Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011

Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011
John Kelman BY

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Oslo International Jazz Festival
Oslo, Norway
August 15-20, 2011

There's always an eager sense of anticipation when returning to Norway, whether it's the barren but beautiful north of Svalbard, the stunning, mountain-surrounded Molde, the picturesque Kongsberg, the fjord-gateway of Bergen or the rugged beauty surrounding Kristiansand. But going back to Norway for the 2011 Oslo International Jazz Festival bore even greater meaning than usual, coming, as it did, only a few short weeks after Anders Behring Breivik unleashed one of the most horrendous events in modern peace-time history—a downtown Oslo bombing that was, in fact, nothing more than a subterfuge to allow the 32 year-old right-wing extremist time to travel to a Labor Party summer camp on the island of Utoeya, situated nearby in the Oslo fjord, where he opened fire on a group of youngsters, ranging in age from early teens to mid-20s. The total death toll of 93—including seven people who were killed in the mid-afternoon bombing in the center of Oslo's political district and 86 on Utoeya—may pale in comparison to the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, but in its systematic and specific attack on youngsters, seems somehow even more heinous.

As horrific as the events were, they provided the Norwegian people yet another opportunity to demonstrate their strength and resilience. Nearly a month after the attack, the country, in general, and the city of Oslo, in particular, remains unified rather than fractured by the event, and while there's the tacit understanding that this event has inexorably altered Norway, equally its citizens are committed to ensuring that the transparency so definitive of its culture remain as unchanged as possible. If this madman's goal was to shine a spotlight on the perceived problems of immigration and multiculturalism, if anything, he's galvanized people away from his philosophy, and so while his actions may have been successful in an initial intent to kill and shock the country, they absolutely failed in their longer-term objective.

With the festival taking place so soon after the tragedy, there was some discussion of canceling it, but the best proof that Breivik's plan was, ultimately, a failure was the decision to a carry on with Oslo Jazz Festival's 25th Anniversary celebration, and if there was no getting away from the an undercurrent that made discussions of the recent tragedy unavoidable, equally the festival turned into an even greater celebration than usual, as Norwegians flocked to the downtown core for a program split equally between Norwegian and international artists. The Oslo Jazz Festival may have begun life as a mainstream jazz festival, but in the past few years its programming has become much more balanced. From the anticipated reunion of singer Karin Krog with pianist Bengt Hallberg , pianist/composer Jon Balke's expanded Magnetic Book, and the more extreme, rock-edged experimentation of Fire! and Humcrush with singer Sidsel Endresen, to Norwegian traditionalist Anita Skorgen's new På Gyllen Grunn project, saxophonist Trygve Seim's enduring Ensemble and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's exciting trio on the cusp of a new release, the festival's Scandinavian component was balanced by performances from American artists including saxophonist Kenny Garrett, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Brian Blade. Clearly, there was something for everyone during the Oslo Jazz Festival's six-day run.

Chapter Index
  1. August 15: Jazz i Operaen: Oslo Jazzfestival 25 år
  2. August 16: Magnetic Book
  3. August 16: Fire!
  4. August 17: Nils Petter Molvær Trio
  5. August 18: Trygve Seim Ensemble
  6. August 18: Humcrush with Sidsel Endresen
  7. August 19: Karin Krog/Bengt Hallberg
  8. August 19: Petter Wettre / The Trio
  9. August 20: Anita Skorgen / "På Gyllen Grunn"
  10. August 20: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

August 15: Jazz i Operaen: Oslo Jazzfestival 25 år

For the opening night of the festival, following a short meet-and-greet with fellow international journalists—and a fine festival press team that would ensure, without fail, that everyone was able to get what they wanted, where they wanted and when they wanted it— the 25th Oslo International Jazz Festival kicked off with a gala performance at the city's Opera House (Operahuset), broadcast live on NRK, the country's national television station. Had there not been a performance, the venue would still have been worth visiting—a gorgeous, modern structure that, as so many newer buildings in Norway do, fit perfectly with its environment, a long slope of Italian marble and white granite leading giving the impression of the building rising from the Oslo fjord, and an interior that combines open, contemporary design with a warm, wood-filled performance space that seats 1,364 patrons.

