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Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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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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