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Norwegian Jazz 101c: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2011

John Kelman By

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May 26: The Source

Saxophonist Trygve Seim may be the best-known member of The Source, the consequence of two beautifully constructed, large ensemble records on ECM—2001's Different Rivers and its even more compelling follow-up, Sangam (2004)—but his longtime partners are gradually building similar names for themselves. In a country where there's a disproportionate number of remarkable musicians, and within that, an equally out-of-balance group of outstanding drummers, Per Oddvar Johansen has honed a tremendously broad approach that makes him as strong a groove-meister in singer Solveig Slettahjell's Slow Motion projects as he is a textural foil in pianist Christian Wallumrod's more rigorous ensembles, last heard on Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM, 2010). Bassist Mats Eilertsen, back from his previous evening's performance with his trio, continues to gain traction with Tord Gustavsen and others, not to mention his own albums as a leader.

The Source, from left: Øyvind Brække, Trygve Seim, Mats Eilertsen, Per Oddvar Johansen

On an international level, trombonist Øyvind Brække remains the most hidden treasure of the group, a trombonist who exploits the near-vocal qualities of his instrument, whether in the context of The Source or the more clearly defined confines of the longstanding Sandvika Storband, whose latest release, A Novel Approach (Self Produced, 2011), stemmed from a commission where the trombonist adapted his own music, along with pieces by trumpeter Mathias Eick and guitarist Jacob Young, for the 17-piece big band.

Like Westerhus and Endresen, The Source reflects the individual strengths of its members, while creating a whole that sounds like nothing any of them do elsewhere—a compositional and improvisational laboratory, in the interactive space of a chord-less quartet. Brække is the quartet's primary writer, and it was material from the group's self-titled 2006 ECM release that formed the foundation for some of its set in the same intimate, 100-seat Studio USF where Endresen and Westerhus had been just a couple hours prior.

Unlike Westerhus and Endresen, however, The Source may be about interpretive power, but it's almost entirely within a scripted format. Seim—looking considerably different than he did when he brought his large ensemble to PDX Jazz in Portland, Oregon, during the winter of 2007; less style and more Viking—was in top form, eschewing the kind of muscular, extended approach to improvisation that defines so many saxophonists, and focusing more, instead, on tone, nuance and the creation of strong, theme-based solos. A captivating presence who favored the absolute perfection of every note over a preponderance of them, whether on tenor or curved soprano, Seim's growing interest in the music of India and Pakistan has become pervasive in his phrasing, where he added unorthodox bends and microtonal tinges.

Brække's "Caballero" was initially driven by Eilertsen's simple, bowed line, coming out of silence and creating an angular pulse over which the trombonist and Seim moved in, out and around its simple but oblique melody. Ultimately, however, it was Johansen's emergent military pulse that gave the tune its weight, unfolding like a bolero. A focus on rubato tone poems that were more about percussive color than pulse, and which provided everyone in the group opportunity to explore individually, coalesced into passages of stunning group interplay, as if saxophonist Ornette Coleman's free jazz of the early 1960s was morphed into something as redolent of Norwegian folkloric traditionalism as it was the American vernacular. A puckish playfulness also imbued the set; it may have been some serious music, with arrangements that demanded plenty of focus, but it was clear, from the smiles and nods of encouragement amongst the group throughout the set, that this was a group having plenty of fun.

And while it's hard to imagine a group taking requests, The Source did. Johansen's melancholy ""Mmball"—a popular tune for the group, appearing on both The Source and The Source and Different Cikadas (ECM, 2002), as well as Seim's duet disc with accordionist Frode Haltli, Yeraz (ECM, 2008)—here it was a perfect encore and set closer, bringing The Source's performance to a calm and tranquil completion.

May 27: Lunch in Glesvær / Electric Pansori

After an all-too-brief night's sleep, it was back on the bus for a relatively quick trip to Glesvær, a small town with a long history, courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bergen International Festival. First mentioned in the late 1600s, it was originally a fishing town (as many Norwegian towns along the coast were), located in the large archipelago west of Bergen, reaching into the North Sea. Now a vacation destination, with summer cottages for purchase and rent, its rugged beauty provides an ideal place to get away for a weekend, a week or a month.

An old trading post was converted into a restaurant in recent years, and it was there the Nutshellers converged for a lunch of bacallà, a traditional stew made with salted cod. But first, the group was treated to a showcase by Electric Pansori, a new group featuring three players who've intersected at various times, but never before in this combination—or with this premise. Christian Wallumrød may be best-known for his series of austere, acoustic chamber recordings on ECM, including The Zoo is Far (2007), but he's no stranger to the world of electronic experimentation. Drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, back from his performance with The Source the previous evening, was equally plugged in, making him a strong sonic foil for guitarist Ivar Grydeland, whose last album with the folk-tinged, Indo-centric Huntsville, Echos, Arches and Eras (Rune Grammofon, 2009), was a pulsating, noise-driven improv-fest, with guests Sidsel Endresen, and two members of American alt-country group Wilco, intrepid guitarist Nels Cline and percussionist Glenn Kotche.

Electric Pansori, from left: Christian Wallumrød , Per Oddvar Johansen, Ivar Grydeland

Norway has been a trendsetter in the realm of electrocentric free improv, with groups like Huntsville, Supersilent, Puma and Humcrush proving that not all noise sounds the same. Add Electric Pansori to that elite group, after a 30-minute free improv that, like BMX 24 hours earlier, surprised nutshellers with its bold approach to sound-sculpting; it also shocked others in the vicinity, as passers-by looked into the large window of the restaurant, to see what all the hubbub was about.

Pansori is a form of Korean traditional music, but there was little, if anything, tying Electric Pansori to its namesake—other than a similar adherence to the concept of music intrinsically requiring long stretches of time to develop. The performance was about shifting parameters of sound, with Grydeland distanced (as usual) from posing guitar histrionics, avoiding "look at me" pyrotechnics and, instead, patiently creating washes of sound that rarely resembled the instrument from whence they came. Johansen spent as much time with his gear as he did his acoustic kit, building pulses that ebbed and flowed, while Wallumrød used his synth to create alternate soundscapes, often based on densely packed, dissonant voicings and near-relentless repetition.

Less about discrete form, and more about shifting presences, it was an auspicious debut for a group that has yet to record, but hopefully will do so in the near future.


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