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Oslo Jazz Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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

Introduction

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.

Vågan deployed small groups and solo features adroitly within the larger ensemble. One piece which began as a ballad with a Caribbean lilt somehow transformed into a scratchy improv section for bass, drums, Adrian Løseth Waade's viola and Øyvind Engen's cello, before moving on in further unanticipated switchbacks. Vågan also took the opportunity to flaunt his avant credentials with an unaccompanied interlude during which he rattled his bow in its sheath, scraped below the bridge, and tapped both strings and body, exploiting on the whole of his instrument for unexpected sonorities. The final number contained a terrific alto saxophone outpouring from Eirik Hegdal during which Ljungkvist and the other horns had great fun organizing pithy interjections.

It was an excellent concert, full of variety, exciting interplay and great soloing, harnessed by unpredictable scores.

Fred Hersch

An intimate set of originals, standards and less anticipated covers by American pianist Fred Hersch at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria constituted one of the highlights of the festival. Hersch currently resides somewhere in the upper echelons of modern jazz pianists, reaping plaudits with both his trio and as a solo artist. Alone on the stage, his renditions often evoked a journey, albeit a deeply personal one subject to minor digressions and sudden shifts in tone, dynamics and time. The opening mash up of two tunes by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim illustrated that perfectly, by turns rippling and rhapsodic.

Hersch seems to subscribe to the Buddhist credo of change and impermanence as nothing appears fixed in the way he endlessly spins through theme and variations, using his divine touch to move between syncopation and lightly swaying passages in different tempos. His originals ranged from "West Virginia Rose" with its Americana-tinged rolling rhythms and the tranquil "Pastorale," which paid homage to his classical beginnings.

In a perhaps inadvertent link to the Festival's opening event, a celebration of the repertoire of folk singer songwriter turned jazz enthusiast Joni Mitchell, Hersch tackled her classic song "Both Sides Now." He dedicated his tender rendition, full of swelling choruses, and tangents of heavy drama and ringing shards, to the recently passed Aretha Franklin, another big influence on the 62-year old pianist. Later on another "song from my youth," he outlined out the framework with his left hand only, before pressing both into service to bring out an unexpected churchy dimension to the Beatles "For No-One."

His versions of standards often began in heavy disguise, as if he had set off without a destination in mind and then happened upon the song during his travels. "Caravan" started off almost funky, but quickly fractured into staccato impulses. At one point his hands walked to the furthest extremes of the Steinway, before regrouping into a bluesy stride, punctuated by a repeatedly struck note. If he didn't telegraph the direction in the openings, then the same was also true of the finishes, often bamboozling the audience with false endings and then taking them by surprise with sudden pull ups. His "Embraceable You" offered a delicate, almost whimsical take on the familiar chestnut.

As always Hersch celebrated Thelonious Monk, capping his set with a couple of tunes. A dramatic flourish gradually revealed the familiar contours of "Round Midnight," before he left the tune way behind in a whirl of repeated phrases, ringing tremolos and barreling excursions, before settling on "In Walked Bud" to close. Unsurprisingly the audience demanded an encore, a wish fulfilled with an elegiac reading of Billy Joel's "And So It Goes," which with hints of "Auld Lang Syne" supplied a suitably affectionate send off.

Daniel Herskedal Trio & Marinemusikken

The grand setting of the main hall in the city's university hosted a special performance by the trio of low brass specialist Daniel Herskedal, with pianist Eyolf Dale and percussionist Helge Norbakken, supplemented by Marinemusikken (the concert band of the Royal Norwegian Navy). Such a collaboration is far from unprecedented for Herskedal, as he often seeks out unconventional combinations for his music, as evidenced by a track record containing outings with a string orchestra on Slow Eastbound Train (Edition Records, 2015), and a choir on Neck Of The Woods (Edition Records, 2012). And given that his new venture Old Salt Legends has a watery theme, joining forces with Marinemusikken, which resembles a cross between a brass band and an orchestra without strings, fits neatly into that pattern.

Herskedal's writing was genre spanning and cinematic in scope, recalling at various times big band charts, Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite and post-bop jazz. On "North West Passage," a percussion tattoo by Norbakken suggested native Indian beats, amid the explosive clatter, which brought to mind gunshots or ice cracking. After a pause Dale, one of the most distinctive soloists, fast becoming a fixture on the country's jazz scene and also associate professor in jazz at the Norwegian Academy of Music, took a richly colored turn full of clipped embellishments and rolling lines, heralding a nimbly swinging trio section.

In an imaginative display Knut Ålefjær, the Marinemusikken lead percussionist and probably the member most attuned to Herskedal's conception, introduced the next number with flurries which terminated with something akin to natural decay. Herskedal lead the line on bass trumpet, and the band responded to his call before the piece took in an Oriental tinge. Here and elsewhere Herskedal revealed himself to be a virtuoso brass player.

