended a lunch atop Mount Fløyen, sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bergen International Festival and Nattjazz. While it is, in fact, possible, to walk up the mountain, most chose to travel by funicular, a large, glass-windowed car that travels up the mountain by rail. It was possible to watch the surroundings while climbing the mountain, and see the city of Bergen begin to recede into the distance.

As rugged as the coastline of western Norway is, the chance to see Bergen from a height revealed just how lush and green it is as well. And while mountains in North America are often deserted, there were buildings scattered throughout the trip up the mountain—a dovetail with the pockets of small Norwegian towns scattered along the coast, reachable in some cases by boat alone, and in other cases by roads that cut through a swath of mountains via countless tunnels carved deep through the mountains and hills that make up the geography of the area.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell / Fløyen Folkerestaurant

While JNiaN participants were here for Nattjazz, the Bergen International Festival was taking place concurrently, focusing on classical music, theater and other artistic pursuits. The buffet lunch that took place at the Fløyen Folkerestaurant—including a wealth of fresh seafood readily available from the waters surrounding Bergen—gave JNiaN participants the opportunity to meet each other, as well as network with members of the local arts community, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who helped sponsor JNiaN) and a number of artists. As ever, the expansive scope of arts support in Norway was an underlying theme as various projects were described that simply could not happen without generous arts funding. Jan Bang, co-artistic director of the annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, was also on hand, discussing his forthcoming album on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label, scheduled for release in 2010.

Following lunch there was time to catch some rest before the official launch of JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009, which took place at a room in the Nattjazz venue. JNiaN's hosts—Lars Mossefin, Bo Grønninsæter and Ann Iren Ødeby—were on hand, as a group that was evenly split between participants from the 2008 edition and those new to the junket came together for the first time. One of the best aspects of JNiaN, in addition to the music and exposure to Norwegian culture, is the opportunity to bond with like-minded people from around the world. Over the course of three days, professional and personal relationships would be forged that will, no doubt, continue well past JNiaN.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009 / Ketil MosterWhile many of the performers at Nattjazz were familiar to JNiaN attendees, one of its best features is the introduction of lesser-known players through brief private concerts. At the opening buffet dinner, following brief discussions about the challenges facing promoters and journalists by North Sea Jazz Festival's Sander Grande and German National Radio personality/Jazzthing writer Karsten Muetzelfeldt, saxophonist Kjetil Møster delivered a solo performance that demonstrated the intrepid nature of the Norwegian improvising scene. Blending electronics—looping and distortion being the dominant ones—Møster's 20-minute set possessed a clear lineage back to Jan Garbarek's 1970s work, specifically his duet record with guitarist Ralph Towner, Dis (ECM, 1977).

Long pedal tones created a deep foundation for Møster's often angular lyricism. Like Garbarek, Møster was a perfect blend of ice and fire, evoking images of barren landscapes and icy Nordic cool. Even when Møster turned off the processing, his extended techniques created an unusual combination of broad intervallic leaps that punctuated his oblique melodies. Unorthodox embouchure is one of the signatures of many Norwegian horn players, and Møster was no exception, with odd multiphonics expanding and contracting his sound, as the music descended into a maelstrom of looping, screaming and overdriven horn lines, and pulses created by the dissonance of notes in close proximity. It was certainly an intense way to kick off JNiaN2009, where extreme may well have been the underlying theme.

Nattjazz: Arve Henriksen Trio / Terje Rypdal, Crimescene

There are pluses and minuses to Nattjazz's organization. On the plus side, a single pass gets its audience into the building, with the ability to wander from room to room to sample the various artists performing on any given night—usually two artists per room, for a total of six shows in the venue's three performance spaces. The problem is, however, that with people coming and going virtually throughout every performance—and alcohol being served as well—the noise factor was high, which became something of a problem, even in the louder shows. In performances like trumpeter Arve Henriksen's, it occasionally became downright intrusive.

Still, Henriksen and his trio—guitarist Eivind Aarset and sampler Jan Bang—managed to engage the audience to such a degree that, at times, there was total silence in the room, as the trumpeter captivated with new material, as well as some tracks culled from his recent Cartography (ECM, 2008).

