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Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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Norway may be a country that, more than most, aims to expose people from around the world to its culture through annual events like JazzNorway in a Nutshell, but as rich an experience as attending that junket is, returning to it on a regular basis is an experience that transcends the mere opportunity to soak in some of the country's music, scenery and cuisine. The 2010 edition—like JNiaN 2009, focusing on Bergen's Nattjazz festival—brought together 35 people from countries including Canada, the United States, England, Italy, Japan, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, China and Germany, ranging from festival programmers and jazz advocacy organizations to musicians and journalists. Some met for the first time, while others were reunited following shared experiences at JNiaN 2009 and other Norwegian festivals, including Molde 2009 and Punkt 2009. When JNiaN 2010 was over, a network of people interested in Norway's vibrant music scene had, once again, grown even larger, even stronger.


More than just the music, and beyond the fantastic opportunity to gain exposure to Norway's distinctive culture, JNiaN is an event where old friends catch up and new friendships are forged. JNiaN 2010 may have lasted just four days, but its organizers—Lars Mossefin, Bo Grønningsæter and Brit Aksnes—packed a tremendous amount into that brief timeframe. Sleep was hard to come by, to be sure, with the days nearly as event-filled as the nights, but there was a palpable energy and camaraderie that continued to build with each passing day. Attending a festival like Nattjazz would have been exceptional on its own, but combining it with JNiaN—and experienced alongside a group of warm, talented and knowledgeable people from around the world—made these few days, from May 26-29, 2010, even richer—a shared learning experience that went far beyond that of any of JNiaN's individual performances or programmed activities.

With a population of approximately 200,000, the city of Bergen, situated along the country's west coast, is Norway's second largest city, next only to its capital, Oslo. With water visible from nearly every location, and in the center of a group of mountains known as de syv fjell (The Seven Mountains), Bergen's architecture manages to seamlessly marry the centuries-old with the utterly contemporary. Steep hills make walking Bergen inherently healthy, and visiting it in late May, when it's still only twilight at midnight, is a surprisingly energizing experience. It's hard to imagine the winters, when things reverse and daylight can be as short as six hours, but leaving a show at 11:00PM and seeing light skies makes it somehow easier to live with the minimal sleep allowed by JNiaN's hectic schedule.

Chapter Index
  1. May 26, 2010: Arrival, Introductions and The Key Club
  2. May 26, 2010: Gunhild Seim and Time Jungle
  3. May 26, 2010: Mathias Eick Quintet
  4. May 27, 2010: Mount Ulriken and 1982 Trio
  5. May 27, 2010: Frøy Aagre
  6. May 27, 2010: Maria Kannegaard
  7. May 27, 2010: Element: Special Edition
  8. May 28, 2010: Making Sausages in Bergsdalstunet/Mari Kvien Brunvoll
  9. May 28, 2010: Motif
  10. May 28, 2010: Stian Westerhus
  11. May 28, 2010: Eivind Aarset Sonic Codex
  12. May 29, 2010: Cornelius på Holmen/JNiaN 2010 Draws to a Close


May 26, 2010: Arrival, Introductions and The Key Club

Most of JNiaN 2010's attendees arrived throughout the day on May 26, and so the first event took place at 7:00PM that evening, in a room at USF Verftet, a large building that, with a number of performance spaces (in addition to offices, a restaurant and more), hosts the annual Nattjazz festival, the 2010 edition running from May 26 to June 5, 2010. Festival-goers purchase either day or complete festival passes. Either way, it's possible to attend any or all of the performances on a given day (six or seven shows), providing an opportunity to either focus on individual shows or get a taste of everything taking place.

First-timers to JNiaN were met with their first hurdle—a tremendously steep hill situated between the hotel and USF Verftet that gave everyone an early cardio workout. But it was well worth it, as JNiaN attendees got their first chance to meet up with old friends and become introduced to new ones at a brief ceremony where Lars Mossefin introduced the JNiaN staff and representatives from organizations including the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Music Export Norway, Kalleklev Management and Musikkprofil—all of whom would prove to be incredibly valuable resources throughout the four days—along with Jon Skjerdal, Nattjazz's Festival Director. Amidst drinks and acquiring festival accreditation, JNiaN attendees introduced themselves, and it became instantly clear just how far and wide the organizers of JNiaN set their sights, with journalists and other media representatives from Canada, Italy, England, Germany and Japan, and festival programmers/directors from international festivals including Estonia's Jazzkaar, Germany's Moers, the Tokyo Jazz Festival, England's Cheltenham and Birmingham festivals, Parma Jazzfestival from Italy and Austria's Salzburg festival.



