Seven Days In Norway: The 2009 Oslo Jazz Festival

Thomas Conrad By

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Oslo Jazz Festival
Oslo, Norway
August 9-15, 2009
Sunday August 9 was the first day of the Oslo Jazz Festival. It was cloudy and cool and rained off and on all day until, miraculously, the skies cleared just in time for the opening concert. Antony and the Johnsons performed with the Norwegian National Opera Orchestra on the roof of the new Opera House. It was the first-ever outdoor concert held at this glassy cubist structure on the water's edge of Oslofjord. Almost 9000 people spilled down the sloping roof to the stage, which was set up on a barge, the setting sun over Oslofjord behind it.

It was a stunning public setting for the private, aching song-poems of Antony Hegarty. He is a specialized acquired taste, with his round, androgynous face and soprano voice and spasmodic gestures and poses. His songs, over the course of a long Norwegian twilight, began to sound alike. The orchestra sighed and Antony moaned tunes with titles like "Kiss My Name" and then shyly curtsied. It was the warbling of Tiny Tim become symphonic and existential.

Unlike many European jazz festivals held in smaller towns, this one does not take over the city, because Oslo is large and cosmopolitan, with multiple competing summer events. For example, hordes of drunken Scotsmen in kilts, there for the World Cup qualification soccer match between Norway and Scotland, were a much more visible and audible presence on the streets of Oslo than the jazz festival. (Scotland got creamed 4-0, which rendered the men in kilts morose and, thankfully, quieter.) To find the jazz festival you had to search it out in 17 venues throughout the city center: jazz clubs, small bars, hotels, gray rock 'n roll dungeons, churches, restaurants—and that Opera House, whose full name is Den Norske Opera & Ballett. Despite the global recession and ticket prices that appeared high (at least to someone from a non-kroner economy), attendance at most concerts was excellent.

The jazz at this jazz festival started on day #2, at the Opera House, but this time inside, where the capacity is 1450. This horseshoe-shaped auditorium, opened in April 2008, has four levels of seating faced with beautiful dark-grained wood—Norwegian wood, presumably. An evening billed as "Til Radka" was quickly "utsolgt" (sold out), so a second performance was scheduled, and it too was utsolgt. The concerts were tributes to vocalist Radka Toneff, a revered figure in Norwegian jazz who committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 30. The band included several of the finest Norwegian players, some well-known outside Norway (Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, Arve Henriksen, Karin Krog), some not (Per Jorgensen, Jon Eberson). Radka Toneff's signature song was Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." The band played a moody version with Jorgensen's muted trumpet at its core. For someone who has listened to Jon Christensen on ECM records for 30-or-so years, it was a kick to hear his precise, clean, suggestive cymbal work in person.

But at this concert dedicated to a singer, five vocalists predominated. Solveig Slettahjell's pure, alluring voice could not be more different from that of Tom Waits, which made her a perfect interpreter of his "Take It With Me." Karin Krog, Kirsten Braten Berg and Live Maria Roggen proved that they are true improvisers with jazz instruments for voices. The night ended with a strange, moving vocal performance by trumpeter Jørgensen. It was "Blame It On My Youth," a song that Radka Toneff never sang, but which perhaps alluded to her early death. After a rapt, hovering Arild Andersen bass solo, Jorgensen sang it falsetto, building it slowly from a whisper to a scream.

The most unique and utterly improbable project of the festival called itself Monk's Casino. A German quintet (pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, trumpeter Axel Dorner, bassist Jan Roder, drummer Uli Jenneseen) played the complete Monk canon—70 tunes—in three sets at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, on Oslo's main drag of Karl Johans Gate. Before you recognized one Monk tune, here came another, flying past your head. The spattering, careening solos by the two horns and Von Schlippenbach were necessarily concise. This quixotic, inspired jazz novelty act has been in existence for 13 years. There is a three-CD set on the Intakt label.

Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria is a fine place to listen to music, the $10 small beers notwithstanding. (The going price for small beers in Oslo is around 58 kroner—very close to $10. It is one of the most expensive cities on the planet.) There are ascending rows of little cushioned booths, and acoustics good enough that Monk's Casino played without amplification. Some of the most interesting music at the festival took place in the Victoria, like drummer Aldo Romano's hip, low-key neobop French quartet (alto saxophonist Geraldine Laurent/clarinetist Mauro Negri/bassist Henri Texier), and a group called PELbO, your basic vocal/tuba/drums trio. (The personnel were Ine Hoem/Kristoffer Lo/Trond Bersu respectively.) Unfortunately only Monk's Casino dared to play acoustically. (Nerve is a virtue Monk's Casino does not lack.)

It was culture shock to go from the jagged shards of Monk's Casino to the smooth contours of tenor saxophonist Bodil Niska caressing standards like "Autumn Leaves." She played Chat Noir, a tight, efficient, classy club space near the neoclassical Nationaltheatret building, with its statue of a dour Henrik Ibsen. The Scott Hamilton Scandinavian Five also played Chat Noir the following day. At European jazz festivals, nationalism is often apparent. Bodil Niska is much less famous than Scott Hamilton, and presumably much more available to Norwegian audiences. But she filled Chat Noir and there were some empty seats for Hamilton.

One purpose of attending a jazz festival is to make new discoveries—like the highly likable Niska. Another is to hear players live whose work you have experienced only on records. It was great fun to experience in person the sheer sensual luxuriance of Scott Hamilton's tenor saxophone sound. As for his time, you could awaken him from a deep sleep at 4 a.m., hand him his horn, and he would be swinging his ass off before his feet hit the floor. Still, his ballads are best ("In A Sentimental Mood," "Skylark"). In a perfect world, Scott Hamilton would play every song you ever liked.

