Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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May 27, 2010: Mount Ulriken and 1982 Trio

The 2009 edition of JNiaN took attendees to the top of Mount Fløyen for music and lunch, courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For 2010, the Ministry, in cooperation with the Bergen International Festival, took everyone to the top of Mount Ulriken by cable car, where an incredible panoramic view of Bergen and the surrounding area was made even more stunning by the cool but clear weather. Bergen's weather is unpredictable—one moment it can be raining, the next, bright and sunny—with a running gag of, "if you don't like the weather, wait for five minutes." While JNiaN 2010 was occasionally marred briefly by rain, for the most part, the weather cooperated, and the noontime performance by 1982—a trio featuring pump organist Sigbjørn Apeland, drummer Øvind Skarbø and violinist Nils Økland—was made all the more enjoyable by a light breeze that was blowing towards the audience, making it possible to hear the subtlest of musical interactions.

1982 released its self-titled debut in 2009, a vinyl-only release from NORCD. The big draw is Økland who, for this performance, focused on two string instruments with sympathetic resonating strings—the Hardanger fiddle and viola d'amore. Økland has released a number of fine albums on both Rune Grammofon (2005's group album Bris) and ECM (2009's understated Monograph), and his music is steeped in the Norwegian folk tradition. But what makes Økland a can't-miss performer, beyond his thorough instrumental command, is an innate ability to draw in his audience with playing sometimes so quiet, so delicate, that it feels as if he's whispering on his strings rather than bowing them. While it might seem that a solo performance (such as the one he gave to JNiaN attendees in 2009 at the Cornelius på Holmen restaurant) would be the ideal setting, his performance with 1982 was, in fact, far more revealing.

With no amplification, it was remarkable enough that the trio could be heard with a natural mix that seemed to defy its surroundings, but when 1982 dropped the dynamics down to near-silence, the ability to hear the slightest scrape of bow on string, the softest repetitive pattern on pump organ or the subtlest scrape of stick on cymbal, made it one of JNiaN 2010's early highlights. This was completely improvised music, and yet it possessed a surprisingly discernible arc across its approximately 20-minute duration. More akin to contemporary chamber music, albeit with an unconventional mix of instruments, it began in darker territory, with Apeland creating gentle but persistent waves of sound. Økland wove both melody and texture in tandem with Skarbø, whose unfettered playing on an array of small hand percussion, unusual sticks and a small drum kit—including only snare and bass drums, a high hat and two cymbals—was surprisingly diverse.

Ten minutes into the trio's captivating performance, Skarbø suddenly stopped playing, calling out: "OK, who wants to book our trio. Nobody? OK, it's time we changed our strategy," at which point the music turned more expressionistic, with Skarbø, in particular, ratcheting up the performance with a humorous approach not unlike Amsterdam legend Han Bennink. Whether or not it was necessary to introduce a comedic element was a matter of debate, but it was, nevertheless, an intriguing way of directing a trio of free improvisers into a completely new direction, equal parts anarchy and focused intention, tranquil beauty and unsettling dissonance, and microtonal drones and melody-driven passages.

After lunch, some took the cable car back to town, while a few intrepid folks made the long walk down the mountain to Bergen.

May 27, 2010: Frøy Aagre

While Nattjazz is the musical focal point of the JNiaN trip, its organizers also worked had to ensure that every activity has some musical connection. Before everyone headed off to a second night of Nattjazz, there was a meet-and-greet with saxophonist Frøy Aagre, whose recently released Cycle of Silence (ACT, 2010) has been met with critical praise and popular acceptance. While the CD features her current quartet, also including bassist Audun Ellingsen and drummer Freddy Wike, for her early evening performance—catered with food and drinks—Aagre trimmed things down to a duo, with Andreas Ulvo on Fender Rhodes.

Lately, Aagre has been focusing solely on soprano saxophone, and while so many Norwegians adopt a tone reverential to Jan Garbarek, Aagre's tone eschews all reference to the iconic saxophonist's dry, acerbic sound. Instead, Aagre's tone is warmer and richer—more Dave Liebman (with whom she studied) than the nasally, Indo-centric tone of jazz legend John Coltrane, another touchstone for aspiring soprano saxophonists. In a largely acoustic duo setting (Aagre was un-miked, while Ulvo's Rhodes was only amplified enough to match the saxophonist's volume), it was revealing to hear just how unique her sound has become across the course of three albums, beginning with Katalyze (AIM, 2005) and Countryside (AIM, 2007). Her tone may not resemble Garbarek's, but the folkloric melancholy of songs like "Words on an Envelope," the pattern-driven "Stream Train" and the gentle, pensive "Beatitude" all speak to Garbarek as a seminal influence, along with the rest of the "Big Four" that put Norway on the international music map of the early 1970s—guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen.

