Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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May 28, 2010: Making Sausages in Bergsdalstunet/Mari Kvien Brunvoll

While half of the JNiaN attendees went off for some whitewater rafting early on the third morning, May 28, less intrepid jazz lovers were taken on a bus toward Voss—the extreme sport capital of Europe, which was visited as part of JNiaN 2009—taking a detour off the beaten path for a day in Bergsdalstunet, a farm located deep in the valleys of Bergsdalen. The trip to the farm was as resonant as the day that followed. Driving on the main, two-lane highway from Bergen to Voss, one of the most striking aspects is a system of 38 tunnels that allow vehicles to drive through the numerous mountains along the way—rather than around or up and down them (which would, in fact, be nearly impossible)—in between panoramic views of mountains, waterways, forests and green plains.

The Road to Bergsdalstunet

Difficult though it may be to believe, heading off the main road towards Bergsdalen presented even more remarkable landscapes. Beautifully cultivated farms like Bergsdalstunet can be found on a single-lane road, where diamonds liberally peppered along the roadway provide the only means for vehicles, coming from opposite directions, to get around one another.

In addition to producing a number of products—most notably, sausages—the farm also contained a quaint restaurant where it was possible to sample local cuisine. But while JNiaN attendees were enjoying a snack of pancakes and preserves, the farm's owners and gracious hosts—Olaug Fagerbakke and Helge Terje Fosse—were getting things ready for the main event: making sausages. It may be a less extreme activity than whitewater rafting, but going through the farm's process of preparing and smoking sausages presented its own challenges. Aproned up and with plenty of gloves to go around, Olaug demonstrated how a small manual hand funnel—a centuries-old device that hasn't changed much since Roman times—is used to feed the ground meat, seasoned only with salt and pepper (though the debate as to whether white or black pepper remains a heated one), through a tube into the sausage casing (made from animal intestines), and is then tied and cut off.

While the numerous double entendres of making sausages weren't lost on anyone, almost everyone tried their hand at the process. Then it was off the smoking cabin up the road for the final step in the process. There are two approaches to smoking, which contributes the most to a sausage's distinctive flavor: hot or cold. Hot smoking both flavors and cooks the sausages, while cold smoking only flavors the meat. Bergsdalstunet employs cold smoking, and so a small pipe leads underground from the bottom of the small incline on which the smoking cabin was situated so that the hot smoke is cooled before entering the shed. Humbling, in a world steeped in technology, is how accurately the temperature of the smoke can be regulated naturally. The length of time required to smoke the sausages is, however, dependent on the humidity in the air—the greater the humidity, the longer it takes.

From left: Madli-Liis Parts and Anki Heikkinen Make Sausages

Smoking is done twice over the course of two days, and so the sausages made that day would not be ready for eating. Whether or not that was just as well is something JNiaN will never know; but after visiting the smoking cabin, everyone went back to the restaurant for a meal that, in addition to sausage, included smoked salmon taken from a nearby fjord as well as a variety of meats, vegetables and potato, not to mention some mouth-watering rolls, fresh out of a pizza oven imported from Italy. With 15-20 people at two long tables, it was another great opportunity to get to know one another over a warm meal of comfort food.

Running a little late, the rafting contingent finally caught up with the sausage makers, had a bite to eat, and then everyone headed off to a small church up the road for a solo concert by vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll. Brunvoll, a singer originally from Molde but now based in Bergen, is yet another young Norwegian musician marrying acoustic instrumentation with electronics. She's not unlike Jarle Bernhoft, whose 2009 solo performance at Punkt was nothing short of a revelation. But whereas Bernhoft uses looping and other devices to create a miniature band for his pop, soul and R&B-oriented material, Brunvoll's songwriting is more left-of-center. Her background in jazz imbues the music to a certain extent, but like so many other Norwegian artists, it's more deeply subsumed and is far from direct.

Sitting on the floor of the church and surrounded by microphones, electronic devices, a thumb piano and a zither, Brunvoll created a virtual choir by gradually looping layer upon layer of her voice—one which was capable of an almost painfully pure, vibrato-less falsetto and a natural range that was paradoxically fragile yet capable of greater power when needed. Brunvoll's command of technology was seamless and complete, as she created numerous loops on the fly—some of which were then altered so that she could create washes of white noise, cushiony vocal pads and more—but even more impressive was how she managed to remember each part and where it was stored, so that she could re-introduce any or all of them at will, as her songs gradually unfolded.

