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Norwegian Jazz 101c: JazzNorway In A Nutshell 2011

John Kelman By

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May 26: Stian Westerhus and Sidsel Endresen

They've only been performing as a duo for less than a year, but guitarist Stian Westerhus and singer Sidsel Endresen have come a long way since their official debut at Molde Jazz 2010 (though the first inkling they were onto something came a year earlier in Oslo, where the two performed a duet encore, following individual solo sets). Even just a few weeks later, when they performed at Punkt Festival 2010 in Kristiansand, the evolution was already palpable. Eight months later, at a full concert in Bergen, Endresen and Westerhus gave a performance of such stunning, full-on engagement, that it would have been a crime if it wasn't recorded, as this was a show that defined the best of what each artist is about individually but, even more importantly, collectively in the context of this truly groundbreaking duo.

Stian Westerhus

Each artist is breaking through the boundaries of convention with their respective instruments. Westerhus, whose Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010) was as big a shot across the bow of guitar orthodoxy has been fired in many years, may look like a rock star, and he may play with the energy and rig of a rock guitarist—four amps, and enough foot pedals to open a small music store—but what he does with all this gear and attitude is to challenge orthodoxy of form and function, as he combines unorthodox techniques on his guitar; bowing, scratching, using alligator clips to prepare the instrument, with the kind of intimate knowledge of each and every pedal that both allowed him to create new sounds in the moment and not only use those effects as an organic extension of his guitar, but as standalone instruments in and of themselves, at time unplugging the jack from his guitar and using his thumb on it to create a base signal that was then manipulated through his devices.

As defined as he is by the electronics, Endresen is just the opposite; effectively an all-acoustic singer, the only thing she needed was a microphone—and no outboard processing, at that—and, even then, only to be heard alongside Westerhus, especially when he began to ratchet up the volume. Her ongoing evolution of a new vocal language based on cells—small techniques ranging from strange utterances and clicks and ticks, to odd, reverse-attack sounds that seem almost impossible to make with a mouth, a throat and a larynx—has been well-documented on records like her own One (Sofa, 2007) and, more recently, a couple tracks of live sampler Jan Bang's ...and poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2010). Listening to Endresen sing is sometimes like hearing many voices at once; a strange confluence that occasionally seems almost like a conversation, only to suddenly turn deeply melodic, with the lovely, warm tone that made albums like the more song-based Undertow (Jazzland, 2000) so richly rewarding.

And so, individually, both Westerhus and Endresen are doing things nobody else has done. Together, however, their individual strengths join into a whole that, increasingly, exceeds the sum of its parts. Their interaction is getting deeper with each passing performance, and while Westerhus is usually the more visually captivating of the two—Endresen preferring to remain seated, off to one side of the stage, while Westerhus and his mountains of gear occupy a much larger space on the other side—this performance found Endresen more physically engaged than in any of their previous shows. As the intensity of the set-long improvisation grew to near-ear-shattering levels, the normally still Endresen was bouncing in her seat, her head bobbing, and her arms gesturing in ways that gave whatever alien language she was speaking surprising meaning.

And there were new techniques on the go as well—Endersen, in particular, experimenting with multiphonics that may have been rooted in throat-singing, but here were taken to a new place, as one note orbited around the other's pedal tone in a remarkable display of vocal pyrotechnics that never became an end unto itself. Westerhus was, at times, as much performance art as performance, punching the machine head of his guitar into his amp, and letting the resultant sound build into feedback that, as it neared the outer reaches of control, he'd rein back in with a sharp, punctuating chop.

The beauty of this duo—and in its players' individual work—is the remarkable balance it strikes. Westerhus' sounds are often otherworldly, certainly alien to most that use conventional concepts of rhythm, harmony and melody as yardsticks; and yet, there's no shortage of beauty amidst the unexpected sonics. Westerhus may be aggressively pushing the envelope, but he had to learn all the rules before he began breaking them, and while it's almost impossible to hear any roots in the music he makes, they're there nevertheless, in the haunting melancholy of one particular passage where, combining bowing and a plethora of effects, the guitarist turned almost orchestral in tone. And as much as the performance was an endless flow of give-and-take, of push-and-pull, Endresen's ears were equally open, finding her way to near-song form at more than one point. The duo has, in fact, been recording its performances with an eye to a first release, and it's hard to imagine parts of the Natt Jazz performance not being used, though with the rapid growth this duo is showing, who knows what the next performance will bring?


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