With Bang sampling his band mates' playing in real time, processing it and feeding it back, it turned even known material into something altogether new. The subtle beauty of the performance was propelled gently by Bang's beats—even during a performance of great abstraction and impressionism—while Aarset brought new meaning to the concept of subtly nuanced support. Intuitively switching from long, drawn out chordal swells to lines taking on a middle eastern vibe with his use of an E-bow (essentially a tape head that, held just above a string, creates a sustaining vibration and unique tone), Aarset also matched Henriksen's penchant for taking his instrument to new places, the two combining sounds resembling oud and shakuhachi, respectively.

Henriksen's painfully beautiful falsetto voice contrasted, at times, with singing in his normal range, speaking through his horn while playing it concurrently. And for those who think such performances, filled with haunting beauty, are all seriousness, there were occasional moments of humor injected, with Henriksen's spoken voice saying "Oops" at one point, and drawing laughter from both his trio and the audience.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009 / Eivind AarsetJazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009 / Arve Henriksen

Henriksen's music links more to Norwegian traditional music and classical music than it does the American jazz tradition, but the emphasis is still on improvisation and interaction. But rather than overt displays of virtuosity, it was all about finding the moment, where three musicians join together to speak with a single voice. Whether it was Aarset brushing his strings so lightly as to barely be heard, Henriksen feeding his trumpet through processors to create a harmonized sound or Bang creating staggered beats that, in a strange way, reference African rhythms, this was music for which there seems to be little precedence. Henriksen has been honing his sound and compositional and improvisational processes for well over 15 years now, and he's never come closer to realizing his goal of creating evocative music that integrates various references in its own personal way, as he did during his Nattjazz performance.

Terje Rypdal, on the other hand, was clearly aiming for something more broad-scoped and ambitious with Crimescene, a commission for the festival that teamed the legendary Norwegian guitarist with his Skywards trio (keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and drummer Paolo Vinnaccia), the outstanding Bergen Big Band, and Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, a longtime Rypdal partner dating back to albums including Waves (ECM, 1978) and Descendre (ECM, 1980). While the use of a big band might suggest something swinging in the American tradition, Rypdal used the 17-piece ensemble more orchestrally, creating a nexus between his more rock-edged improvisational work and classical-centric albums like Q.E.D. (ECM, 1993) and Lux Aeterna (ECM, 2002).

Rypdal was in fine form, playing with a grit and edge that's been missing in recent times. Whether he was playing with a slide or his fingers, his ice-edged tone was instantly recognizable. As was Mikkelborg's, who played trumpet (muted with a Harmon mute at times) and flugelhorn, and making clear his own reference point in Miles Davis, for whom he composed the large ensemble work Aura (Columbia, 1989). Storløkken, a longtime member of Supersilent and whose new group, Elephant9, scored big with its debut, Dodovoodoo (Rune Grammofon, 2008), stuck primarily with Hammond organ, and while he only had two opportunities to solo, they were amongst the highlights of the 75-minute set. Vinnaccia, an Italian expat who has been in Norway for many years now, is a powerhouse of a drummer; he may look like an aging metal head with his black "Almost Musician" T-shirt and long, graying hair, but he's equally capable of understated color, a necessity throughout Rypdal's new composition.

JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009 / Terje Rypdal

The instrumentation may not have been conventional in a classical sense, but Rypdal's detailed score used horns and woodwinds in ways not unlike composer Gyö Ligeti, with dense clusters creating sounds sometimes more felt than heard, evocative of abstract images and unusual colors. Parts of the suite were almost amorphous, yet Rypdal was clearly shaping the sounds like a potter shapes a piece of clay, gradually morphing into something more concrete and clear, where pulsing rock rhythms bolstering powerful, hard-edged solos from both the guitarist and Mikkelborg. Members of the Bergen Big Band received solo space as well, while bassist Magne Thromodsæter—also a member of the more modal blowing quintet Bungalow, who'd perform the following evening—proved to be one of the ensemble's strongest players, despite playing a largely supporting role.

Rypdal's last release, Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006), was another commission that utilized Storløkken, Vinnaccia and Mikkelborg, but it was a smaller ensemble affair that paid direct homage to electric-era Miles Davis. As fine a piece as it was, Crimescene surpassed it in scope and performance. Rypdal's playing may have stopped growing in the leaps and bounds it did in the 1970s, but combined with his constantly evolving and more sonically sophisticated writing for large ensembles, he's sounding better than he has in many years. Hopefully the time lag between this recording and its release on ECM won't be as long as the three-year gap between the performance and release of Vossabrygg.



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