The festival made use of some funky rock venues. Two inconsequential Norwegian rock bands, Bellman and Lama, played a large airless space with a clever name, Rockefeller. It made much less sense to put Mathias Eick in a similar dive without seating, Parkteatret. It is true that Eick's current band (keyboardist Andreas Ulvo, electric bassist Nikolai Eilertsen, drummer Torstein Lofthus) rocks out in person. But it is also true that Eick is one of the most promising new voices in jazz, and it would have been preferable to hear him in a setting where it was possible to concentrate on his long lines of yearning trumpet lyricism. Eick played his widely praised ECM debut album, The Door, in its entirety. In a live setting, the cool, airy pieces from the album were ignited into hard loud grooves by the rhythm section. Yet Eick stayed within himself. The fascination of this band in person was the contrast between the delicacy of Eick's trumpet designs and the driving energy all around him. In Eick's sense of dramatic moment, you hear the Miles of Sketches Of Spain. But his concepts for overall ensemble form are up-to-the-minute and his own. Eick is a storyteller with a seductive, golden trumpet sound, impeccable chops (he maybe had one fluff all night), and a very bright future.

One of the revelations of the festival was the trio of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass), Hakon Kornstad (reeds), and Jon Christensen (drums) playing free, floating jazz versions of religious folk songs that Flaten learned from his grandmother. Imagine a fast bass supporting a slow saxophone. Kornstad wafted simple melodic minor key rituals and then patiently, creatively pursued their implications, while Flaten ran ahead and Christensen lagged behind, scattering ambiguous murmuring accents.

Christensen was a guest added for this performance. He is the only famous member of the trio, but Flaten and Kornstad are world-class players. Flaten was powerful and poetic, both pizzicato and arco. Kornstad played mostly tenor, but sometimes switched off to a surprisingly fluid and graceful bass saxophone. This was often music of extraordinary quietness. Pieces did not so much begin or end as happen for a time. Much has been written about the "Nordic sensibility" in jazz, often found on the ECM label. Like most critical categorizations, it is an oversimplification. (As this festival proved, a lot of Nordic music is hard and raunchy.) Yet there is also a kernel of truth to the concept of a Nordic aesthetic. It is difficult to imagine players from outside Scandinavia willing to risk playing jazz this ephemeral, willing so to trust the openness and attentiveness of their audience.

The setting for this performance was Kulturkirken Jakob, a lovely brick 19th century church whose acoustics added a natural ambient extension to the trio's pale, austere, haunting music. There is a CD on the Compunctio label, Elise.

In a festival that variously included opera orchestras and big bands and banks of synthesizers and percussionists two and three at a time, the most music of all came from one man and one Steinway piano in Kulturkirken Jakob. Enrico Pieranunzi has quietly become one of the most important pianists in jazz. His solo recital encompassed his own melodically inevitable compositions ("Winter Moon," "As Never Before"), some epic interpretations of standards, some film music (Nino Rota's "Theme From La Strada"), some Monk, and a Scarlatti sonata. Around and above each chosen platform, Pieranunzi erected towering pianistic architecture. "My Funny Valentine" is the Italian Jazz National Anthem. All the Italians play it, but no one plays it like Pieranunzi. He released the melody gradually, in fragments, as if reluctantly, then overwhelmed it with inspired spontaneous decorative detail. "'Round Midnight" (perhaps the universal Jazz National Anthem) was a barely visible recurrent thread in a vast tapestry.

Joshua Redman, that peerless musical athlete and showman, played a typically ferocious, impossibly proficient, unfailingly entertaining set with his trio (bassist Matt Penman, drummer Gregory Hutchinson) at a jam-packed Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. (For Joshua, they took out the tables on the main floor and replaced them with rows of chairs, to fit in more people.) By the time Joshua's voluminous cadenzas and high leg kicks and explosive codas were concluded, there were no faces in the crowd without ear-to-ear grins, including those of the ushers and bar maids. (Anywhere in the world, it takes a special player to impress a bar maid.)

Steady rain fell on the last day of the festival, Saturday August 15. Bill Frisell played a rare solo concert in Kulturkirken Jakob at four in the afternoon. Solo jazz guitar is a challenging format, even for Bill Frisell, even with the support of digital loops. In the early part of the concert, he seemed indecisive, meandering into tangents and digressions, falling into odd intervals, hinting at melodies and perversely withdrawing them. But with Frisell, you have to be careful. What you think is a digression can eventually manifest itself as central and profound, because he does not build statements in any previously known way. It is a matter of getting in tune with his quirks. Once you make the connection to his proprietary logic, other guitar players sound obvious and intentional. When Frisell settled—if he can ever be said to truly settle—into country songs like "You're Cheatin' Heart" and "Lovesick Blues" (the latter from his remarkable new album Disfarmer), it was like peace and truth. Melodies deeply rooted in American culture were reimagined and transformed in silver guitar notes that rung out and ascended to the high vaulted ceiling of an old church in Norway.

It was slightly surreal to leave one of the world's great guitar players at Kulturkirken Jakob and walk in the rain to a very boring guitarist, Eivind Aarset, at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. But first you had to wait in the rain on the street outside the club, under a gradually saturating umbrella, for 45 minutes. Aarset and his Sonic Codex Orchestra were delayed on their flight out of Rome. Once inside, dripping listeners were treated to music of turgid ponderousness. Double drummers churned and thundered. The electric bassist, Audun Erlien, took an interminable, inane solo. Aarset's guitar solos were so minimal in content that they were presumably intended as Zen. They were more like wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Or bubblegum. Sugarless bubblegum.

It sounds painful, but it was actually almost funny, and a way of making one grateful for all the excellent musical experiences that had come before, during seven very special days in Norway.

Photo Credit

Mathias Eick by Christoph Giese

All others by Christian Melstrom


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