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.

Silje Nergaard with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra

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.

Jon Balke

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.

From left: Håvard Lund, Bjørn Kjellemyr, Per Jørgensen

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.

Mats Gustafsson

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.



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