Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011

John Kelman By

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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.

From left: Per Oddvar Johansen, Trygve Seim, Lars Andreas Haug, Arve Henriksen Øyvind Brække, Frode Haltli

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.

From left: Ståle Storløkken, Thomas Strønen

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.



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