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Punkt Festival 2009: Day 4, Kristiansand, Norway, September 5, 2009

John Kelman By

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Helge Lien Trio

A recent winner of the Norwegian Grammy for Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008), pianist Helge Lien and his trio, featuring bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aaleflæt, made his first appearance at Punkt. Possessing many of the qualities that made Hello Troll such an impressive release, it was also an opportunity to hear the trio take considerably greater liberties with the music.

It is, perhaps, a little too easy to compare Hello Troll with the music of the late Esbjorn Svensson and his trio, e.s.t.: strong grooves, accessible European classicism married with a certain pop-like sensibility, and unmistakable virtuosity rooted in the music of Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson and Jan Johansson. But in performance, Lien's music takes on considerably greater risk. Expanding Hello Troll's "Axis of Free Will" into a lengthy rubato exploration before finding its way to the driving piano motifs that define it, Lien's breadth of range—from delicate touch and nuanced economy to greater power and virtuosity—was immediately evident. It was, in fact, a particularly strong window into the workings of a group that may work in the tried-and-true conventional format of the piano trio (and there's no mistaking its roots in the jazz tradition), but here, and on the even more impressionistic "Radio," the trio demonstrated a flexibility and telepathy that, with six albums under its belt since 2000, continues to get deeper with each passing year.

Hello Troll may be more eminently accessible, and songs like the Latin-esque "Troozee" still grooved along with gentle forward motion, but the group dynamics were even stronger in performance, with Aaleflæt especially in touch with Lien, but the entire trio managing to create unexpected shifts at the drop of a hat. With an expanded drum kit that included bongos, bell trees and chimes, Aaleflæt didn't get any solo space per se (even Berg only got one), but his fluid elasticity and intuitive responsiveness were unmistakable components of the trio's collective voice. Berg's arco was as warm as his pizzicato, and it was part of the trio's personal approach to arrangement that found him bowing the anticipated line at the foundation of "Troozee" rather than plucking it (though he did eventually switch).

As for Lien, he's a thrilling player capable of creating lengthy, cascading motifs and sophisticated, pulse-driven voicings, but never for their own sake. "It Is What It Is, But It Is" may be an elliptical title, but it was an evocatively appealing piece with Jarrett-like gospel tinges, one of the set's more direct pieces that also include a solo from Berg that was at the nexus point between Arild Andersen and Anders Jormin. It provided a soft contrast to "Halla Troll," which came closest to approximating e.s.t.'s weighty propensities though, without that trio's bassist Dan Berglund and his heavily processed double-bass, remained more organic, even as it went to free spaces that Svensson's trio never did, even with its marvelous and sadly final album, Leucocyte (ACT, 2008).

Lien's trio also won the 2008 Kongsberg Jazz Festival's DnBNor Musicians Award, and with albums like Hello Troll and shows like its Punkt debut, it's a trio well deserving of broader international exposure.

Bugge Wesseltoft/akiko

Another member of the extended Punkt family, keyboardist/producer Bugge Wesseltoft demonstrated another aspect of the festival: trust. Having just finished recording akiko's new album in Oslo, the Jazzland label head brought the diminutive Japanese singer to Punkt without the festival having heard a single note. Wesseltoft's endorsement was all the festival needed, and their brief set—the only Alpha Room performance that wasn't a remix—was proof that their faith in the pianist's instincts was merited.

Wesseltoft opened the set with the title track to his most recent release, Playing (Jazzland, 2009), using an upright piano, a single electric keyboard, a mixer and a foot pedal that allowed him to apply reverb-drenched, Harold Budd-like ambience at will. Concentrating less on group projects and more on solo performance in recent years, Wesseltoft has been honing a hybridized approach to electro-acoustic playing that continues to reference certain aspects of jazz harmony, while being equally influenced by Norwegian traditionalism and romantic classicism. His music, even at its darkest, possesses a certain optimism that reflects his own personality. With easier access to the strings of his upright piano, it was possible for the pianist to integrate extended and prepared techniques.