The building is home of The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, and in addition to a number of performance spaces, contains a whopping 1,100 rooms ranging from offices to rehearsal areas. But for the opening evening of the festival, the focus was on the main auditorium, where a two-hour performance brought together a cross-section of Norwegian artists—some known outside the country, others remaining local stars. With the participation of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the show was clearly geared towards a larger, generalist audience, with a lot of mainstream jazz mixed in. Still, there was room for some left-of-center work from Nils Petter Molvær, whose compositional collaboration with Rolf Wallin, "Glacial Speed," was an early highlight of the intermission-free performance, a sometimes ethereal, sometimes percussion-heavy piece where the trumpeter's voice remained a galvanizing presence throughout. Trombonist Helge Sunde may be best-known internationally for his jazz-centric Ensemble Denada—with two albums on the German ACT label including Finding Nymo (2009), and regular touring including a 2009 performances at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, Germany—but he's an equally accomplished contemporary classical composer, his dense and, at times, oblique "Marbles on Marble" taking full advantage of the entire hall, with electronic sounds seeming, at times, to ricochet around the hall.

The program had a lot of highs, but there was one noticeable—and surprising—low. Singer SIlje Nergaard has built an international reputation over the past several years, but her opening spot, reprising music first performed with The Netherlands' forward- thinking Metropole Orkest in 2009, was marred by a somewhat lackluster delivery, despite fine accompaniment from pianist Helge Lien, whose own Natsukashii (Ozella) was released earlier this year. The best part of her set was when she brought out the dulcimer-like kantele for a couple of sparer tunes, but her voice was plagued with pitch problems that, unfortunately, made her set problematic from start to finish.

Perhaps a little too coy, the reunion of Come Shine for a short set of songs from an earlier collaboration with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra was, nevertheless, entertaining, as singer Live Maria Roggen owned the stage and proved that traditional jazz roots, sometimes obscured by more modernist performers like Molvær, remain close to the surface for others. With pianist Erlend Skomsvoll as impressive for his ability to move in, out and around Come Shine's set of largely jazz standards as drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen's intuitive ear proved throughout this set of somewhat knotty arrangements, the quartet put a decidedly Latin spin on "My Funny Valentine," while an imaginative rework of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" featured trombonist Øyvind Brække—better-known for his work in The Source and Trygve Seim Ensemble, but here a member of the Radio Orchestra. A quirky-as-expected reading of Thelonious Monk's classic "Well, You Needn't" featured a rare scat solo from Roggen, and an unexpected (and humorous) spoken word segment from Radio Orchestra conductor Christian Eggen.

A mid-set solo performance by trombonist Kristoffer Kompen—whose tone was as warm and evocative as the sliding horn gets— proved the jazz tradition remains alive and well amongst a younger Norwegian demographic, while a grand finale of "Moon River," with everyone in the pool, was an enjoyable ending to an evening that kicked off the 2011 Oslo Jazz Festival in style.

August 16: Magnetic Book

It's been a long time since Jon Balke released a recording with his longstanding Magnetic North Orchestra—2004, in fact, with Diverted Travels (ECM)—but the pianist/composer has been far from inactive, with projects ranging from the intimate solo performance of Book of Velocities (ECM, 2008) to the more sweeping and ambitious Siwan (ECM, 2009). Still, it's encouraging to know that Magnetic North Orchestra is still a going concern, though in recent times Balke has been exploring an expanded version of the group, Magnetic Book, where six additional strings (two violins, two violas and two cellos) expand the lineup's current (but still-shifting) nonet to a quindectet. With a new album to be released, hopefully, in 2012, Balke began touring the group in northern Norway earlier in the summer, with Magnetic Book's Oslo performance its first in the southern part of the country.

Taking place in the lovely Kulturkirken Jakob, Balke demonstrated his ongoing interests in combining Baroque/Renaissance music, and contemporary minimalist forms, with improvisational elements weaving in and around the detailed arrangements—not unlike Bill Frisell's recent work with the guitarist's 858 Quartet, where written lines determine the overall shape of a piece, but who plays what and when becomes a more open-ended proposition. Amongst a group of busy players known for work in other projects—clarinetist Håvard Lund (Trygve Seim Ensemble), percussionist Helge Norbakken (Arve Henriksen, Mari Boine) and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr (Terje Rypdal)—Balke's regular lineup remained, nevertheless, consistent in its stylistic focus and, thanks to the longstanding and, as ever, charismatic presence of trumpeter/vocalist Per Jorgensen (BMX, Jøkleba!), retained specific voices that defined the group's overall identity, even as so many of the players have changed.

