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Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug

John Kelman By

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Westerhus' experience with groups ranges from the kind of freedom where, as was the case in Crimetime Orchestra, a few music sheets are tossed about, a few things figured out in sound check (there's never any formal rehearsal) and then the show starts and where it goes is anyone's guess. With Westerhus' interest in improvisation, it seemed to be a far better fit than his time spent with the more structured music of Jaga Jazzist, whose One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010) is high on the list, along with Westerhus' Pitch Black Star Spangled, as one of the year's best releases so far. "I had some structure with Jaga," says Westerhus, "but I kept tossing the sheets of music. It's so structured that I felt it needed some beef; I think that music needs a few wild cards and some interaction. I'm much better at doing that than at just playing sheets of music. It was great fun and they're really, really nice guys, but it was taking up a lot of time. When we released the album, it was like, 'Ok, when can we tour,' and everybody could do it, except for me."

"I had some gigs penciled in with Nils Petter, and my calendar was just packed with all these small, very different things," Westerhus explains, "but within them there was and is a linearity [laughs] with my solo project, and Puma and Monolithic, that needs to have a continuity to it. I just wasn't prepared to put any of that aside to do the Jaga stuff; that didn't make any sense to me. And so we figured that, perhaps, it was better just to leave it. Also, me and [Jaga's primary composer] Lars [Horntveth] had different views as to how the music should be played; not that we were fighting, but it was more like 'Hey, this was fun, this was great, but you should probably get another guitarist [laughs]. With Jaga I kind of felt like pushing an elephant through a keyhole; when you're there, you're the only one who is playing with any kind of freedom and you don't get a whole lot of interaction, so you really have to force your way through; which is also very interesting, but at the same time it's not what Jaga needs. So it was one of those things where it was agreed that there were no hard feelings, it just didn't work and the schedules didn't really talk together."

Westerhus and Jaga are, indeed, still on very good terms; the guitarist will, in fact, be guesting with the group when they go to Japan later this year. But as intriguing as it is to see these two very different musical forces come together, as they did in 2009 at Molde Jazz, it's clearly not a fit meant to last. Molvær, on the other hand, has turned into the almost perfect vehicle for Westerhus; all the more remarkable for Westerhus' replacing Eivind Aarset—a guitarist who, for over a decade, helped shape the trumpeter's music and sound. But Westerhus' replacement was nothing about filling Aarset's shoes; in fact, the guitarist is not all that familiar with Molvær's past recordings featuring Aarset.

"I was depping for a guitarist in Hanne Hukkelberg's band," Westerhus explains. "We were somewhere in Italy, and it was like 30 degrees outside, really hot, I was just standing there being terribly hung over, and Nils Petter phones me and says, 'Hey, it's Nils Petter, how're you doing,' 'Ah, pretty hung over here,' 'Ok, do you want to be in my band,' 'Uh...yes...?' [laughs]. It was one of those weird ones, so we did a few random gigs, and they worked out really nicely, and he was very happy and I was also, so we just stuck with it, and we did a ton of gigs this past autumn. Now I'm doing some gigs every month. It's still changing, that band."

The whole idea was for Westerhus to bring his own approach to sound to the group. "I don't really know the band when Eivind was doing it, and I never saw them live," explains Westerhus, "so it was one of those weird things where I had no real frame of reference. I'd heard the records, of course, but I never saw it live, which is actually quite nice. I think it's a lot more open now, in terms of playing. Also, I don't think I do Nils Petter as many musical favors as Eivind did, because he was a master at creating all these carpets of sound that moved very slowly, and which were probably very comfortable to play on."

"I'm kicking Nils Petter's ass a lot harder," Westerhus continues, "and what he says is that, especially earlier—when they had a lot of DJs and beats and grooves going on—he could play a bit and then sit back a bit. Now he can't sit back at all—he's just really forced into playing a lot more. And it's so free now; we play tunes but, at the same time, if you see it from the other side, I only have one groove, one key and three chords that I have to do, so I can force Nils Petter into any corner I want, and he can force me into any corner he wants, which is great. You really need to be razor sharp when you go onto the stage, which is fantastic, a really cool thing to do. Especially when you're doing, say, 30 gigs on a tour."