After a quick chance to grab dinner at Kippers, the indoor/outdoor restaurant at USF Verftet, it was off to the first evening of Nattjazz—but not before also checking out The Key Club, a room set up each year for JNiaN attendees, where drinks were plentiful, conversation even more so, and, in addition to providing everyone with a warm JNiaN jacket, a table was filled with promotional CDs for the taking. Even those who attend JNiaN regularly and believe they have heard all there is to hear from the Norwegian scene were in for a humbling experience, going home with thirty or more albums they've not heard, ranging from promotional samplers to commercial releases...even a couple of DVDs.

It was time, then, to head off to the first show of the night.

May 26, 2010: Gunhild Seim and Time Jungle

Amidst a country of trumpeters like Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen—players stretching the boundaries of tone and texture, and moving more decidedly away from the American jazz tradition—Gunhild Seim might be considered a somewhat more conventional player, possessing a more orthodox tone and composing music more closely aligned with that tradition. Having studied with Dave Douglas at the noted Banff Centre in Canada, the Stavanger-based trumpeter has, however, forged a distinctive voice over the course of two albums with her Time Jungle group, marrying clear compositional elements with shades of Norwegian traditionalism and plenty of free exploration. While many Norwegian musicians are familiar with the jazz tradition but choose not to be a direct part of it, Seim's music possesses hints of chord-less groups like Old and New Dreams, John Zorn's original Masada Quartet (with Douglas), and a straight line that runs back to the early free jazz of Ornette Coleman.



But in her set—opening Nattjazz's festivities in the intimate Studio USF—Seim also demonstrated a greater compositional focus than any of her antecedents. Her writing sometimes provided only the barest of roadmaps, to create a context for collective free play by a superb quartet that also featured alto saxophonist Arild Hoem—new to the group, and replacing American saxophonist/clarinetist Andrew D'Angelo, who also produced Time Jungle (Drollehålå, 2007)—and original group members bassist John Lilja and drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen. But in a set culled from her second album with the group, Morpho (Drollehålå Music, 2009), Seim also enlisted Odd Børge Sagland, who contributed percussion and marimba during part of the set, most notably on the dark, through-composed "Tunnel Mountain Drive," where he and Narvesen expanded the already open-ended sonic potentials of their instruments by employing all kinds of small hand percussion instruments, bowed cymbals, hands and additional extended techniques.

The set began with a folk-tinged rubato piece that gradually gained rhythmic footing and emerged as "On My Doorstep," an irregular-metered but still relatively simple I-IV-V tune that, as Lilja gradually found his way to a defined pulse, bolstered an opening solo by Seim, demonstrative of her plangent tone and considered approach to building solos from the ground up. While her tone was, indeed, more conventionally trumpet-like than that of Henriksen or Molvær, she has forged a number of her own extended techniques, including a multiphonic prowess that, much like fellow Norwegian and saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, was unexpectedly consonant. In support of other soloists, she created spare but effective harmonic counterpoint with a plunger, again finding new and unusual ways to use it as she adopted, at times, a raspier tone.

As on Morpho, "Captain Cook" began with a duet between Seim and Sagland on marimba, engaging in some subdued but nevertheless deep interplay that, with Sagland's shimmering tremolos, was reminiscent of the title track to German bassist Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), before the marimbaist's Afro-centric chordal pattern signaled the rest of Time Jungle to enter for a more dramatic melody, peppered by staccato trumpet/saxophone shots and an impressive solo from Hoem built on color as much as it was melody. Like Seim, he relied on extended techniques to support the others, oftentimes adopting a percussive timbre to actually provide defined time when Lilja and Narvesen were engaged in more textural activities.

Lilja was especially noteworthy—as lithe and flexible as the music demanded; at times she was a firm anchor, but elsewhere a contrapuntal arco partner with Seim. All told, Seim and Time Jungle capitalized on the strengths of Morpho, but took the music to another level with a careful sense of free play, in concert with the trumpeter's carefully constructed writing.



