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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.


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