"It's amazing to be playing with him, he's such a good trumpeter," Westerhus enthuses. "I also think that it's become a lot clearer; the ideas have become a lot clearer and the whole band has become a lot clearer musically. There's some new stuff and some old stuff, but the old stuff doesn't sound anything like the old stuff. It's funny, because I don't really know which albums the tunes are from, so it's funny when you play a venue packed with old fans and Nils Petter starts playing a tune, and they go 'whaaaaaaaa!' and it's like, 'Ok, it's an old tune, and they didn't clap because I'd stopped playing [laughs].'"

The group is talking about recording, though certainly not before 2011, as the autumn is already packed. Westerhus will be doing a month-long tour with Monolithic, Westerhus' duo with Kenneth Kapstad, and perhaps his most extreme project. Puma, who will play at Molde as part of the Rune Grammofon Label in Residence, is a group that's evolved considerably since its inception, but in an almost reverse way to how most bands function. "We've never discussed anything before we've played; we only talk about the music after the show, which has been really nice." But if his groups don't come in with any preconceptions, how do they differentiate? "It's the players," Westerhus confirms, "but with Puma we've talked a lot about our music after we've played it; analyzing it, listening back to it—we've recorded endless gigs—and being in the studio for a lot of time, especially me and [keyboardist] Øystein [Moen]—we've done all the editing.

"It's a very strong concept and we have very strong views as to how the music should sound," Westerhus continues. "That's why it's so important to play a lot of gigs, and also to rehearse, if you can do that, though often it's better to just do gigs because it puts you on the spot. Actually, for the first time, we're going to try to play a few tunes from the album [Half Nelson Courtship], because the way the album was built up, it's more melodic than we've ever been. So we thought, 'Maybe we should try that,' and use that as a point of reference, and the reason why we were rehearsing the other night, because we never rehearse. We're playing four or five of the tracks [from the album], and it's working out really well; we were kind of anxious about how it would sound, but we listened back to it [the album] in the rehearsal, and tried to play it, and it sounded really similar, so we thought, "Ok, that's how we sound now.'"

Westerhus is also focusing on solo performance more than ever before; live, he simply empties his head and plays; all the more remarkable, then, that his shows bear an unmistakable arc, a flow that may not be considered in the least, but sounds like it could have been. "I tried walking into a performance once with kind of an idea for a composition in my mind before I walked onstage," Westerhus says, "and it was a disaster. I lost all the flow, my energy level just went down I couldn't listen to the music in the right way. I just decided never to do that again."

July 16: A Light Meal with Helge Lien

The past couple years have been good for pianist Helge Lien. His most recent release, Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008) has received both strong critical acclaim and won a Norwegian Grammy. Performances at the 2009 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand and, more recently, NattJazz 2010 both reveal a trio—now together for more than a decade—that is in no danger of losing its edge; instead, if anything, Lien and his trio, with bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aalefjær, continues to find new ways to raise its game. Lien unveiled some new music at NattJazz that is bound for release on the trio's next CD, which may get recorded as early as this fall, with hopes for a 2011 release.

Lien, still in his mid-thirties, has found a way to marry the American jazz tradition with more distant concerns; a virtuosic player with a quick sense of humor, it becomes clear that not only does he bring a mischievous playfulness to the table, but his trio mates are just as quick to respond in kind, making Helge Lien Trio performances run the gamut from technically impressive to sensitively economic, from light to dark, and everything in between.

Surprisingly, culture and music were not a big part of Lien's upbringing. "My parents were not musicians," Lien says, "none of my close family members were musicians; my mother played accordion in her spare time, but we had this old organ in the house, with the rhythms, and the upper and lower keyboards. So I learned some tunes on it—I taught myself, really, just out of interest—and I also played in a band with a friend of mine; we also made music, quite early, inspired by The Beatles. I advanced on the organ, got better organs, and then I got synthesizers. My first experience with a piano wasn't 'til I was thirteen or fourteen, there was this English jazz pianist who settled into my town, working as an organ player also, in the church, and he was really interested in young people, so he arranged for concerts with me and some of my friends and other young interested people in the area, and did lots of good things for us. I also had some lessons with him, and this was my first meeting with jazz, actually, and with the acoustic piano."