May 26, 2010: Matthias Eick Quintet

When trumpeter Mathias Eick performed at Mai Jazz in Stavanger, Norway, at the 2008 edition of JNiaN, the young trumpeter expanded significantly on his superb debut as a leader, The Door (ECM, 2008). The disc demonstrated many of the qualities with which international fans were becoming familiar—in particular Eick's economic, rich-toned and deeply melodic approach—on Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's outstanding Northbound (ECM, 2006) and Norwegian guitarist Jacob Young's sublime Evening Falls (ECM, 2004). But neither session—nor his own album, for that matter—prepared fans for the visceral energy and sheer electricity of his touring group, where The Door's pianist, the redoubtable Jon Balke, was replaced with the younger Andreas Ulvo, one of Norway's more ubiquitous pianists who performs with his own Ensemble and Eple Trio—not to mention his work with saxophonist Froy Aagre, NORCD owner/saxophonist Karl Seglem and hardcore group Shining.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Norwegian festival scene is commission opportunities for many of its musicians. Guitarist Terje Rypdal continues to receive commissions from Norwegian festivals, including the 2003 Vossa Jazz opportunity that led to Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006) and a 2009 Nattjazz performance with the Bergen Big Band, which has just been released by ECM as Crime Scene (2010). Eick, along with guitarist Eivind Aarset and pianist Helge Lien, was one of Nattjazz's commission recipients. Amidst considerably altered material from The Door, the trumpeter performed new material in his May 27, 2010, performance at the club-like Sardinen venue in USF Verftet that, hopefully, will appear on his next album, which has already been recorded and is currently in ECM label head Manfred Eicher's hands for mixing.

What many international fans of Eick's work on ECM don't know is that he's been a busy session player. He had recorded well over 50 albums when last spoken to in 2008, so who knows what the number is by now? He's also a longtime member of Jaga Jazzist, a group that came back from a four-year hiatus last year at the 2009 Molde Jazz Festival. This year, the group released the powerful, rock-edged One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010). Eick's rockier proclivities were in full flight at his Nattjazz performance where, along with Ulvo and The Door bassist Audun Erlien, the trumpeter expanded his quartet with drummer Erland Dahlen (replacing original drummer Audun Kleive) to potent twin-drums quintet with Gard Nilssen also behind the kit. Opening with the kind of rubato tone poem that's become a Norwegian signature, the tumultuous effect of two drummers was felt immediately, with the performance attaining a rare degree of power, balanced with a singable melodicism that quickly resolved into a thundering pulse as clearly engaging to Eick as it was his audience.



Ulvo, augmenting grand piano with a gritty Fender Rhodes and synthesizer, drove the energy level even higher, taking every solo opportunity and turning it into a virtuosic narrative that never lost sight of the music. Clearly for Ulvo (and, for that matter, the rest of the group), the demands of the music came first, and as much as Eick's writing and arranging often evolved toward increasingly powerful, groove-driven spaces—a clear demonstration that even shifting bar lines can't stop the music from being danceable—it was never about "look at me" pyrotechnics, a quality that, paradoxically, only made him a more charismatic player. Capable of rapid cascades and seemingly endless ascensions, Ulvo also kept the core of Eick's oftentimes ambiguous harmonies grounded with repetitive, near-hypnotic patterns.

At 43, Erlien remains a sideman with no albums to his name. He's something of a rarity amongst the bassists who have recorded for ECM in that his instrument is solely of the electric variety. While he locked in with the two drummers consistently—at times possessing an equally thunderous tone—he was also a contrapuntal partner for Eick, muting his strings to create a deep but percussive tone that rose above the strong rhythmic foundation provided by Nilssen and Dahlen, the two drummers locking, at times, into forceful synchronicity. Dahlen, in addition to some marvelous in-synch drumming with Nilssen, also brought his own unique texture to the set when he became a melodic foil for Eick on a bowed saw.

As electric as Eick's group was, transforming the reflective "Williamsburg" into a thing of great power, the trumpeter's tone was all about embouchure—a combination of tart orthodoxy, the melancholy lyricism of Kenny Wheeler and the more expansive textural approach of Henriksen and Molvær. But Eick's tone is all his own and was all the more impressive when, partway through the set, he began to create a variety of loops to build a mini-horn orchestra. Another signature of the Norwegian scene is its organic integration of electronics into the mix of acoustic instrumentation—saxophonist Håkon Kornstad's Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009) is a particularly impressive example—but what's even more remarkable is how so many musicians are adapting technology in profoundly personal ways. The sadly all-too-common accusation that technology strips an artist's voice is clearly made without hearing what is going on in this country of less than five million people, where innovation and a fearless refusal to accept boundaries of any kind drive almost unparalleled diversity and undeniably distinctive personality.

Eick's performance was just one more example of how a musician can drink deeply of the tradition—having spent many of his growing up years buried in the music of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, to name two; yet, while the spirit of that tradition can loom large, it needn't dilute instrumental personality. Eick continues to be a much sought-after player, but what's been most thrilling, watching his career as a leader take off since the release of The Door, is to see just how rapidly he's assimilated the various lessons learned from his active career as a sideman into a solo career that's on a rapidly upward trajectory.

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