His unaccompanied tuba introduction to the final number before the encore exposed his chops in fine style. At first he recalled a melodic foghorn, but then utilized deep multiphonic chords which to round off his phrases, to which he then added a higher vocalized layer, creating a less predetermined human element amid the orchestration. A double tongued tuba passage, affirmed by the band with earthy riff and Arabic counter melody segued into a tuba/piano/percussion section which invoked a dream sequence, with jazzy piano accents and runs against a loose backing. The short hymnal encore was a fitting end to a concert which combined disparate facets into a cohesive whole.

Juno

As an example of the accessible programming you needed to look no further than Juno, a lively young five piece band which appeared at Herr Nilsen. Made up from four women and one man, they mixed pop, rap and jazz, spiced by sporadic unruly outbursts from Georgia Wartel Collins' bass and Ingvald Vassbø's drums in particular. On tenor saxophone Mona Krogstad largely alternated between the tunes, riffs, coloration, and occasional solos. But with their animated stage presence, it was vocalists Thea Ellingsen Grant and Malin Dahl Ødegård who supplied the focal point. They complemented each other with slightly different styles. But although Ødegård laid down a mean line in rap, while Grant offered more dreamy interpretations, both betrayed their jazz roots with scat solos on different numbers. Collins fashioned a very good, solidly structured bass solo from repeated figures, while Vassbø made the most of his turn in the spotlight, while the two singers played percussion. After being invited back following their debut in the 2017 edition of the Festival's Nordic Showcase, it was no surprise that they enjoyed the support of an enthusiastic audience crowding the small club.

Kristoffer Kompen Quintet

Trombonist Kristoffer Kompen delivered some swinging small group jazz with the help of his Quintet comprising reedman Atle Nymo, pianist Eyolf Dale (again), bassist Jo Skaansar and drummer Pål Hausken in the small but packed jazz cafe Herr Nilsen. Kompen's territory of choice was a lilting mainstream, which was expansive enough to take in both rocky and bluesy influences, performing material from the group's Sundown (Kompis, 2017) album. Kompen's smoothly articulated solos, sometimes with slight blaring inflections among the gently gamboling lines, befitted someone who has paid homage to swing era icon Jack Teagarden.

Inventive within the parameters of the tunes, Nymo often pushed the boundaries and was more inclined to depart from the chordal frameworks, playing with time, oscillating between registers, and overblowing. His angular phrases and ululating tremolos often elicited a response from the drummer, and indeed the subtle interactions among the band were one of the joys of this outfit. Dale proved most likely to mix things up, his sparkling piano solos full of little quotes, dislocations and playful emphases.

On "Duke" inspired by Ellington, Nymo's bass clarinet cosseted the leader in a luscious unison, before a luminous piano feature for Dale, which had air of Scottish folk song. Then on the title track from the album with its hymn-like theme, Kompen stretched to his most ebullient work, drawing on the thematic material, but then gradually expanded his tone to a broad vibrato and upped the emotional ante. Nymo's tenor solo stretched things even more and it was delightful to hear how the piano and drums responded, before a final chorus verging on the polyphonic, to round off the set in rousing style.

Jakob Bro

For Friday night's opening concert, the quartet responsible for Danish guitarist Jakob Bro's Returnings (ECM, 2018) assembled before a full house at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. No festival in Oslo would be complete without reference to the stereotypical Nordic sound, and this was it. Alongside Bro were a multigenerational band formed from American bassist Thomas Morgan, and the Norwegian pair of drummer Jon Christensen and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. Christensen, who has featured on over 60 ECM albums, turned 75 in 2018 and took center stage, flanked by the others, although his tasteful drumming was the antithesis of showy.

In fact subtlety and restraint were the watchwords for the entire group. The drummer set the proceedings in motion, smiting his cymbals sparsely and ushering in Bro's balmy rippling guitar. Morgan and Mikkelborg pitched melodic lines into the sonic equivalent of a drifting mist, which fitted hand in glove with the seductive ECM ethos. An electronic rumble generated by Bro's guitar formed the transition to the next piece. Bro uses a lot of FX throughout, almost constantly adjusting his sound from reverb, to tape loops, to electronic squiggles via an array of pedals spread at his feet, but without causing any harshness to disturb the often ethereal tone.

With his swirling lyricism and reiterated motifs, Mikkelborg often kindled thoughts of electric era Miles Davis, as he prowled the stage. Morgan furnished a sure-footed presence. He took a lengthy unaccompanied pizzicato introduction to the penultimate number, which eventually resolved into repeated vamp, illustrative of how he often provided the sinew around which the lightly sketched pieces congealed. For his part Christensen maintained a simmering impulse, at one point pattering on shells of drums to add a singular flavor. Paradoxically he attracted the loudest applause at the conclusion of one piece where he theatrically wafted his sticks in the air without actually striking any of his kit.

The audience definitely bought into Bro's atmospheric, introspective concept. They concluded their set with a richly lyrical tune, featuring a lovely eddying Bill Frisell like melody, before the inevitable encore.