"I started at this high school when I was around sixteen, which had a special music program," Lien continues. "I started a big band in high school, which was maybe the most important schooling that I'd had to that time. The idea of becoming a musician and the longing to write my own music started then, but I'd actually been composing music back when I was twelve or thirteen. Anyway, I had two years of classical piano there; after that, I started at the State Academy, in Oslo. When I started the State Academy, I had a teacher—Misha Alperin, the Russian pianist—and he was very focused on creativity and composition."

In North America, music students emerge with a strong command of their instrument and technical knowledge; but the creativity aspect seems somehow lacking. "How do you teach someone to find their own voice," Lien asks. "A very, very normal view on this is that you first have to learn the skills—the history, the chord changes; and then you can start being a composer. But I think this is wrong. I think the ability to catch an idea, to recognize something that is unique is something that you have to rehearse. You have to rehearse being creative, in a way. I found my way to do it, at the State Academy, was I'd sit down at the piano, and just improvise; I went in there and pretended it was a solo concert, for hours and hours. I recorded it and listened to it afterwards, and then, of course, it was terrible because most of it was just crap; but I was rehearsing, and a few times, here and there, there was something that I liked, and then I could make that into something. But I was not so conscious of it, while I did it. But what I know now is that I was actually rehearsing to be present in the musical producing state. And this is quite unique; you cannot learn it theoretically, you have to make this experience happen all the time and over a long time. And you will use your internal filter to pick out what you like, and this is a good way to find your voice; it provides a very good picture of how your voice can look."

For a young performer, Lien is an oddity in Norway: he is working with a conventional jazz piano trio format; there's no technology to be found; and despite a largely original repertoire, Lien does make reference to his roots very clearly by covering music by Johnny Mercer, Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, amongst others. A jazz trio, then, in the most conventional definition. "My first big influence was Oscar Peterson," says Lien, "and then Keith Jarrett has been very important, of course, and in later years, Bill Evans. But also many, many other musicians, not just pianists; I'm fascinated by drummers, for example. I'm a really big fan of Audun Kleive and Jon Christensen, and (of course) Jack DeJohnette."

"For me, the piano is about making illusions," Lien continues. "So it's really important for me to focus on things that are not obvious for the piano. On breathing, for example; and the length of the notes, and to make vibrato—this very, very absurd thing for a piano because, of course, you cannot make vibrato, but it's what makes it interesting...that you can make the illusion of vibrato. All these things that are around and under the piano. That you can make the illusion of a note that sustains for five seconds, like a saxophone note."

Lien met the musicians who would ultimately become Helge Lien Trio while in the State Academy. "Knut, the drummer, he went through the classical department," Lien says, "he was one year older than me. And Frode, the bassist, he was already finished classical bass. But we played together in different settings from time to time, and I just had a kind of feeling for them, and put them together and I recorded our first rehearsal on a minidisc—we just played some standards and some free stuff—and I listened to it, and I really liked how we played together. Something just kind of happened; something not so obvious, which I liked very much."

"I think I have more than enough work to do discovering the possibilities of the acoustic," Lien continues. "And, as I said, I'm really fascinated by illusions, and when you use a loop machine, like Bugge Wesseltoft does, it's amazing, he makes really great music with it. But for me, I find it more fascinating to work with the illusion of these things. When you have a loop machine then it's looped and you hear it."

There's an unmistakable advantage to having a group that's been together for ten years; the chemistry is at a profound level, and the trust amongst the players is equally deep. But there is the challenge of keeping things fresh. "I think the whole concept of how we produce music is very much about being fresh and surprising each other with the interplay," says Lien. "Of course, we have to rehearse new music regularly, which we do, of course. I also feel that the other two are developing themselves—how they think and how they play; I often feel surprised by them. Frode is classically educated and has an extensive career with lots of different kinds of music. He can play electric bass, funk and all kinds of techniques, and he can read like hell, so he's kind of a total, all-around musician. At the same time, I like him because he has personality and he has extreme skills on his bass; the sounds and the ideas he uses are completely unique. I think he challenges the normal way to function as a bass in this kind of group, and I like that a great deal. But now he has a steady job, he's hired as a bassist in the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra."

