Norwegian Jazz 101c: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2011

John Kelman By

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May 27: Fjell Fortress / Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem

With lunch over, it was another quick bus ride inland to Fjell Fortress, located in the barren, rocky Norwegian countryside. Built by German occupying forces during World War II, if it wasn't exactly a pleasant place—despite a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area (and, obviously, the reason for its location)—it did provide some insight into how the war had been conducted. A small round structure, with its exterior now largely glass, there was no indication of the massive structure built inside the hill, into which Nutshellers descended via a spiral metal staircase that had to be at least 30 meters deep. On the way down, there were openings for firing large weapons, but it was at the bottom of the fortress, with remaining mines, missiles and other armaments, where a sense of the cold brutality of the war crystallized. This fortress may have been the home for a large group of people, but there was absolutely nothing about it geared for comfort. Dank, cold, and dark, it was a sharp contrast to the rugged beauty of Glesvær; even the surrounding landscape—barren, craggy, rocky—was largely unappealing.

Stairway down Fjell Fortress

But though there was little that could be called attractive about this fortress-now-museum, a showcase performance by Trygve Seim and pianist Andreas Utnem made clear that beauty can, indeed, be found anywhere. Performing music from the duo's 2010 ECM recording, Purcor: Songs for Saxophone and Piano, Seim and Utnem delivered JNiaN 2011's sparest, most lovely performances.

Purcor was largely written by Seim and Utnem individually, though the album does include three improvisations that are more spontaneous composition, with strong undercurrents of form, even as they move into unexpected places over the course of relative brevity. There are also folk songs from various Norwegian locations, but the album's greatest success is the seamless beauty that joins all the tracks. In this unamplified context, it was still possible to hear every nuance of Seim's saxophone, even as he did little more, at times, than breathe into his horn. Seim's roots—as is the case with so many Norwegian saxophonists—is in the ubiquity of Jan Garbarek; but just as so many American saxophonists are informed by John Coltrane or Michael Brecker, so, too, does Garbarek's undeniable presence mean anything but imitation to subsequent generations that include, along with Seim, saxophonists like Hakon Kornstad. Instead, Seim's similar attentiveness to the absolute purity and intent of every note he plays resulted in a similar aesthetic, perhaps, but an unmistakably personal sound and alternate in deceptive thematic simplicity.

From left: Trygve Seim, Andreas Utnem

Utnem, too, could be easily lumped into the category of fellow Nord Ketil Bjornstad, whose neoclassical leanings have defined a whole new space for improvisation. But Utnem's playing is more clearly rooted in Norwegian folk music—even greater economy, too, making him an ideal foil for the likeminded Seim. And when he turned to the reed-based harmonium on Seim's hymnal "Responsorium," Utnem achieved a rare sonic union with Seim's horn. As quiet and introspective as the duo's set was—and as much as it evoked a surprising number of contrasting emotions, despite its inherent understatement—it ultimately managed to create a rare island of calm, peaceful reflection for Nutshellers that was all the more profound for the place in which it was delivered.

May 27: The Deciders

After a quick dinner break, it was time to get back to USF Verftet, climbing the tremendous hill that separated the hotel from the venue with, if not greater ease, at least more familiarity. It was an evening of relatively slim pickings, partially due to the massive draw of Jarle Bernhoft. Since releasing his latest record, Solidarity breaks (Universal, 2011), the looping meister/singer/multi-instrumentalist songwriter who now goes by just his last name, has made a tremendous leap into Norwegian stardom. Last seen at Punkt Festival 2009, the now even snappier dressed and hair-styled Bernhoft's distinctive, soul-based pop music—even more captivating live, as he's a veritable one-man band, creating real-time loops on voice, guitar and keyboards that make for in-the-moment arrangements—has clearly struck a chord. The lineup to get into his show was so large that it was almost impossible to squeeze past it into Sardinen, where a band advertized as Konigsberg was set to play...only, it turned out, there was no band called Konigsberg, just a quintet called The Deciders.

Except The Deciders was Konigsberg. Formed by Ole Morten Vågan for a 2010 commission at the Konigsberg Jazz Festival, the hardworking Norwegian bassist and co-leader of Motif—whose triple-disc set, Facienda (Jazzland, 2011) is a frontrunner for one of the year's best—decided, at the last minute to change the group's name, and it should come as no surprise for those familiar with the sheer unpredictability of Vågan's music. If there's anyone in Norway carrying the torch for bass icon Charles Mingus, both in terms of intrepid group leadership and muscular bass playing, it's Vågan.

There's plenty of intersection between Motif, whose 2010 performance at Natt Jazz was a revelation, and this new venture, and not just because Germany's Axel Dørner now holds the trumpet chair in both groups. Both groups also lean heavily on Vågan's writing—though in the case of Motif, it's a piano-based quintet, whereas The Deciders has no chordal instrument, instead looking to Dørner, German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall and Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljunkqvist to build vertical harmonies in the frontline, while placing most solos in a trio context, supported by the powerful Vågan and Swedish drummer Jon Fält.

That's not to say there wasn't plenty going on beyond the individual solos, where other players injected cued lines and punctuating shots directed by various members of the group. And The Deciders proved far more than a "head-solo-head" group; the writing was far more detailed than that, with knotty lines and idiosyncratic rhythmic accents and shifting bar lines. But the emphasis was on freewheeling improvisation, and in the realm of a kind of post-Ornette Coleman free-bop, it's hard to imagine a performance as thoroughly exhilarating—and hilarious—as The Deciders' Natt Jazz set.

At a time when festivals are concerned about bringing in a younger demographic, groups like The Deciders make a case for it being possible without making musical compromise. This was challenging music, with periods of complete and utter freedom, where soloists like Dørner resorted to outrageous extended techniques to make sounds as often flatulent as they were mellifluous. But not only did The Deciders attract a young crowd, they kept it, with a combination of captivating energy and patter that wasn't just between-song, it was inter-song, as Vågan screamed out, with complete abandon, "We are THE DECIDERS!!!," to tremendous applause, whistles and screams. So, perhaps, one way to attract people to the music is to make it more fun?

The Deciders, from left: Rudi Mahall, Axel Dörner, Fredrik Ljungqvist, Jon Fält

It didn't hurt that Fält—whose own group, Lekverk, delivered a similarly absurdist set of over-the-top humor and undeniably outstanding musicianship at Natt Jazz 2009—was a frenetic backbone, his eyes constantly shifting around his band mates, as he combined an unrelenting sense of groove with an equally relentless sense of mischief—at one point, in a solo-trade-off where the entire band stopped, simply coughing in time. Between his unfettered approach and Vågan—often slapping his strings so furiously it seemed like blood was flying—The Deciders had as lithe and muscular a rhythm team as can be heard in Norway these days, and if the group has yet to record its first album, then that's an oversight that needs to be corrected, and fast. This is a group whose ties to the jazz tradition are deep, while remaining unequivocally rooted in the 21st century.

Trying to leave The Deciders' show was even more challenging than getting in, with Bernhoft's show still ongoing, and people packing up the halls of the venue to try and squeeze in. One of the great things about Natt Jazz is that people buy a day pass and can move between the four performance spaces inside the venue, and catch up to six shows in a single night. One of the downsides is that there's almost constant movement, as people move from one show to another, and if there's a bottleneck, as there was for the Bernhoft show, it makes getting to all the other spaces next to impossible.


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