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Punkt (Day 3) at London Jazz Festival

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"Is it the improvisation that makes it jazz?," asks one woman, apparently genuinely uncertain.
A London Jazz Festival 2008
Punkt
King's Place, London
November 22, 2008


Listen to Norway's Sidsel Endresen on record and one assumes all manner of studio trickery: surely her voice is being cut up, reversed, electronically warped? Yet as made clear by the bare stage show that opens tonight's proceedings, her extraordinary vocal could not be more organic.



At one point she plays thumb piano, at another she sings over a simple chord sequence pre-recorded on a dictaphone. But for the most part, Endresen flits from what sounds like Elvish to a child's impression of a passing car, then on to the sort of rhythmic half-chokes more usually issued by South Africa's Miriam Makeba, accompanied by not so much as an effects pedal. And, of course, she's all the more impressive for it.



What follows, however, is very electronic indeed. For the show is part of Punkt, the innovative Norwegian festival that is making a temporary home in the UK for the culmination of the London Jazz Festival. And the central conceit of that festival is that every performance is immediately followed, in an adjacent room, by a so-called live remix.



To some, the dreaded R word simply implies the less than delicate addition of a pounding beat. Yet when the audience decamps to the room next door, we find Punkt co-founders Erik Honore and Jan Bang re- working elements of Endresen's vocal with the utmost restraint. Much is abstract, frankly impossible to identify from the show we've just witnessed, although recognizable words surface now and again: "upstairs... lie down... easy, lazy." Meanwhile, playing live over the top, are bassist Peter Freemanand Jon Hassell: even more breathy and expansive than in his main performance the previous night, and again contributing occasional keyboards to punctuate his sublime trumpet meanderings.



It is intended as no disrespect to Hassell to say that as much as his own canon, at least the side where the rhythm section is less explicitly influenced by world music, the remix calls to mind Miles Davis ' In A Silent Way. With Hassell's skeletal keyboard chords and sparse, elegant trumpet lines, it shares that record's acute sense of space, its slowly shifting textures, its loose electric groove. It also, apparently, shares its ability to upset purists: "So, is it the improvisation that makes it jazz?," asks one woman as they finish, apparently genuinely uncertain.



The second half of tonight's program kicks off, back in the main concert hall, with Nils Petter Molvaer, a leading light of Norwegian jazz ever since the success of his ECM debut, Khmer (1998). With its electronics and multi-genre perspective, that record was something of a shock for fans of the chamber jazz of ECM when it emerged just over a decade ago; likewise, tonight's performance is noticeably less introvert than much of the London Jazz Festival's Scene Norway strand. NPM is clearly in good spirits too, jokingly shhh-ing an audience member who drops something during a quiet passage.

That said, he's still a highly subtle player when he wants to be: the first four or so minutes of his set consist solely of blowing through his trumpet so softly that the instrument emits only a ghostly, non-pitched sound. In fact, Molvaer himself remains almost as mellow for much of the show; if his set feels more upbeat than that of many of his contemporaries, it is less the result of his own playing than of the bed beneath him.



Eivind Aarset, a longtime NPM sidekick and one of the most magnificently restrained guitarists you're likely to encounter, is in what, for him, passes for a highly exuberant mood, though he stops short of foot- on-the-monitor shredding. And Audun Erlien and Audun Kleive, on bass and drums respectively, contribute considerable momentum, from propulsive electronic beats to loose, semi-submerged funk. There's a definite electronic edge too, with Erlein, Aarset and Molvaer all making use of laptops. If Hassell's performance was reminiscent of In A Silent Way, this is more On The Corner.



The focal point, however, remains Molvaer himself, undoubtedly owing a debt to both Hassell and Davis but one of the few contemporary trumpeters who can be mentioned in the same breath in his own right.



It's only a shame that his stellar performance is let down by the weakest remix I've seen at Punkt, whether by his UK manifestation or in its native Norway. Regular faces DJ Strangefruit and Jan Bang are fine, but the female vocal—something along the lines of "flying high with you is just a fantasy"—sounds like a refrain from an uplifting house track, long forgotten and best left that way.

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