"Knut is also classically educated," Lien continues. "He also plays a lot of different kinds of music, contemporary music as well as pop music, jazz music...anything. He has quite unconventional sound ideas, he plays his drums in a much more classical fashion, with high, short notes; for me, it's just fresh and I think he also has a very unique approach to groove and beat. He uses different kinds of sticks, and puts small bells and other equipment on his drums and plays them. A much wider spectrum for sound than a normal jazz drummer; he knows how to produce sound and how to make variations."

Lien believes in slow evolution rather than rapid evolution. That said, he has plans for the next trio recording that will make it different than Hello Troll. "I would say that the next album may be a bit darker, that's how I see it now. When I make albums I try to visualize a mood as a kind of frame, and I think this time it will be a bit darker, a bit heavier. I'm excited to hear how it comes out. It was great to be able to play some of the music in Bergen [at NattJazz 2010, where Lien was one of four artists commissioned to write new music for the festival]. It's great to be asked to write new music for a festival; I work best under pressure. Lots of great things happen under pressure; when I'm not under pressure unfortunately I get a bit lazy."

July 17: Bare Jazz and Onwards to Molde

With the week in Oslo drawing to a close, time simply had to be made to walk into the city center to visit Bare Jazz. At a time when CD stores of any kind are dying out, it's incredible not to just see a CD store in Oslo that's thriving, but one that's both busy and exclusively a jazz store. Bare Jazz has been around for fifteen years, owned by Bodil Niska and her husband. Niska is a saxophonist with a number of CDs out under her own name, including Night Time (Bare Jazz, 2008), Blue (Self Produced, 2004) and First Song (Self Produced, 2000), as well as one album with the all-woman trio Girl Talk, Talk Jazz (Hot Club, 1996).

She's as knowledgeable as might be expected from someone with experience on both sides of the music biz table. Show her one CD and she's got a dozen more suggestions; and it's that knowledge and energy, shared by of herself and her staff, that helps give Bare Jazz an energy that's palpable upon setting foot into the store.

Of course, Bare Jazz is more than just a jazz CD/Vinyl store; the courtyard that acts as the long entrance to the shop is also an outdoor café, and passing by it numerous times throughout the week in Oslo, it always seems to be bustling. There's also an indoor café on the second floor of the building, and if the vibe that permeates the store and indoor/outdoor cafés is as constant as it has been throughout the week, then there's hope for jazz yet.

Inside the store, its organization makes great use of a relatively small space, with small laminate cards with the front and back of each CD taking the place of actual jewel cases and digipaks, meaning that the store can pack a lot more display items into the space of just a few CDs. Like what you see? Bring the card to the counter for a chance to have a listen before you buy, on one of the two listening stations on top of an old upright piano that acts as a table beside the cash counter. The latest releases can be found on panels behind the cash register and to the right; opposite the cash register is a glass box containing all kinds of books, boxes sets and DVDs; and with a wrap-around section making no discrimination of jazz style, Bare Jazz does break out Norwegian artists into a separate area, as they do vinyl and sales items. There's also a separate display for the entire Winter&Winter catalog, including its remaster/reissue series of the old JMT catalog.

The prices are a little steep—199 NOK (about $32 USD) for a regularly priced title; 149 NOK ($24 USD) for a "budget" priced CD. That includes, of course, Norway's 25% sales tax, and while some stores have the ability to refund the VAT (value added tax) if you prove yourself a visitor, most small stores do not, and Bare Jazz is, sadly, no exception. Still, it's worth the extra money to go to a jazz store that is so vibrant and alive; a place that proves jazz may be marginalized in many places, but in Oslo, there's a clear demand for the music—and, furthermore, an actual community.

Coming Up: Crossing the Mountains to Molde; First coverage of Molde Jazz 2010.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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