Oslo Jazz Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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Oslo Jazz Festival
Oslo, Norway
August 15-17, 2018


The Norwegian capital Oslo bills itself as a festival city and, with around a thousand concerts each year, claims that it has the most concerts per inhabitant of any city in Europe. Included among those are the 70 plus events which made up the 2018 edition of the Oslo Jazz Festival. I can vouch for the festival's visibility too, as I spied an ad on the train from the airport into the central station, and then found it hard to miss the banners announcing the Festival which bedecked the main drag, Karl Johans Gate, all the way down to the Royal Palace.

Programmed over six days, the Festival line up featured a rich mix of international acts and Norwegian artists. The concerts were distributed among various top notch venues around the city centre, but even allowing for the geography, it was impossible to see everything happening on any one night due to multiple shows starting at the same time. So it was necessary for festival-goers to make some choices. Fortunately there was a lot to choose from.

I was able to attend for three nights towards the end of the week long festivities, which meant that I missed some of the better known acts like Sons of Kemet, the Kenny Barron Trio and the Arturo O'Farrill Quintet who appeared earlier in the week. Nonetheless there was a varied selection of music on offer, which included many names new to me, supplying the potential for discovery: one of the main pleasures of any festival in my book.

Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

It was a real treat to catch the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in the conducive environment of Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. A cross between a large club and a small theater, the prestigious venue nestles incongruously between two burger joints at the slightly more up market end of Oslo's main shopping street. For their concert at this year's OJF, the spotlight fell on bassist and Musical Director Ole Morten Vågan, who lead a talented line up more than capable of handling the diverse demands he placed upon it. One of Norway's most sought-after musicians Vågan has collaborated with names such as Bugge Wesseltoft, Joshua Redman, John Scofield, Terje Rypdal, Maria Kannegaard, Nils Petter Molvaer and Jon Christensen, but also leads his own group Motif, heard to good effect on My Head Is Listening (Clean Feed, 2016).

During the course of the TJO's eighteen years of existence, its reputation as one of the country's most innovative jazz orchestras has spread way beyond the Scandinavian realm, resulting in rewarding partnerships with international stars such as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Joshua Redman. The orchestra operates with a pool of high profile alumni, so instrumentation and size change from project to project, giving great width in the repertory.

With Vågan at the helm the 13-strong Orchestra exhibited some of its more left field tendencies in interpreting his adventurous and far ranging charts. That was apparent right from the start where a jerky intricate opening blossomed into the wonderful cacophony of frantic orchestral freeform. Order gradually reasserted itself and the piece opened out for a piano trio section in which Oscar Grönberg at the keys played some repeated Cecil Taylor-like kernels.

Each of the six numbers embraced similar examples of the same sort of trickery. In the second piece, Eivind Lønning's darting trumpet soloed over a stuttering ensemble rhythm. But gradually the orchestra subsided until just Lønning's trumpet and Vågan's bass were left in stark relief, before continuing with jabbing orchestral exclamations sans rhythm section. Such excellent and imaginative arrangements were commonplace, and drew well-directed cries of "bravo" from the audience.

The use of Sofia Jernberg's wordless vocals, buoyant alongside the horns, recalled British pianist Keith Tippett's Ark assemblage, which similarly covered ground from richly arranged written portions to incisive freedom. The sorrowful then slowly soaring third piece served as a vehicle for Swedish reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist, best known from his high-profile tenure with Atomic. His wailing jazzy tenor managed to be both graceful and full of vigor, and then exploratory as he savored a timbral duet with Jernberg. Indicative of the range of styles integrated into any one piece was the shift from orchestral muttering to juddering riffs to two beat bounce and finally a percussion interlude which saw drummers Gard Nilssen and Håkon Mjåset Johansen pounding and facing off, until concluding with a percussive pattern on solely bass.


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