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Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011

John Kelman By

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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.

Bengt Hallberg

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.

Karin Krog

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.

Petter Wettre

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.

From left: Jarle Vespestad, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten

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.

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