The Klezmatics

In something of a departure, the Festival presented New York City's The Klezmatics at Cosmopolite, a small theater space with table seating. Formed in 1986, they were in at the basement level of the klezmer revival, although singer, accordionist and pianist Lorin Sklamberg was the only surviving original member at this concert. His bandmates hail from a variety of musical backgrounds. Both reedman Matt Darriau and drummer Richie Barshay come from jazz. Indeed Barshay boasts some serious references, as he formerly held down the drum stool in the bands of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Violinist Lisa Gutkin and bassist Paul Morrisset were both thoroughly grounded in various folk musics before joining the band. They bring all these influences to bear on songs from across the band's 32-year career.

With a mixture of infectious dance melodies and mournful laments, they ignited the Friday night audience in an adroit feat of programming. Sklamberg's superbly expressive vocals wrung the last drops of pathos from the largely Yiddish songs. Although the Klezmatics sang mainly in Yiddish, they've also recorded music in other languages such as their Grammy-winning album Wonder Wheel (Shout Factory, 2006) consisting of previously unrecorded songs by folk singer Woody Guthrie, from which they featured "Gonna Get Through This World," sung by Gutkin. They've found inspiration from round the world, later performing a Basque resistance song translated into Yiddish.

They thread high caliber musicianship into their material, swapping between instruments to ensure a colorful palette. Some of the interplay between Gutkin's violin and Darriau's flute proved sublime. On alto saxophone and clarinet, Darriau slid between notes, drawing on Balkan and Eastern tonalities. Barshay too was resourceful, starting one solo starts on the rims, shells and sticks of his kit, and good naturedly encouraging audience participation on another. A good time vibe predominated as they invited the crowd to clap and sing along almost from the word go, a tendency encouraged by numbers like the jaunty title track from Apikorsim (World Village, 2016) with its circus music inflections.

To close, they finished with another Woody Guthrie lyric, an anti-fascist love song which passed at a whirling hyperspeed, only to stop and then resume as a slow dance which gradually accelerate to a spirited finale. The exuberant crowd loved it and give a standing ovation to demand an encore.

Nordisk Showcase

Sentralen, a multi-floored, multi-venued complex housed in a former bank, played host to the Nordisk Showcase, which featured groups from jazz schools and conservatories across Scandinavia, as well as one from Scotland and another from South Africa, somewhat straining the geographic boundaries of Nordic in the process. The building was packed with a mainly young audience which augurs well for the future of the Norwegian scene, even if not all of them stick around for the more complex stuff.

Of the bands I caught, Aganche Lynx from Malmo in Sweden gave a very theatrical presentation, primarily through singer Agnes Kofoed Christianson. Although their songs were jazzy and occasionally folky sounding, they didn't afford a lot of space for individual improvisation, but they addressed that through a novel way of devising a continuous performance, by using melodramatic declamations or solos from drums or piano to link numbers.

Riffs aplenty from Bangkok Lingo, a young very energetic five piece from Oslo, really got their hometown audience going. They featured some effective contrapuntal interplay between Lyder Øvreås Røed's trumpet and Lauritz Skeidsvoll's tenor sax. A volatile exchange between the drummer and percussionist also garnered a positive reaction on "Lost Tribes."

From the WITS School of Arts in Johannesburg, the WITS Art Collective delivered a set of melodic jazz, irresistable rhythms and soulful vocals from Keorapetse Kolwane. On Miriam Makeba's "African Sunset," pianist Mdu Mtschali gradually took the rootsy rhythm further and further out until he was bashing out time with the flats of his hands, though still maintaining the same lilting cadence. On trumpet, Tal Gordon both shaded the vocal line but also smoldered with passionate intensity on the ballads, to conjure a suitably late night vibe.

Jo Berger Myhre & Ólafur Björn Ólafsson

Not part of the Nordic Showcase, but appearing in the same complex, the Norwegian/Icelandic duo of Jo Berger Myhre and Ólafur Björn Ólafsson created a soundscape which went far beyond the drum and bass instrumentation. Bassist Myhre has played with the likes of Nils Petter Molbær, Splashgirl, Susanna and Mariam the Believer, while the Icelandic drummer and keyboard player Ólafsson has performed with Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Skúli Sverrisson. They began in intriguing fashion as Myhre bowed a cross between whale song and Bach, against Ólafsson's spacey drone. Unfortunately their slowly intensifying dynamic took a turn for the worse when Ólafsson switched to an amplified primal throb at the drum kit, as the volume made me fear for my hearing, driving me from the room.

Outro

Judging by turnouts alone, the festival could be counted a resounding success. All the concerts seemed well-attended by a variety of ages. That was particularly true of the Nordisk Showcase on the final weekend, with a predominantly young throng. Perhaps they were attracted by free entry to an evening's entertainment, but if so it was a successful ploy. But the Festival was also very much a success in terms of the extensive spread of styles presented, especially as that was happily achieved without stretching the definition of jazz to breaking point, as done by some other major festivals which include rock acts to bolster income. If one area was under-represented it was at the freer end of the spectrum. It was interesting that the annual Blow Out! Festival of improvised music was on during the same week. That might present an opportunity for closer cooperation in future years through some sort of link up, in promotion if nothing else.

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