Aagre's sometimes detailed writing made no small challenge of Ulvo's job to cover not just his own parts, but those of absent band mates. As eminently impressive as his performance was the previous night with Mathias Eick, here—as was also true of Aagre—the revealing intimacy of the duo format shone a bright spotlight on each player's instrumental acumen and empathic listening skill. Aagre's playing was largely unaffected by any kind of extended technique, though toward the brief set's end, she occasionally brought up her right leg, resembling British prog rocker Jethro Tull's flautist, Ian Anderson. But rather than being a visual gag, Aagre would place the mouth of her horn against her leg, creating a more muted tone that, like the rest of the show, was all about subtle shifts rather than dramatic gestures. Ulvo created shimmering, minimalist-informed accompaniment and serpentine melodies over Aagre's changes, an intimate and captivating window into his playing that in some ways transcended his work in the larger halls at greater volumes, at least in the opportunity to hear him in effectively a solo context when Aagre sat out.

May 27, 2010: Maria Kannegaard

Since moving to Norway some years ago, Maria Kannegaard has slowly built a catalog of releases as methodical as the expat Swedish pianist's writing and performing. Her Nattjazz show, in Studio USF, was a lesson in control and steady revelation, rather than overt virtuosity and technical wizardry.

Not that Kannegaard or her trio—featuring in-demand bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Thomas Strønen—are lacking in the technique department; Vågan, in particular—a member of a number of important young Norwegian improvising groups including Motif, pianist Håvard Wiik's trio, and saxophonist Tore Brunborg's trio (responsible for 2009's acclaimed DRAVLE release, Lucid Grey)—is a powerful bassist who slaps, pulls and strums his strings with such ferocity that, more often than not, he needs to retune between pieces (and sometimes during, but his ear is so attuned that he manages to do so without being noticed). Visually, he's a player who clearly and quickly enters "the zone" to which so many players aspire, and in the context of Kannegaard's trio, he was often its strongest melodic member, as the pianist used repeated motifs to gradually and inevitably build her pieces to dynamic climaxes that would, only then, move forward into new segments.

Kannagaard's music is often about dissonance, angular harmonies and dense voicings with a near-minimalist pulse and a seemingly tacit avoidance of conventional soloing. Still, while it was well into the set before she took anything resembling a solo (Vågan often led the way and, in the instances where he didn't, Strønen acted as the trio's other dominant voice), when she did rise above the clear egalitarian sound of the group, she demonstrated an ability to build her own turbulent, forward-and-backward rippling cascades and layered, jagged harmonies. Performing material largely from her most recent release, Camel Walk (Jazzland, 2008), Kannegaard stretched time even further than on the disc, building her dynamics and hypnotic repetition to what might have been a fever pitch, except that the trio's approach was so controlled in its slow, steady development, that what might have been overt melodrama in lesser hands became something more powerful and compelling, despite an almost complete absence of strong melody on which to grab hold.

Strønen is another Norwegian player who seems to be everywhere at once. Co-founder of the Anglo/Norwegian collective Food, whose Molecular Gastronomy (Rune Grammofonm, 2008) found the decade-old group pared down from a quartet to a duet with guests, the percussionist is no stranger to international audiences. His Humcrush duo features keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, and his Parish quartet includes pianist Bobo Stenson. Unlike his more electronic experimentation with Food and Humcrush, however, with Kannegaard, his focus is entirely acoustic. He still, however, manages to create a rich tapestry of sound through the use of hand percussion, a wide variety of sticks, his hands and an unfettered approach to the possibilities of his kit—not to mention the kind of open ears that allow Kannegaard's sometimes quirky, sometimes softly melodic music to ebb and flow with remarkable precision. Kannagaard's often quirky compositions may be sketch-like on paper, but they say a great deal when brought to life in the context of her trio.