Like Balke, Jørgensen also played hand percussion, and some of the set's most captivating moments came when the pianist and trumpeter engaged with Norbakken, whose combination of older ethnic instruments and found objects created a percussion orchestra like no other. At one point, with Jørgensen seated halfway between Balke and Norbakken, the trumpeter kept looking rapidly left, then right, like following the ball at a tennis match, grinning furiously and injecting his own percussive punctuations at just the right moment to draw the three players together in rhythmic confluence. This may have been rigorous music, but it was clearly also fun, as the smiles and eye contact amongst the group made clear throughout the set.

Jørgensen's voice—a combination of soft, melodious falsetto and near-cathartic wails—was as key to Magentic Book's sound as his trumpet work, and the music was also bolstered by Balke's light but confident touch, and the pianist's tendency to find obscure but compelling melodies where others would lean more to convention. The addition of the six additional strings gave some of the writing more weight, though delicate passages were paradoxically made even more so, as the strings moved between monophony and polyphony. Balke's music resonated because, despite taking many roads less traveled, it possessed an underlying lyricism and, for all its intrinsic classicism, an unobscured connection to a folk tradition imbued by the church, making the location of Magentic Book's performance as perfect as the music itself.

August 16: Fire!

With a new album recently hot off the presses, Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (The Thing) brought his rock-edged and electronics-heavy Fire! trio to Mono, a relatively small club in the heart of downtown Oslo. Clearly a counter-culture club, it was the perfect place for Fire!, whose unreleased? (Rune Grammofon, 2011) may have featured Jim O'Rourke, but the guitarist/electronics wiz was nowhere to be found at the Oslo Jazz Festival performance. Instead, the trio—also including thundering electric bassist Johan Berthling and equally powerful drummer Andreas Welin—put on a near-relentless set that traded on the appeal of a high volume power trio, with the bassist and drummer creating shifting but unshakable pulses that gave Gustafsson the freedom to explore both his room-filling baritone saxophone and an even more sonically assaultive Fender Rhodes, fed through a number of devices to give it a largely unearthly and almost always aggressive sonic footprint.

Without the benefit of earplugs, it was impossible to stay for the entire performance, but that shouldn't imply any kind of negativity; instead, Fire! delivered a performance with an arc spread across the entire set, meaning that those who scuttled in and out of the venue (as others did as well) didn't really feel the benefit of the shape Gustafsson, Berthling and Welin's playing ultimately took. But if there was a positive in having to leave a performance mid-set, it was the knowledge that something was being missed, as those who hung around for the entire show emphatically confirmed the next morning.

Situated behind the bar, near Welin and largely looking on Gustafsson's back, the saxophonist/keyboardist remained a charismatic focal point, as he delivered dense clusters on the Rhodes, only to send them further into the stratosphere by constantly applying heavy distortion and pitch shifting amongst echo and reverb-drenched screams that may have been the musical equivalent of projectile vomiting, but which remained somehow strangely compelling. Being relentlessly assaulted never felt so good.

August 17: Nils Petter Molvær Trio

Watching the setup/sound check for trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's late-evening show at Parkteatret—the only venue that's not a quick walk from all the others, but is still just a short tram ride from the city center—it became clear that it's a lot more complicated than simply getting good sound levels onstage and in the hall for this group. It's no surprise that many Norwegian artists like Molvær travel with a sound engineer, rather than using one supplied by the venue or festival. With the amount of electronics onstage, and drummer Erland Dahlen's mix of kit, hand percussion, bowed saw and other devices, it's simply too complicated a process to rely on the uninitiated. Johnny Skallberg, no stranger to fans of the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, may have to deal with an entirely new equipment setup each night, but he knows what Molvær and his trio need, and has years of experience finding ways to make everything from top-notch to barely adequate sound systems work as best as possible for the group.

