Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2: Kongsberg Jazz, July 9-10, 2010

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2: Kongsberg Jazz, July 9-10, 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].
Each morning, before heading back to town to catch the day's shows at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, Silver City Sounds sponsors a brief program at the hotel in Storaas, about 20km outside. The majority of the sessions were sponsored by Music Export Norway, and organization devoted to spreading the word about Norwegian culture to the world. With attendees from all over Europe and farther abroad, it was an ideal opportunity to also demonstrate the country's commitment to ensuring that archival material doesn't get lost over the years. It's hard to imagine that, before the 1960s, Norway was an entirely different country. The discovery of oil may have facilitated many things—including the country's remarkable infrastructure—but improvements to roads, rail, education and health care are not particularly revolutionary or unique. How the country applies some of that money to the perpetuation of culture at a level virtually unheard of—especially in towns the size of Kongsberg—most definitely is.
For a specific example, one only need look as far as a recent AAJ interview with Kristiansand resident, Punkt Festival co-Artistic Director and live sampler Jan Bang, who describes a unique program called Cultiva, where interest on funds earned through the sale of excess electricity have been used to provide startup funding for festivals like Punkt, not to mention making it possible to build a new arts center to replace the current Agder Theatre that will, opening in 2012, more than double the capacity of its current venue. Travel around the country and it's possible to find all kinds of cultural initiatives, such as a large number of commissions awarded every year by many of the 500-plus festivals that take place across the country.

If ever there was a country to define the term "thinking outside the box," it's Norway. Jaga Jazzist drummer Martin Horntveth explained, in an informal conversation before the group's July 10 show at Kongsberg's unique Tubaloon venue, how, with no major label support to fund the recording sessions for its latest release, One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010), Jaga solved the problem with a novel approach. Reaching out to a number of festivals, Jaga asked them to essentially pay for future shows well in advance, so that they group would be able to use that money to make a new record, and then perform it at the participating festivals. That's what happened in 2009, with the group's performance at Molde Jazz; Jaga's first performance in four year, and a show that, in part, helped the group pay for the cost of recording One-Armed Bandit—no insignificant cost, given the size of the group and complexity of the music.

But support for the arts hasn't just been about support from municipal and federal agencies, nor has it been only about the unparalleled number of commissions granted to Norwegian artists each year by festivals such as Molde, Kongsberg, Natt Jazz and Vossa Jazz; there have been private investors who have made a tremendous difference; nobody, perhaps, more significant than Sonia Henie, a famous figure skater who also made it big in Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century, and it's her contribution to the Oslo scene—and, ultimately, the country as a whole, that was the subject of a presentation given by Lars Finborud on July 9 at Storaas, for Silver City Sounds attendees.

Chapter Index
  1. July 9: Heine Onstad Arts Center and the Norwegian Jazz Scene
  2. July 9: Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers
  3. July 9: Tortoise
  4. July 9: Jan Erik Vold / Arild Andersen / Bill Frisell
  5. July 10: Public Interview with Håkon Kornstad and Martin Horntveth
  6. July 10: Håkon Kornstad / Skúli Sverrison / John Hollenbeck
  7. July 10: Jaga Jazzist
  8. July 10: Kongsberg Ends

July 9: Heine Onstad Arts Center and the Norwegian Jazz Scene

Perhaps the most tragic thing about Onstad donating a large sum of money for the creation of the Henie Onstad Arts Centre in Oslo, opening in 1968, was that she never lived long enough to truly see how important it would become. Recently, the Centre's name has appeared on the radar of fans of British '70s group Soft Machine with Reel Recordings' release of Live At Henie Onstad Arts Centre 1971—one of the best live archival finds to date of the classic Softs lineup featuring saxophonist Elton Dean, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt (for whom this show would turn out to be one of his last before leaving the group).

Finborud explained how, at the time the Centre was built, Oslo had few places for live jazz—Club 7 and the Monk Museum. While international artists would play at the Centre, its focus was very much on the burgeoning Norwegian scene, a quick look at some of its early shows saying all that needs be said: saxophonist Jan Garbarek with poet Jan Erik Vold, bassist Arild Andersen and Finnish drummer Edward Vesala; Svein Finnerud Trio (despite being lesser known outside Norway, a tremendous influence on modern artists including saxophonist Hakon Kornstad and pianist Håvard Wiik); vocalist Karin Krog; and guitarist Terje Rypdal.

Throughout the course of Finborud's hour-long session, filled with educational and entertaining images and videos, it became clear just how committed the country is to preserving its cultural heritage, with thousands of hours of digitized music, video, images and documentation—much of it available in the English language as well as in Norwegian. In addition to his work as archivist for NRK (the national public broadcasting organization), Finborud is involved in two labels—Plastic Strip and Prisma Records, labels devoted to releasing archival Scandinavian music and live recordings from Henie Onstad Arts Center, respectively—the latter not always featuring Norwegian artists, but still documenting the emergence of a vibrant Norwegian scene that has only continued to grow, seemingly exponentially, in the 40 years since the Arts Centre opened.

Busing into Kongsberg, the early afternoon was spent at a Press Lunch at Bergseminaret's garden on Kirketorget. A mix of food, drink, further networking opportunities and just plain socializing set a fine mood for the concerts to come.