As Wesseltoft began to play the second piece, akiko quietly walked onto the floor and began to sing in a near-whisper. With an almost naïve, child-like melody, she created an instant connection with the audience, one that was cemented when, after the song was over, she humbly introduced herself. Her approach combined spoken word and melody, with ambiguous lyrics that touched on matters of love, life and existence. Wesseloft's accompaniment ranged from spare, feather-light and acoustic (with the occasional injection of reverb to broaden the soundscape) to creating deep, in-the-gut bass synth sounds. Sampling her voice, he created occasional background washes from that further enhanced the landscape, also resorting to a more low-tech sound enhancement when he took a sheet of paper and slipped it between the strings and hammers of his piano.

The short set was a compelling introduction to a singer from whom more will be heard, and very soon.

Albatrosh, featuring Lene Grenager/Hild Sofie Tafjord

A lot can happen in a year. When Albatrosh—the duo of pianist Eolf Dale and saxophonist Andre Roligheten, two young music students—performed a short set for the members of the 2008 JazzNorway in a Nutshell participants, in the small village of Rosendal, on the way to Stavanger, it was early days. Still unrecorded, the duo demonstrated a remarkable improvisational and compositional sophistication, one which would be rewarded a few short months later, at the 2008 Molde Jazz Festival, where they won the prestigious Jazz Intro prize. The pair went into the studio soon after, and recorded their critically praised debut, Seagull Island (Inner Ear, 2009).

Sixteen months after Rosendal, Albatrosh made its debut at Punkt with an expanded line-up that also included French hornist Hild Sofie Tafjord and cellist Lene Grenager—two members of the all-improv group Spunk (which also included singer Maja Ratkje, who performed on Day Two), which recently released Kantarell (Rune Grammofon, 2009). The growth in Dale and Roligheten's playing was palpable, but even more so was their writing, which continues to leave copious space for the free exchange of ideas but, in addition, demonstrates a remarkable leap in sophistication for these two young players who are currently studying for their Master's degrees in music.

Splitting the writing between Dale and Roligheten, and between compositions from Seagull Island and newer work, the quartet provided a number of opportunities. Dale and Roligheten, who have been playing together for a number of years despite their young ages, continued to mix greater extremes—especially Roligheten, who's gradually emerging voice has at least some precedence in the playing of John Zorn and fellow Norwegian, Hakon Kornstad and uses similar approaches to percussion, multiphonics and overtones—with more abstract ideation and, at times, passages of great beauty. Tafjord and Grenager, in the context of Spunk, are fearless improvisers, and they brought a similarly unfettered approach to their work here; but equally, it was a treat to hear them working with more through-composed material, creating an unusual ensemble sound with a less-than-orthodox combination of saxophone or bass clarinet (the latter, a new addition for Roligheten), French horn and cello.

Roligheten's tendency, as a writer, is towards creating cued and oftentimes knotty motifs that act as rallying points for collective improvisation, while Dale's lean towards more complex form. In both cases, there's greater depth and, with this unique chamber setting, a chance to explore greater textural diversity. While Roligheten's quirky themes are often clear, the line between form and freedom became, at least some of the time, more blurred for Dale. The saxophonist's breadth and improvisational acumen was stronger than ever, while Dale continued to demonstrate a sometimes cartoon-like approach to accompaniment, with relentless, walking bass lines peppered with right hand chords. Tafjord and Grenager took a break during Roligheten's "Matrosh," where the pianist and saxophonist demonstrated, in even clearer terms, just how much their collective personality has grown.

That a pair of musicians, just into their twenties, can write and play with this degree of maturity and sophistication is an ongoing endorsement of the value of arts education from an early age. With this much growth in only a year, it's hard to imagine where Albatrosh will be 12 months from now.

Live Remix: Helge Sten/Jan Bang

The final live remix at Punkt is almost always a memorable one. Two years ago, trumpeter and one of Punkt's founding fathers, Jon Hassell, delivered a final remix that remains one of the festival's most moving. For the closing remix of Punkt 2009, Jan Bang and Supersilent guitarist/sonic revolutionary Helge Sten broke new ground with a Punkt first: a remix of a remix. Sitting in the audience during Peter Tornqvist's remix of Arve Henriksen's "Cartography" performance with a couple of Dictaphones, the two decided to tackle the challenge of taking Henriksen's evolving language one step further by reshaping the first remix and bringing its largely acoustic nature back into the realm of electronics and sound sculpting.