May 27, 2010: Element: Special Edition

In a scene that's gaining increasing international attention, there are still players who, for a variety of reasons, haven't been able to make the leap past the confines of their country's borders. Founder of the seminal '90s group Element (originally inspired by John Coltrane's classic quartet), saxophonist Gisle Johansen found himself without a band in the late 1990s when its other members—pianist Håvard Wiik, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love—moved off to form the ongoing and successful group Atomic. Johansen has come and gone from the scene, a member of free improvising groups like Crimetime Orchestra and Jazzmob, but he's on the comeback trail again with a reformed Element and a new album. Well, it's not exactly new, but the 2002 recording date features a curiously configured octet—accordionist/flautist/guitarist Stian Carstensen, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, the triple bass line-up of Flaken, Bjørnar Andresen and Eivind Opsvik, Love and keyboardist Anders Aarum. Unusual lineup aside, Transformation to Paradise (Jazzaway, 2009) also shifts toward more electro-centric interests, with Johansen expanding the sonic potential of his instrument, much as many of the artists around him have in the years since Element first dissolved.

For his Nattjazz performance at Studio USF, Johansen brought together an almost entirely new group called Element: Special Edition. Only Wiik remained from the original line-up, with Johansen recruiting a line-up of doubles: in addition to acoustic pianist Wiik, Anders Aarum on Fender Rhodes; acoustic bassist Per Zanussi and electric bassist Per Mathisen; and guitarists Vidar Busk and Nils Olav Johansen. Only Johansen and drummer Franklin Kiermayer—a Canadian expat who lived in New York for many years but recently relocated to Norway—held down their positions alone, resulting in an octet that resembled that of Transformation to Paradise in its expanded sonics and free flights of imagination, but sounded closer to the dense jungle grooves of Miles Davis' '70s-era electric music.

From left: Håvard Wiik, Vidar Busk, Per Zanussi, Gisle Johansen Per Mathisen, Nils Olav Johansen, Franklin Kermayer, Anders Aarum

Two pieces took up the entire set with an emphasis on modality and a combination of maelstrom-like activity and periods of visceral groove. Johansen, feeding his tenor through a variety of effects processors, doubled up his lines with a pitch shifter and ran the gamut from surprisingly spare linearity to expressive screams and stream-of-consciousness wails. Solos were liberally spread among the octet, with Kiermayer, a ferocious player capable of temporal elasticity and densely muscular pulses, the perfect choice for a group that required an ability to work in absolute freedom, but also the ability to work within structural confines. Why this underdog player isn't better known is a mystery, and a real shame.

Mathisen—heard recently with drummer Alex Acuña and keyboardist Jan Gunnar Hoff on Jungle City (Alessa, 2009) and with fellow Norwegian trombonist/composer Helge Sunde's Ensemble Denada on Finding Nymo (ACT, 2009)—is a proven double-threat, as frightening on double-bass as he is the electric kind. Here, focusing on an electric bass fed through an array of effects, Mathisen balanced between locking in on the riff-driven second piece and creating more in-the-gut sonics on the extended opener. Zanussi proved an equal force on double-bass, a harder-edged player delivering muscular and, at times, frenetic lines that combined with Mathisen and Kiermayer to create a constantly shifting polyrhythmic undercurrent.

Wiik, whose The Arcades Project (Jazzland, 2007) demonstrated a remarkable, modernistic, line-blurring, form-meets-freedom approach that made it a highlight of the year, was given free reign twice during the set. Both times, the musician delivered solos that were staggering in their complexity, near-light speed ideation and sheer aggression. His playing, then, was a perfect foil for Aarum, whose Rhodes work was more ethereal, providing the kind of contrast necessary to prevent a set this loose from becoming either relentless in intensity or meandering in focus.

It's always exciting to encounter new names, especially when they're as good as guitarists Busk and Nils Olav Johansen. Busk, with a very specific way of using a pitch shifter, wah wah pedal and whammy bar, seemed rooted in Pete Cosey territory; a blues player thrown into the frying pan, perhaps, and with a more limited language than Johansen. He was effective, nevertheless, in both his solos and when he created a sonic backdrop that seemed greater than the sum of its individual instrumental parts. Johansen, however, was the revelation of the set. A member of Farmers Market with Stian Carstensen, and whose My Deal places a very unique spin on a set of what the guitarist calls "American Evergreens," with Element, he ran the gamut from Mahavishnu Orchestra-like arpeggios to two-handed tapping to lines possessing an Indo-centric microtonality.

The set did occasionally feel a bit too much like a jam band, but with players far contextually broader than would normally be expected. It's too early to know if Element and Gisle Johansen are back for the long haul this time, but based on his Nattjazz performance, he's clearly at the top of his game. He delivered the goods with a winning combination of fiery intensity and endless invention. There were plenty of laughs going around the stage; if the success of a performance can be measured by how much fun the group is having, then Element's show was very successful, indeed.



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