July 9: Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers

The opportunity to catch a group more than once on the same tour is rare enough; when it's but one of an artist's many projects, rarer still. When guitarist Bill Frisell performed with his Beautiful Dreamers trio on June 25 at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, it was impressive enough; a fresh, new group that seemed to represent something both familiar and new. Frisell has been playing with violist Eyvind Kang since the mid-1990s, when he released the quirky yet eminently appealing Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996). Drummer Rudy Royston may be a relative newcomer, and has yet to appear on a Frisell recording, but in performances since 2007, he's been proving himself as capable of subtle colorations as he is laying down a relaxed, behind-the-beat groove.

But with an opportunity to hear the group exactly two weeks later and with an additional seven gigs under its belt, the creative potential of Beautiful Dreamers is quickly becoming clarified. Guitar, viola and drums may seem an odd lineup for a trio, but Frisell has plenty of experience with unorthodox lineups, one of the most famous being his longstanding trio with drummer Paul Motian and saxophonist Joe Lovano, last heard on Time and Time Again (ECM, 2007). Bass-less groups have, in fact, become both more easy to find and more readily accessible, with some groups using other instruments, like pianist Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes in saxophonist Chris Potter's Underground band, to fill in the rather large void left by the absence of a low-register instrument. Frisell, however, doesn't look for substitution; instead, he creates a full sound that's no less rhythmic when it wants to be, as was the case with his version of "Baba Drame," from The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003), but more often than not pushed the pulse in more unique ways.

Still, Kang—a remarkable violist who rarely gets the chance to demonstrate that his own acumen with effects is as unique as Frisell's—did use an octave divider to take his instrument down into a growling low-end support, and the pulse was never far away for Royston who, nevertheless, kept the volume low, even when he took a solo near the end of the set that demonstrated both virtuosity and restraint. With the levels so quiet that it became, at times, almost necessary to lean into the music, Frisell played liberally with tone, ranging from the near-acoustic to some singing distortion, harkening briefly back to his early days and more extreme playing on albums like This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994).

The set list was a significant departure from the Ottawa show, where the often-played "Baba Drame" wasn't played (though it did show up the next evening at Frisell's 858 Quartet show. And when the trio did repeat a tune—as it did with the song that's both titular to the group's name and its forthcoming album on Savoy Jazz, as well the gentle reading of "Tea for Two" that the group played as an encore to its 75-minute set—it was often completely transformed. This may be jazz, and so radical changes are something to be expected, but Beautiful Dreamers reworked the material so significantly that it was often unrecognizable until well into the song, the sound of surprise often so significant that where the group took the music was often as much a surprise to it as it was the audience, Frisell often breaking into a huge grin when things gelled especially well, which they did often.

From left: Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston

Opening the set with a 45-minute medley, the most notable evolution since the Ottawa show was the greater harmonic risk taken by Frisell; reharmonizing a straightforward blues standard so completely as to twist it completely on its side, while the core melody never lost its grit. And the entire trio engaged, both collectively and individually, in some totally unexpected twists and turns throughout the set, seeming to be non sequiturs initially, but invariably making total sense. Frisell may not be as edgy a player, composer or bandleader as he was in the early days of his solo career with albums like Before We Were Born (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990), but, based on his Kongsberg performance, he's clearly lost none of his creative spark or penchant for the unexpected.

July 9: Tortoise

Whether or not it was planned this way, programming Tortoise the night before Jaga Jazzist—a Norwegian group who cites the Chicago based alt-rockers as one of its influences—was a brilliant move; the only shame being the relatively small (but, nevertheless, enthusiastic) crowd that congregated at Tubaloon. Tortoise has come a long way since its early days, and its return to recording, after a three-year break, with Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey, 2009), was a welcome return to form after its curious all-covers collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Brave and the Bold (Thrill Jockey, 2006).

From left: John Herndon, Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs John McEntire, Jeff Parker

Combining elements of synth-heavy space rock, Kraut rock, dub, ambient and minimalism with Brazilian rhythms and a near endless variety of additional stylistic references, Tortoise live is, as King Crimson guitarist/co-founder Robert Fripp always describes his own group, a hot date as opposed to the love letter of its studio releases. In fact, outside of the hard-to-find box set, A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey, 2006), there's no documentation of the group in performance, and it's a shame, because as good as Beacons is (from which much of the group's set was culled), it really is a live act and deserves to be assessed as such.

A lot of groups are going the twin-drummer route these days, including guitarist Eivind Aarset, Jaga Jazzist trumpeter Mathias Eick with his own solo project, and progressive rocker Eddie Jobson's Ultimate Zero project. With three members of Tortoise drum-capable, there was muscular strength brought to songs like Beacons' opener, the groove-centric "High Class Slim Came In," along with vintage synths like John Herndon's Minimoog. Recent albums have also seen the group become more structurally focused, with generally shorter songs. Guitarist Jeff Parker, also playing synth during the set, brought jazz cred to the group when he joined for TNT (Thrill Jockey, 1998), helping make that album one of strongest in the group's 20-year run, but equally, the influence of Tortoise can be felt on his Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet albums. With a tone that harkened back to '70s funk—piercing treble, with wah wah pedal pushing it into a near screech at times—he sometimes seemed just on the verge of feedback as he played repetitive lines that worked hand-in-glove with bassist Doug McCombs.

John Herndon

Despite the sparse attendance, Tortoise put out as if it was in front of a crowd of thousands rather than a thousand at best. It may be twenty years old, but with a visceral energy that belies the advancing age of its players (with plenty of graying and recession on display), there's little doubt that Tortoise is just as relevant today as it was when McCombs and drummer/keyboardist/vibraphonist John Herndon first began jamming together in the late '80s.



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