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Norwegian Road Trip, Part 1: Kongsberg Jazz, July 7-8, 2010

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 1: Kongsberg Jazz, July 7-8, 2010
John Kelman By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].
Walking out of the train station, after a 16 hours air/train trip, from Ottawa, Canada, the first view of Kongsberg, Norway was a particularly welcoming one.


The Kongsberg Jazz Festival is in its 47th year, and like Molde Jazz (celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010), which inspired it so many years ago, it's hard imagine how the country's second largest jazz festival packs seventy events into four days in a town of less than 25,000 people. But this is Norway, a country that is currently experiencing "festival inflation," according to Kongsberg Jazz Festival Manager manager, Pål Fidjestøl. There may be plenty of challenges facing a festival where attendance, in the tens of thousands, well exceeds the town's population, but Kongsberg has, for nearly five decades, met those challenges, creating a festival where—with its emphasis on Norwegian artists but with a handful of American artists including saxophonist David Murray, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist McCoy Tyner, and instrumental experimental group Tortoise—a once silver mining town becomes, for a brief time, a music mecca of the highest order.

Kongsberg is but the first destination in a three-week Norwegian Road Trip that will also see visits to Oslo and Molde. During that time, there'll be plenty of coverage of the Norwegian music scene, but also plenty of time to have a look at a country that, with only 4.5 million inhabitants, is on the cutting edge of music and may well have more musicians per capita than any other country.



Kongsberg may be small, but like other Norwegian towns of its size, its commitment to culture remains a wonder to North American visitors, where a town the same size would be lucky to have a movie theater. Kongsberg has that, of course, but it also has a wealth of spaces that the jazz festival can use as performance venues. "We have fourteen venues," says Fidjestøl, "all of them have very unique characteristics that tell something about Kongsberg or the festival. Our main arena was designed by Snoarc , the very famous Norwegian architect who designed the Ground Zero Memorial in the US and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. They did the Norwegian opera and they also designed our new venue, that's four years old this year that we call the Tubaloon. Under the roof it can seat about 1,500 people, but we use it mostly for standing room shows, and can hold 5,000 people. And that's the main arena, and then we have a wide array of small, intimate and unique settings, like the old museum, we call it the Silver Melting Cabin. When they had the silver mines they took the silver to the city in this melting hut and they made silver bars there. So that's the actual room where they have the concerts, you can see the ovens where they melted the silver, and there's lots of history in the walls. It's a great arena to have concerts, and we also have picture gallery, and the oldest wooden building in Norway is where have the Avanthaugen concert on the Saturday. So all these are unique buildings that add to the experience and to the atmosphere, of course."

Tubaloon

A daytime event that's similar to JazzNorway in a Nutshell (that takes place in May each year), called Silver City Sounds, brings together a group of people from Norway and abroad to create a forum for information exchange, unique music events and more. "The song by Sonny Rollins, he called it 'Silver City' as an homage to our festival and to our city," Fidjestøl explains. "That was when fame broke for the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in the early '70s, and Jazz Times had this front page, 'Where is Sonny Rollins?,' he was disappearing for two or three weeks, nobody knew where he was. And then in the next issue, Kongsberg put an ad saying 'He's Here.' He lived here after one of his periods of heroin use—he lived here in a small cabin in the woods for a couple of months one time, leading up to the festival—and that's when eyes opened about our festival."

Like many festivals, Kongsberg offers a combination of free and ticketed performances, also offering day passes and, relatively recently, a full festival pass for 2,000 NOK (a little over 300 USD). "The free program assembles about 30,000 people each day," Fidjestøl says. "For a city that is inhabited by close to 25,000, that's more than the number of people living here." A recent survey conducted by the festival indicated that, as Fidjestøl continues, "about 40 percent are locals, from the city of Kongsberg, then there's a good percentage of people from the areas near Kongsberg, but we also found that 13 percent of people come from abroad or from the other side of Norway [the west coast]." And so, a combination of people driving to and from Kongsberg and folks staying either at a campground along the river that runs through Kongsberg, or its two major hotels—which provide accommodations for festival goers and artists—converge on Kongsberg during week 27 of each year, turning the normally quiet town into an active and vibrant music mecca.



"The main headache is hotel capacity," says Fidjestøl, "but we have a lot of artists staying in Drammen, about 30 kilometers towards Oslo; also, some artists stay in Oslo, which we often suggest for those that will be here for several days." Given the proximity, and the way that Norway's population is spread around the country, it means that there are plenty of options, even for a small town like Kongsberg, allowing it to sustain a tremendous festival that, this year, will feature Norwegian artists including Shining, pianist Ketil Bjornstad and cellist Svante Henryson, guitarist Knut Reiersrud, poet Jan Erik Vold (in a unique concert with bassist Arild Andersen and Bill Frisell), singer Solveig Slettahjell and her Slow Motion Orchestra, and progressive jazz group Jaga Jazzist.

Chapter Index
  1. July 7: Silver City Sounds Begins
  2. July 7: Shining
  3. July 8: Zanussi Five
  4. July 8: Intro Jazz: Årets Unge Jazzmusikere 2010
  5. July 8: Ketil Bjørnstad and Svante Henryson
  6. July 8: Röyksopp


July 7: Silver City Sounds Begins

Meeting the rest of the delegates at the Kongsberg Rail Station for a drive to Storaas, where Silver City Sounds is being hosted, it became apparent just how far Norway is extending its reach to recruit new advocates of the music. Promoters from Italy, record label and club owners from England, festival directors from Germany, journalists from Canada...the list goes on. Some have attended SCS before, and are meeting up again with old friends; others may be new to SCS, now in its third year, but have encountered participants during travels elsewhere; and some are new to the country, the people, and the music. That everyone is a passionate music lover is a given; that they're fascinated by the Norwegian scene also a certainty.