But it's more than just the sound; anyone who has been to a Molvær show in the past 17 years knows there's a strong visual component, but unlike most artists, who either use lighting as a mood-setter or to establish set patterns for the music, Molvær has always viewed it as yet another improvisational layer. Visual artist Tord Knudsen has, in fact, been working with the trumpeter longer than anyone else —they've been collaborating since 1994—and watching him adapt to the Parkteatret's available lighting, and mount projectors that allow him to create shifting patterns and audioscapes intimately connected with the music, it's also clear that he is faced with the same nightly challenge that a pianist has, effectively being forced to work with a new instrument each and every night. Knudsen doesn't make the room fit his lighting demands; he shapes his lighting and visual projections based on the room—one more reason why attending a Molvær show is not just different every night because of the music, it's a completely different visual experience as well.

Molvær's current trio incarnation got an unexpected start at Molde Jazz Festival in 2010, when regular drummer Audun Kleive had to sub out on the gig to Dahlen. Kleive is, of course, an exceptional and tremendously influential drummer, with history in groups ranging from guitar icon Terje Rypdal's Chasers to Jøkleba, the collaboration with Jon Balke and Per Jørgensen that reformed, on very short notice, earlier this year when an unexpected illness created an opening at Vossa Jazz that had to be filled quickly. But when Dahlen substituted for Kleive in Molde, the already incendiary trio—also featuring unorthodox guitarist Stian Westerhus, who replaced longtime guitar anti-hero Eivind Aarset and created a significant paradigm shift in Molvær's music towards a much harder-edged sound—went absolutely nuclear. From that night forward, Molvær decided to continue on with Dahlen and Westerhus, and subsequent gigs in the past year have confirmed that this was, indeed, the new trio for which the trumpeter had been searching since he disbanded his longstanding quintet with Aarset, live sampler Jan Bang, drummer Rune Arnesen and turntablist DJ Strangefruit a few years ago.

Molvær's trio has a new album, Baboon Moon , due out in September in Europe on Molvær's Sula Records, with North American release slated for November on Thirsty Ear, and it absolutely reflects the trio's remarkably broad sonic landscape, infinite energy and hardcore power. But, as the trio's Oslo Jazz Festival performance also demonstrated, this was a group as capable of pin-drop-level quiet as it was ear-shattering intensity, willing to explore unbridled lyricism one moment and jagged, angular abstraction the next.

Westerhus—whose Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010) was a shot across the bow of guitar conservatism, elevating him to a position alongside Aarset as one of contemporary guitar's most profound innovators—continued to impress with his ability to not just improvise with melody, harmony and rhythm on the fly, but with sound and color as well. Few countries have as many musicians for whom technology is such an organic extension of their instruments as Norway, but even amidst artists including saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, singer Maja S.K. Ratkje and percussionist Thomas Strønen, Westerhus stands out with his remarkable integration of a vast array of guitar pedals, leaving most guitarists in the dust with his uncannily intimate awareness of each and every device's potential, both alone and together with others. As always, his approach may represent intentional rejection of standard guitar pyrotechnics, but there's never any doubt that his breaking of rules comes from a thorough knowledge of them, and that his virtuosity is simply that of a different kind.

Here, Westerhus' sonic landscape ranged from vividly built arco work to crunching chordal rhythms that locked in seamlessly with Dahlen. Alongside pitch shifting to occupy the lower register electronically, he also used an electric baritone guitar to put his work intrinsically into the range. And while Westerhus rarely took anything that resembled a guitar solo, there were plenty of spots where he elevated above the trio's ensemble work to dominate a landscape of sound where, beyond each player's recognizable instrumentation, it was often almost impossible to determine who was playing what.

Dahlen's main axe is his drum kit, but by augmenting the usual snares, toms and cymbals with woodblock, a steel drum-like instrument, gongs, a saw...even a megaphone that he used more than once during the set to add altered vocalizations...the percussionist managed to be both propulsive and textural. Norway has a disproportionate number of creative percussionists—why that is so remains a topic for another discussion—but Dahlen, who also plays in Eivind Aarset's Sonic Codex group (heard recently at the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival), also became a melodic foil in a trio that, at times, seemed to work in conventional roles, but more often than not rejected them in favor of an egalitarian philosophy—an equilateral triangle defining each musician's participation, but one where the dimensions were in a constant state of flux.