Brunvoll's song structures defied easy categorization. Sometimes a lush and lyrical tune would dissolve into otherworldly soundscapes—at times, ethereal, elsewhere jagged—only to gradually reemerge. Despite being less technically accomplished (yet) than singers like Sidsel Endresen at evoking purely acoustic sounds not normally associated with the human voice, Brunvoll did, nevertheless, use a number of extended techniques, such as vocalizing staccato percussives, to give her music more expansive texture and, at times, a clear, strong pulse. She also used a special microphone to create beat sounds, which were often pitch-shifted into an even deeper register. The combination of skilled vocals, an intuitive and resonant style, and writing that, while not in any way imitative of, but certain redolent of Iceland's Björk, made her relatively brief performance yet another highlight in a trip filled with them.

As oblique as her music sometimes became, an underlying lyricism, combined with her strong but fragile voice and a uniquely off-kilter approach to the writing, gave Brunvoll a voice all her own. She has yet to release an album, but was a highlight of this year's 12 Points! festival in Stavenger, Norway, and there's little doubt that when she finally does, it will be well worth checking out.

The return trip to Bergen was quieter than the trip out; everyone was tired after a long day that started early in the morning and continued until early evening. And there were still the final evening's performances at Nattjazz.

May 28, 2010: Motif

With some of the JNiaN attendees leaving early the next morning, the final full evening of the junket kicked off with Motif in the Sardinen room of USF Verftet. While some of the post-Miles Davis free-bop that defined its last release, Apo Calypso (Jazzland, 2008), remained, the 11-year-old quintet's exhilarating performance also demonstrated the significance of even a single change in a longstanding lineup. With trumpeter Mathias Eick no longer in the group (his solo career having kicked into higher gear), the remaining members of the group—pianist Håvard Wiik, saxophonist/clarinetist Atle Nymo, bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen—were joined by Axel Dørner, a far freer trumpeter who took the group into even more extreme territory than it had previously visited.

From left Håvard Wiik, Atle Nymo, Ole Morten Vågan Axel Dørner, Håkon Mjåset Johansen

Of course, the combination of Wiik—whose constant ability to surprise amid his virtuosic explorations of every part of his instrument—and the flexible but fervent team of Vågan and Johansen, meant that whether Motif was swinging hard or exploring the outer reaches of free improvisation with reckless abandon, there was always a clear sense of commitment and intent, not to mention no shortage of fun being had by all. Nymo is a player who, while slowly emerging on the international radar, has become an increasingly busy saxophonist in Norway, performing with Helge Sunde's Ensemble Denada on on Finding Nymo (ACT, 2009) as well as in the bands Juxtaposed, IPA, Hilde Louise Asbjørnsen Orchestra and Saxwaffe. A broad player who can play with the deep tone of Dexter Gordon one moment, the piercing multiphonics and wails of Peter Brötzmann the next, he was a simpatico foil for Dørner, whose explorations of extended techniques and use of circular breathing created some of the set's most exciting moments, both alone and in tandem with Nymo.

The only non-Norwegian of the group (born and living in Germany), Dørner brings a new dimension to Motif. Known for his participation in the Ken Vandermark axis (a member of the American reed man's Territory Band), as well as past work with iconic German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and American saxophonist Sam Rivers, Dørner's playing was mesmerizing, whether navigating the knotty arrangement of "Paddywank"—which effortlessly moved between fiery swing, intense free play, creating a constantly shifting foundation for Nymo's best solo of the set—or taking front and center stage for an a capella solo that combined abstruse melodism, raspy sonics and a wash of faux-white noise.

Vågan, the group's spokesperson, demonstrated the same unfettered approach as with Maria Kannegaard the previous night—plucking, slapping, popping and strumming the strings with relentless intensity. But here, teamed with Johansen—a fellow partner in groups including Maryland (with Kannegaard and saxophonist Håkon Kornstad) and Wiik's trio—and a repertoire that emphasized power and frenzy over the more considered free play of Kannagaard's trio with drummer Thomas Strønen, there was even greater opportunity to witness his ability to drive a pulse but play simultaneously with complete and utter freedom. He also proved capable, in a duet with Nymo on bass clarinet, of a rich arco and, perhaps surprisingly, deeper beauty.

