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Oslo Jazz Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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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.

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