Molvær morphed his instrument's texture through embouchure and electronics—as quick to bring the audience to a silence that was remarkable, given the size of the standing room-only capacity crowd as he was driving it into a frenzy in the higher octane segments, sometimes singing into the microphone attached to his horn, building a network of sounds that were far beyond even the wildest dreams of most trumpeters. With foot pedal-adjustable pitch shifter, he was not just able to deliver long, sinewy lines coupled with simple harmonies, but melodies where the harmonic intervals changed as they evolved. With material culled from Baboon Moon, as well as older material like the David Lynch-meets-Americana-Frisell of "Sebkah," from Hamada (Sula, 2009), Molvær and his trio continued to demonstrate the open-minded experimentation that has kept the trumpeter's music pushing forward with the kind relevance that dogs so many others who struggle to retain the magic of their earlier work.

August 18: Trygve Seim Ensemble

It's been far too long since Trygve Seim last released an album with his ongoing Ensemble, and in the years since the exceptional Sangam (ECM, 2005), his own recorded work as a leader has focused exclusively on duos— Yeraz (ECM, 2008), with Ensemble accordionist Frode Haltli andPurcor (ECM, 2010), with pianist Andreas Utnem. He continues to participate in pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's quintet and the collective quartet The Source, which has been around even longer than the now-decade old Ensemble which has, thus far, only made it to North America for one outstanding show at Portland, Oregon's PDX Jazz in 2007, despite nearly half the tentet having to sub out, thanks to a variety of visa and scheduling problems.

The good news is that everyone in Seim's Ensemble was on hand for its Oslo Jazz Festival appearance at Kulturkirken Jakob (the same church that hosted Balke's Magentic Book two nights prior), though there have been some small personnel changes since Sangam, most noticeably the replacement of cellist Morten Hannisdal with Svante Henryson, whose name is on the ascendancy for his work with pianist Ketil Bjornstad on Night Song (ECM, 2011). The ensemble's lineup—many of whom are leaders in their own rights—also included Frode Haltli, Arve Henriksen, drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, trombonist Øyvind Brække, clarinetist Håvard Lund (also back from his show with Balke two nights ago), baritone saxophonist Nils Jansen, tubaist Lars Andreas Haug and bassoonist Embrik Snerte. Given that Seim largely writes for specific musicians in mind, the Portland show may have been fine enough, but the Oslo show couldn't help but be better, though ultimately for reasons that went beyond simple matters of personnel.

Seim has recently tried to focus strictly on gigs where the hall is acoustically ideal for non-amplified performances, and while Kulturkirken Jakob is, indeed, a fine-sounding room, it wasn't quite fine enough; it was always easy to hear Henryson's arco, but when he switched to pizzicato for a solo near the end of the set, trading lines with Brække, it became increasingly difficult to hear him over the gradually growing din of ensemble support.

Still, for the most part, the balance was generally acceptable, with Seim's set culled largely from Sangam, but with hints of new material being prepared for recording later this year, and with an eye on release in 2012, as well as an exceptional encore performance of the aptly titled "Sorrows," from the saxophonist's 2000 ECM debut, Different Rivers, with Henriksen's pure yet powerful voice wordlessly doubling its long, winding melody. Seim's writing is informed by his time spent in Edward Vesala's group until the Finnish drummer passed away in 1999, but while he learned the concept of organized chaos well, his own music has always demonstrated a greater lyrical preponderance, and an increasing avoidance of lengthy delineated soloing. Still, there were plenty of spotlight moments for the members of the Ensemble—as often as not brief, acting as interconnecting links between compositional segments. Lengthier features existed, like Lund's a capella intro to Sangam's title track, which made curious, once again, the clarinetist's relatively low profile on the international scene.

Sitting in the center of a circle that also extended up a level on the pulpit, where Jansen, Johansen and Haug—three of the Ensemble's louder instruments—were situated, Seim conducted the group with cues ranging from subtle eye signals to more overt, hand- driven instructions. His constantly roving eye and persistent acknowledgment of the players around him made Seim a commanding leader, dressed in traditional garb. His own playing couldn't help but come from the overall approach of iconic Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, but his own deep study of music from the Middle East has long since established a playing voice as strong and distinctive as his compositional character. Long, bending notes addressed issues of microtonality, even as his overall focus was predisposed towards a vivid lyricism rooted in traditional Norwegian music and contemporary classicism—not unlike Jon Balke's roots, in fact, but demonstrative of just how different two players who share some of the same roots can be.