The set list appeared to be all new material, and if the stunning interaction of its Nattjazz performance was any indication, Motif needs to gets back into the studio, and quickly, to document this revised lineup. Comfortably marrying detailed structure with unabashed and unapologetic freedom, much of its music may not have been for the faint-at-heart, but Motif's stunning blurring of the line between form and freedom made for one thrilling show.

May 28, 2010: Stian Westerhus

Since returning home after spending a few years in England, Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus has acquired the moniker "The Hardest Working Guitar Player in Jazzbiz," and it's an apt one. Last year, at Molde, he could be seen challenging the outer reaches of free improvisation with Crimetime Orchestra, and only a couple hours later adding his jagged sonics to the more strictly arranged music of Jaga Jazzist. He can also be heard with Monolithic and Puma (whose latest disc, Half Nelson Courtship ((2010)) has just been released by Rune Grammofon)—and on his own solo guitar release, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010)—but the gig that is, perhaps, pushing him up into a larger audience's radar is with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær. Westerhus replaced another marvelous guitar innovator, Eivind Aarset, in Molvær's group last year, and the tour schedule so far has been beyond hectic, but in a very good way.

While Westerhus is, like Aarset, a player for whom altered techniques and electronics are fundamental to a style that largely eschews guitar conventions, those expecting his work with Molvær to carry on Aarset's more ethereal soundscapes will be surprised...and shocked. Westerhus is, indeed, his own man, with an approach that stretches the boundaries of improvisation, and so his work with the trumpeter can be expected to travel to more aggressive landscapes and alien soundscapes where the guitar is more a controller of sound than a melodic or harmonic instrument. All this and more was in full evidence during his boundary busting solo performance at Studio USF.

Despite his busy touring schedule with Molvær, Westerhus' primary focus is increasingly on solo performance, and simply entering Studio USF before the show made clear that this was to be one like no other. Four amplifiers—two Ampegs, one Hiwatt and the Vox AC30 that's become so signature to the sound of Aarset and Terje Rypdal—and an array of pedals that literally went from one end of the stage to the other spoke to the key importance of technology in Westerhus' music. But his hour-long set of free improvisation was not a case of technology-meets-guitar; it was deeper than that. Instead, Westerhus' instrumental array was as much a part of his DNA as the instruments he used to control it—a conventional Gibson slim-line hollowbody and a Danelectro Longhorn electric baritone guitar.

Starting in darkness on the baritone, Westerhus began by slapping and scraping the strings. Loops, pitch shifters and more became a part of the picture as he slowly began to develop an aural landscape that had little to do with melody and more to do with colors dark and industrial. While Westerhus—as much a product of Slayer as he is Derek Bailey—possesses no shortage of virtuosic technique, an unshakable irreverence and utter disrespect for convention meant that there were few reference points for the increasingly dense, increasingly loud and increasingly stunning sounds emanating from the stage. Despite few of the usual touchstones that might be expected in a solo guitar performance, trace elements of pulse, melody and harmony came and went in constant ebb and flow, as Westerhus plucked, pulled, struck, bowed and scraped his strings.

Westerhus' lack of reverence became even clearer at one point where, ripping the cable out of his baritone guitar, he seemed ready to switch to his Gibson. Instead, rather than plugging it in, he spent minutes touching the tip of the cable to create jagged electronic noise, which he further processed through his pedal array—triggered (sometimes simultaneously) with both feet and, dropping to his knees, his hands as well. Some might suggest that Westerhus' music, in its apparent lack of conventional structure, is nothing more than aimless meandering and knob-twddling. But watching him in performance only further supported the actual truth: this is simply not the case. Westerhus' command of his pedals and devices is so intimate, so complete, that while it would be true to call his music spontaneous and of-the-moment, it would be a mistake to suggest that he is in anything but complete control, even as he performs with seemingly reckless abandon. The thrill of discovery may have been fresh for Westerhus, as he found new ways to combine the seemingly endless permutations and combinations of his gear, but there was never any doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Noise much of it may be, but, as Norwegian noise improve progenitor Supersilent continues to demonstrate, that needn't mean there's no room for beauty. In a set that cut a broad swatch of dynamics and sound, Westerhus' mesmerizing performance proved that for the open-minded—for those able to accept that standard musical conventions need not be adhered to in order to create meaningful music—it's possible to be simultaneously soothed and attacked by the utter and vast potential of sound.



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