Silje Nergaard and Wolfgang Haffner, Dusseldorf, Germany

Phillip Woolever By

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Silje Nergaard / Wolfgang Haffner Trio
Dusseldorf, Germany
December 18, 2009
Various forms of music do indeed have a peak season, and the inspired, sentimentally crisp coupling of groups led by Norway's singer/songwriter Silje Nergaard and German drummer Wolfgang Haffner provided a near perfect backdrop for this region's initial holiday season snowfall. Each ensemble serenaded a polite but boisterous full house with soft yet stirring cascades of cheer while the park-side art museum area around the venue was transformed into a winter wonderland.
Haffner and his partners—Hubert Nuss on piano and Lars Danielsson on bass—set the evening's strong and subtle tone. The trio's 50-minute set was a show in itself, and a hard act to follow, as Haffner proved that sometimes understated rhythms can expand into their own tour de force.
Haffner employs many items in his percussion, starting the evening like a pin drop on the xylophone. He sat back and gave the opening moments of the performance to Nuss' crystal clear chops, while Danielsson powered a huge effects foot peddle board for deeply resounding foundations and stretched the limits with his bow. Haffner was laidback with his brushes before pounding out fat-finger rhythms in a virtual hands-on approach, then moving to the sticks with a choked-up grip for maximum wrist action. Even at this time of year he could never be categorized as a little drummer boy.

The smiling trio was definitely feeling the music and so was the audience, who howled in approval for almost every title in the six-song set. Three of the tunes came from Haffner's Round Silence (ACT, 2009); the opening "Tubes," "Wordless," and the title track can stand with much of the best jazz to come out during this past year. Many more globally renowned names have appeared here recently but few earned the same cheers.

The lesson tonight was that monorhythmic by no means translates to limited. Haffner got more metric mileage through singular smacks against his cymbal stands than some hit men get from a two-minute solo. Haffner not only made it look easy, he made it look fun.

While headliner Nergaard and her backing quartet (pianist Helge Lien, bassist Finn Guttormsen, guitarist Håvar Bendiksen and drummer Jarle Vespestad) found their stride during the start of their 90- minute set, there was a question as to whether the show wasn't already stolen. Even strong material like the title track from Nergaard's A Thousand True Stories (Sony/Columbia, 2009) didn't really spark the gathering immediately.

Eventually, like a rocket lifting off, Nergaard raised her pitch into orbit. By her fourth song, "Dreamers at Heart," she proved it wasn't a mistake to put her image alone on the concert posters. By then, her band mates also reinforced the notion that their soft background vocals provided a crucial accompanying element to many songs.

Once she hit her gentle stride, the earnest Nergaard demonstrated considerable star power with a series of very strong, self-written songs that were both insightful and witty. "Take a Long, Long Walk" featured scat backing by Bendiksen that the Rhineland fans ate up, and "Dance Me Love" cried out for worthy, major movie soundtrack placement. The concert's high point was probably "Tell Me Where You're Going," the title track from Nergaard's 1990 Lifetime Records debut, produced by Pat Metheny.

Nergaard had the crowd in the palm of her hand during two encores that included "Japanese Wood" and a Norwegian song, "En Og En," that figuratively translated to "go in peace." Temperatures were well below freezing as the audience headed home, but their hearts had been warmed and their smiles remained.

Afterward, it was nice to see the engaging artists next to a beautiful Christmas tree, surrounded by hundreds of fans at a busy CD stand. Many of those discs were undoubtedly stocking stuffers. Nergaard and Haffner had already delivered their gifts here.

Visit Wolfgang Haffner and Silje Nergaard on the web.

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