August 18: Humcrush with Sidsel Endresen

While she's been seen more often, as of late, in duo with like-minded improviser Stian Westerhus—their recent show at Bergen's Natt Jazz the best example of the kind of rapid growth this pair has seen since beginning to work together after an encounter in Oslo two years ago, and debuting properly at Molde Jazz 2010—singer Sidsel Endresen has not been placing all her eggs in one basket, even though her pairing with Westerhus represents one very fine basket, indeed. She has also been collaborating with Humcrush, another all-improvising group, this time a duo with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and Food co-leader Thomas Strønen that's been around since its eponymous 2004 Rune Grammofon debut and now, on the cusp of releasing Ha!, the first to also include Endresen, with four albums under its belt.

If Humcrush's performance with Endresen at Mono was any indication, then this is another project that finds Endresen continuing to make great strides forward as a singer who may associate with musicians flexing muscles tightly connected to technology, but who remains, herself, an unaffected instrument: one voice, one chair, one microphone.

Unlike Gustafsson's Fire! performance at the same venue two nights earlier, Humcrush and Endresen was not as relentless or assaultive. That's not to suggest Storløkken and Strønen didn't push to high volumes and hard-surfaced extremes at times, but with far more allegiance to the concept of dynamics, they created music that ebbed and flowed, and explored areas of dark angularity, where touchstones of Olivier Messeian's density blended with the delicate percussive clutter of Tony Oxley as discernible as the noise-driven moments where Storløkken and Strønen nearly blew the roof off the club.

Endresen's participation often took place at the start of each improvised piece, her ongoing development of a personal language through the use of microcells—extended techniques reduced to their most essential, singular components, that she then brings together in a near-infinite series of permutations and combinations—still a work in progress, as each successive performance seems to include one more example of a voice stretched beyond the realms of possibility. Vocal multiphonics, stuttering articulations and backwards-sounding ideations may have been distanced from conventional melody, but at Endresen's core was a rich, mellifluous voice on clear display during the set, even if she stayed away for the most part, and along with her band mates, from anything resembling conventional form.

Storløkken's use of vintage gear, in this case an old Minimoog synthesizer, belied a futuristic approach and the same kind of complete command of the instrument that Strønen demonstrated, as the drummer sampled his drum kit at a furious pace, processing it and feeding it back to the group. Watching the drummer's hands move from sticks on his kit to rapid adjustments of knobs and pressing of buttons, suggested an almost unbelievable ability to improvise with color on the fly, not unlike Westerhus' equally in-the-moment approach. While the music, at its sparest, remained dark and foreboding, there was a strange kind of hypnotic beauty about Storløkken's otherworldly synth sounds, Strønen's ability to take even a simply, small gong and find seemingly infinite possibilities in it, and Endresen's complete engagement in interacting at a mitochondrial level with her band mates. This may have been music with abstruse underpinnings and a disposition towards the weird, but it was undeniably wonderful and, in addition to an endorsement that really isn't necessary for Storløkken and Strønen, further evidence that the work Endresen has been doing since the turn of the century is truly bearing serious fruit at this point, as the new millennium enters its second decade.

August 19: Karin Krog/Bengt Hallberg

With all the focus on forward-looking jazz so far, it's important to remember that, as distanced as it is from the geographic roots of jazz, Oslo has its own legendary traditionalists, although singer Karin Krog has also proved herself capable of greater experimentation as well—in particular on albums with her husband, British saxophonist John Surman, now living in Oslo for the past few years. A singer who is part of a transatlantic trifecta also including American Sheila Jordan and Brit Norma Winstone—singers all, with careers predicated on combining a deep appreciation for the jazz tradition without placing it in an unbreakable glass museum case—Krog's performance at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria was one of Oslo Jazz Festival 2011's most anticipated reunions, bringing the singer back together with Swedish pianist Bengt Hallberg to reprise material from their two albums—One on One (Meantime, 1980) and Two of a Kind (Meantime, 1982). Neither was able to turn back the clock completely, but the 74 year-old singer and 78 year-old pianist had no problem convincing the sold-out house that they both may be moving a little more slowly these days, but they're as musically lithe as ever.