After a brief chance to check in to the old hotel, and grab a bite to eat and a drink, everyone was invited to a room where five tables seated all the delegates. In a version of speed dating, SCS and Music Export Norway Project Manager Øyvind Skjerven Larsen kept delegates on track—each table, seating five or six people, had ten minutes for its participants to introduce themselves to one another. A clap of Larsen's hands and it was time to move on to the next table and do it over again. After five sessions, almost everyone had the chance to briefly meet, an informal way of kick-starting relationships that will, no doubt, grow over the coming days.

David Murray

Then it was back in the bus to Kongsberg, for the first evening of the festival. An early show at Kongsberg Kino—a small multiplex cinema—brought saxophonist David Murray from the US to play with Lonely Woman, a Norwegian quintet led by bassist Tina Asmundsen. Also featuring woodwind multi-instrumentalist Vidar Johansen, trumpeter Roy Nikolaisen, pianist Rune Klakegg and drummer Svein "Chriko" Christiansen, the group proved that the mainstream jazz tradition remains alive and well in Norway, as the quintet plus Murray swung its way through an opening original that swung hard and provided plenty of solo opportunity for all. Unfortunately, while the group played credibly—and Murray, with characteristic fire—it was a safe performance. Perhaps there needs to be advocates of the tradition in Norway, but in the case of Lonely Woman and its relatively sparsely attended set, there appeared to be a big difference between playing the notes and truly meaning them.

July 7: Shining

Black Jazz may mean one thing to most traditional jazzers, but to Norway's Shining—and the packed house of fans at its 11:00PM show at Energimølla, an old red brick building that's been converted into a two-tiered performance space—it means something else entirely. Led by guitarist/vocalist/saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby and also including powerhouse drummer Torstein Lofthus—now going only by their last names—Shining began life as an edgy, rock-inflected but still clearly jazz band, but has gradually moved away from its clearer roots towards a kind of high octane, metallicized hybrid, loaded with growling vocals, thundering bass, even more powerful drums and relentlessly screaming guitars.

From left: Hermansen, Kreken, Moen, Munkeby, Lofthus

With Black Jazz (Indie Recordings, 2010)—also the name of its latest CD—Shining's definition of a term so closely associated with an African-American tradition and redefined it in a Norwegian context. Norway, after all, has some of the world's biggest metal fans and a huge death metal scene, so it was remarkable (but not necessarily surprising) to see, in a crowd of predominantly young faces, no shortage of gray hairs and no hairs. Metal, at least in North America, tends to largely attract teenage males, but in Kongsberg there were also plenty of women to be found amongst a demographic ranging from late teens to fifties and sixties, all of them pumping their arms enthusiastically when Munkeby encouraged them during the set's one cover, the extreme version of King Crimson's iconic "21st Century Schizoid Man," that closes the Black Jazz album.

Shining hit the stage running and didn't slow down for its entire set—an hour, plus another ten minutes or so for an encore; short, perhaps, but so exciting and energizing that, by its end, the audience was as sated as the group. The music came almost entirely from Black Jazz, and while the album captures much of the group's energy, it's still best experienced live. With swirling, blue-tinged lighting, nuclear blasts of blinding light, and the occasional strobe lighting, Shining's show was as exciting to watch as it was to hear. There was plenty of rock-posturing, but make no mistake: as much as Shining has morphed into a progressive metal band whose only relationship to jazz now rests with Munkeby's improvisational acumen (especially on saxophone) this is no "three-chord wonder" music; instead, with constant twists and turns, shifting meters and complex arrangements, this was music for which most musicians would have required charts to navigate.

Kreken

Not Shining, however—and, of course, having a set of music stands onstage would have been antithetical to the show's fundamental spirit. As unfailingly tight as the group was in delivering its knotty, head-banging message, it performed with sheer and unfettered abandon. The activity on stage rarely let up, with guitarist Hermansen affording Munkeby the freedom to switch to saxophone and EVI (electronic valve instrument, a MIDI-d wind instrument) without losing the crunching guitar that so defines the group's sound. And when the two played together, bolstered by bassist Kreken during passages of almost impossibly fast riffs, played in unison—and made all the more astounding for their shifting bar lines—it elevated the show even further, turning up the heat in a room that as already hot and sweaty.

Munkeby

It's hard to know what King Crimson co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp would think of Shining's version of "21st Century Schizoid Man," but with Munkeby's screaming saxophone, Lofthus' turbulent drums, Moen's industrial keyboards, and ear-crunching guitar and bass from Hermansen and Kreken respectively, it far more viscerally reflected the paranoid intent of the original, first heard on Crimson's groundbreaking debut, In the Court of the Crimson King (DGM Live, 1969). Munkeby wailed on tenor with a screaming, cathartic energy that suggested how the late Albert Ayler might have sounded, had he grown up in a different time, a different place and a different culture. It was one of many moments that proved Shining remains, at its core, a jazz group, albeit one that has, over the years and through the course of albums including Grindston (Rune Grammofon, 2007) and In the Kingdom of Kitch You Will Be a Monster (Rune Grammofon, 2005), dispensed with virtually every last scrap of orthodoxy.

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