There was, in fact, another link between this remix and Hassell's from 2007. While remixes have no advance planning in terms of specific content, the line-ups are usually determined well in advance. Hassell chose, instead, to attend Punkt 2007 in its entirety, choosing his collaborators relatively at the last minute on the final day. Similarly, Sten's remix for this year was billed as "Helge Sten + guests," allowing him the flexibility to recruit who he wanted as near to the remix as possible. That he ultimately chose to work only with Bang was interesting; as a member of Henriken's group, Bang was in the perfect position to both bring some of the language back full-circle while, forward-thinking improviser that he is, working with Sten to drive "Cartography" in a new direction.

Like Eivind Aarset, Sten's approach to guitar is often significantly removed from convention. As the remix began, with Bang taking the music back to the softer ambience of its source, Sten's heavily effected instrument sounded more like something that would be heard in a gamelan ensemble, albeit one slowed down and dropped in pitch well below the range of the normal tuned percussion used. The overall ambience was darker than Henriksen's as well, no surprise given Sten's production alter-ego moniker, Deathprod. Still, despite the more brooding and occasionally dense sonics, there were moments of stunning beauty, especially near the end of the remix when Sten began playing a simple and ethereal series of chords.

It's difficult to begin a remix, coming as it usually does, from almost nothing and the demand of choosing from near-infinite possibilities; equally challenging is determining when to end. Twice during the remix, the music began fading to near-silence but then, in each case, it became clear that there was something more to explore, with Bang in one case and Sten in the other, emerging from the space to begin building new ideas, upon which the other then latched. It was a perfect example of the give-and-take that makes each and every Live Remix both a challenge and an opportunity.

Punkt Kunst: "Exits"

Another of Punkt's friends is poet Nils Chr. Moe-Repstad, a Kristiansand local who as part of another of Punkt 2007's better remixes, where he and Erik Honoré provided their own look at Trio Mediæval's performance. For the closing concert of Punkt 2009, Moe-Repstad's subject matter was not as bleak as his 2007 poem surrounding World War II atrocities. Still, it was filled with dark images and meditations on the meaning of existence.

Deep subject matter, indeed, for a closing multimedia concert that consisted of new music by Bang and Honoré, commissioned visuals by Russell Mills, set designs by Tord Knutsen, and the participation of many of this year's participants, including Bugge Wesseltoft, Arve Henriksen, Anna Maria Friman, Eivind Aarset, Adam Rudolph, Guy Sigsworth, Tim Motzer and BJ Cole. With a collection of such powerful musical voices, what was most impressive about the performance was its reliant on silence, its avoidance of ego that would demand a feature spot for everyone involved, and an overall concept that was more about shaping a modern composition and finding the best way to support Moe-Repstad's understated but commanding delivery. Punt Kunst has always been about bringing disciplines together to create something greater than the sum of its parts, and while every component of "Exits" was compelling individually, not a single one would have carried as much weight as it did here.

With Bang and Honoré creating a broader context, "Exits" also possessed plenty of spontaneity, even though there was clear direction driving it. Friman received, perhaps, the single greatest feature, though that may have been largely due to a voice that soared above everything else around it. Henriksen and Bang, too, got a brief passage, with Bang sampling a Henriksen-sung melody with great intervals between the notes, and feeding it back to create a subtle choir that was absolutely the result of their work together in the trumpeter's group. From the midst of a soft percussion pulse from Rudolph, BJ Cole's pedal steel emerged briefly, referencing his work with Harold Budd, while Wesseloft had brief solo piano spot early on.

But ultimately it was Moe-Repstad's words and delivery that were the focal point of "Exits." With an English translation of his Norwegian poetry projected on the backdrop as he spoke them, the most powerful moments were those where he dropped to barely more than a whisper, repeating the same phrase. Power needn't be measured in terms of volume or drama; sometimes the most potent statement is the one that demands its audience lean forward intently. When Moe-Repstad repeated the final phrase, "And a God still makes the waves," it was one of many deeply profound moments:

"a sinking wreath,
the sacrifice of a believer: "Throw me into the sea,
this storm is all my fault."
And a God stills the waves."

With the music fading to nothing, it was Moe-Repstad's final stanza that lingered:

"We abandon nothing that is more than everything,
nothing that is less.
What remains is a promise of silence,
to the happy, and those with no direction."

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