Hallberg performed a short opening solo set, demonstrating Count Basie-like economy and Puckish mischief that made worn-out warhorses like "Tea for Two" relevant again. Leaving the piano to stand center stage and introduce the songs with a twinkle in his eye and the kind of comfortable grin built on a lifetime of good nature, Hallberg was like a living jazz history lesson, only occasionally resorting to bursts of speed but demonstrating a slightly outré disposition as he turned "Satin Doll" slightly askew with just the slightest suggestion of dissonance. Closing his short set with his hit title song to Dinah (Universal, 1957), he slowly walked offstage to the dressing room for a brief break before returning, alone again, leaving the audience to wonder where Krog was.

As Hallberg started to play, an offstage Krog began to answer the question with Two of a Kind's "I Ain't Here," her voice filling the room with a strength and tone untarnished by age. Less an accompanist and more an equal partner, Hallberg nevertheless demonstrated sharp instincts, as he found ways to fill the nooks and crannies left by Krog, whose control and absolutely perfect instincts made every word count a she finally appeared onstage with a big, bright smile, to work her way through a set that included "Prelude to a Kiss," Feeling Too Good Today Blues," "Stardust," "I Was Doing Alright," "Everytime We Say Goodbye," and a coy version of "Jeepers Creepers." The 30-minute set performance was absolutely too short, but only made every second matter all the more. Both Hallberg and Krog proved themselves masters of restraint—there was no excessive scatting, melisma or pyrotechnical pianism going on, just terrific taste and a respect for the tradition that left folks in a chipper mood as they exited the venue to scout out the rest of the evening's festivities.

August 19: Petter Wettre / The Trio

It's been a decade since he last released an album with his critically acclaimed The Trio, and a lot has happened for everyone since that time, but reuniting as part of Oslo Jazz Festival's 25th Anniversary Party seemed like a slam-dunk opportunity for saxophonist/clarinetist Petter Wettre. A student of American saxophonist Dave Liebman and, relative to most Norwegian musicians his age, a rarity in his tight allegiance with the North American jazz tradition, Wettre, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Jarle Vespestad also kicked off their set offstage, like Krog a few hours earlier in the same venue, as a projection screen dropped down from the ceiling in the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria and a decade-old television broadcast began to play for the increasingly full house. As Wettre, Flaten and Vespestad took to the stage, they picked up the same tune where it left off, demonstrating that nothing has changed...and everything has changed.

Despite expanding individual purviews well beyond the kind of Ornette Coleman free-bop of The Mystery Unfolds (BP, 2001) and Live at Copenhagen Jazzhouse (Household, 2002), it was clear that the collective chemistry shared amongst the three players hadn't been lost in the shuffle of intervening years. Flaten may be more involved in far freer concerns these days with The Thing and Atomic, but proved that he could drop back into Wettre's music without batting an eye, navigating the sometimes knotty charts, locking in tightly with Vespestad on tracks like the appropriately titled "Ornette Or Not" and swinging mightily throughout. Vespestad's reach seems to know no bounds, having spent much of the last decade doing hard-edged noise improv with Supersilent (leaving the group in 2008), playing at whisper-quiet volumes with pianist Tord Gustavsen and contributing to the whacky stylistic collages of Farmers Market with incredible aplomb; here, he proved his pure jazz chops remain as good as any, rarely soloing but playing with a kind of slap-happy abandon and open-ears that made him, perhaps, the closest equivalent Norway has to Joey Baron.

Wettre's steadfast alignment to jazz tradition, and outspokenness on this and many other subjects, makes him something of a contentious personality on the Norwegian scene, but his improvisational élan—while, at the same time, avoiding all trappings of excess, with solos as long as they needed to be, no more and no less—gave the set its unfailing focal point. Saxophone trios are often a challenging context, given there's no chordal instrument; but the best of them suggest what may not explicitly be there, and the verticality of Wettre's music made for a high energy set with only a few dynamic drops that evolved a larger narrative over the course of 75 minutes. A brief duo with Flaten, "Bad Hair Day," demonstrated Wettre's ability to wax obliquely melodic, with a warm, woody tone on bass clarinet, while the ambling "The Observer" swung effortlessly, with Wettre—on the tenor saxophone which dominated the set—shifting from long, cascading runs to brief intervallic leaps from low end growls to high end squeaks.

The group fleshed out to a quintet for the closing "Continuous Flux," a young flautist and alto saxophonist joining The Trio, for its idiosyncratic melody and funkified vamp, but an even greater surprise was in store when saxophonist Trygve Seim, in the same garb as his Ensemble show a couple nights previous, walked onstage with his curved soprano, his sinewy bends fitting perfectly into a context that, at least these days, is distanced from where he's devoting the majority of his time. Proof, then, that time needn't distance musicians from each other, and that artists may often choose their areas of focus, but are more often than not capable of much more, this 2011 reuniting of Wettre and The Trio completely delivered on all expectations.

August 20: Anita Skorgen / "På Gyllen Grunn"

With the ink still fresh on the just-released På Gyllen Grunn (Kirkelig Kulturverktsed, 2011), singer Anita Skorgen's show at the opulent Oslo Domkirke demonstrated that traditionalism and modernity need not be strange bedfellows. Well-known in her native Norway, but increasingly outside the country as well, the singer/songwriter has been releasing albums since the mid-1970s (surprisingly, given her youthful appearance), also carving out a unique niche for her annual Christmas concerts, held in churches throughout the country. Performing in Norway's many old cathedrals provides a unique acoustic opportunity for Skorgan, though the high cathedral ceiling, hard reflective surfaces and uniquely cross-shaped Oslo Domkirke presented more challenges than most for an all-star group that included lutenist/Baroque guitarist Rolf Lislevand—a Norwegian expat living for many years in Italy, with two ECM releases, including Diminuto (2009)—electric guitar soundscapist Eivind Aarset, trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen and percussionist Helge Norbakken.

There's no doubt that understanding the lyrics of Sorkgan's song cycle would been an advantage; still, the universality of her music—rooted, as it was, in the Norwegian folk tradition, but interpreted liberally by the group, even as it adhered to the basic structural form that gave the music its appealing shape—meant that the few non-Norwegians in the audience had nearly as much to enjoy as those around them. Transcendent in its sonic beauty, and with Skorgan delivering the lyrics with a pure, emotive voice that nevertheless avoided all trappings of contemporary vocal pyrotechnics, the hour-long set touched on musical markers from across the centuries, with Lislevand and Aarset spanning those long years with empathic sensitivity. Lislevand's lute and Baroque guitar were as pure as would be expected, while Aarset's ambient soundscapes, softly tremeloed chords and occasional throbbing bass lines created an alternate harmonic perspective, even as Henriksen acted as melodic foil for Skorgan, whether it was creating long, poignant trumpet lines, or singing in a choirboy-perfect falsetto.

Norbakken, who first came to broader attention with another traditional singer, Mari Boine, may have been perfectly suited for this music, but his experience in other contexts—ranging from Henriksen's new improvising percussion trio to skirting the edges of jazz orthodoxy with Portuguese pianist Mário Laginha—brings far more to the table than just an inherent comfort level in the folk tradition. His complete engagement, regardless of context, and a skilled ability to create unique sonic permutations and combinations with his impressive percussion setup brings an underlying strength to whatever context he's in, even when the demands of the music are more ethereal or more delicate, as they certainly were much of the time during Skorgan's performance.

The show, attended by an audience that ranged from youngsters to seniors, was just the second in the group's first tour together, but Skorgan's choice of three players who have intersected on many occasions—in particular, Aarset and Henriksen, who are part of the extended Punkt family that will be reconvening the first week of September in Kristiansand—meant a built-in chemistry that lifted parts of the performance to unpredictable and transcendent heights. Clearly the audience was feeling it, because after winding its way through På Gyllen Grunn's ten songs, the group was not allowed to leave without a standing ovation; that there was no more music to perform meant that the crowd had to be content with Skorgan, Henriksen, Aarset, Lislevand and Norbakken returning for a final bow, but it seemed more than enough.

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