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Thomas Stronen's Time is a Blind Guide & Elephant9: Oslo, Norway, March 20-21, 2013


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When you've got some time to kill between two festivals—in this case, Burghausen, Germany's B-Jazz Festival and Vossa Jazz in Voss, Norway, the following weekend—there are few better places to do it than Oslo, a city that supports live music better than most cities in the world, with the possible exception of New York. Oslo's residents don't seem to care much whether it's a Saturday night or a Wednesday night; if there's a good show going on, you can count on an audience being there to attend it. With clubs ranging in size from MONO's under 100 (standing) to Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria's 300 and Rockefeller's 1,350, there's a venue for every size, a room for every group.
If there's one problem in Oslo, it's choices: which shows to pick over the many that are taking place the same night at a myriad of venues? It's impossible to catch everything, so the only way to survive a couple of days in Oslo is to simply accept that, and appreciate the opportunity to catch one group that is brand new, another that originally looked like it might be a one-time affair but has clearly grown into an ongoing concern.

Elephant9 with Reine Fiske
Oslo, Norway
March 21, 2013

Elephant9—that juggernaut of a keyboard-driven power trio that began working with Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske on its third album, Atlantis (Rune Grammofon, 2012), and delivered its first performance as a quartet at the 2012 Kongsberg Jazz Festival's All About Jazz Presents series—may have played everywhere from outdoor stages and jazz clubs to large indoor venues, but in many ways the best place to see the group is in a funky, gritty rock club. Oslo's MONO certainly fits the bill—a grimy, sweaty room that, with its audience shoe-horned in, might handle 100, with others hanging about in a semi-outside courtyard—but after catching Fire! in the same room during the 2011 Oslo Jazz Festival, if there was one lesson to be learned, it was: bring earplugs.

That said, Elephant9—its founding members including keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, bassist Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen and drummer Torstein Lofthus—was a little easier on the ears than saxophonist Mats Gustafsson's relentless improvising trio, if only because it demonstrated a broader degree of dynamics, ranging from something above a whisper but less than a yell, to a flat-out, in-your-face primal scream. Opening its set with "I Cover the Mountain Top," from its 2008 debut, DodoVoodoo (Rune Grammofon), the trio-turned-quartet began with a hypnotic bass ostinato that Eilertsen managed to maintain for a seemingly endless number of repetitions, with Lofthus demonstrating why he's in demand for the visceral concerns of "Black Jazz" group Shining to the more lyrical strains of trumpeter Mathias Eick's band; few drummers can move from delicate swing to ferocious pounding like Lofthus, though Norway does have a disproportionate number of drummers who demonstrate similar stylistic breadth. Still, Lofthus' approach was, as ever, special—a fluid rustling that turned from soft pulse to thundering groove in the space of a nanosecond, when Storløkken's spacey, psychedelic textures suddenly ramped up to a gritty, Keith Emerson-esque Hammond organ figure, driving the modal tune into a densely-clouded stratosphere...where those earplugs suddenly went from "nice to have" to "absolutely necessary."

While there are any number of guitarists who might have worked well with Elephant9, Fiske has turned out to be something of a secret weapon, a player who, like the rest of Elephant9, is less concerned with individual soloing and more with renowned keyboardist Joe Zawinul's "nobody solos and everybody solos" ethos. Fiske's Kongsberg debut was the sonic equivalent of rubbing a nerve raw—in the best possible way, of course—but more time spent with the group has clearly helped the Dugen and the Amazing guitarist to more seamlessly integrate with Elephant9's structure-driven improvisational forays. At times, the guitarist layered volume pedal-driven swells and fast-stroked, chunky wah wah-pushed chords, but elsewhere he broke into rapid-fire phrases that blended with Storløkken's angular lines and staggered, ring modulated Fender Rhodes voicings. Fiske may still be billed separately beside Elephant9, but in the eight months since his live debut with the group, he's become so integral as to beg the question: does the group plan to make this collaboration permanent? Based on its incendiary performance in front of MONO's sardine tin-packed audience, let's hope so.

Thomas Strønen's Time is a Blind Guide
Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria
Oslo, Norway
March 20, 2013

The previous night had marked the second show of the second series of Conexions collaborations between British and Norwegian musicians, curated by BBC radio host of Late Junction, Fiona Talkington. Other commitments in the UK prevented Talkington from attending the show at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, but her spirit was there as the instigator of a project that may, at least to international fans of Thomas Strønen, seem atypical, but which represented another aspect of this immensely creative percussionist's art.

Strønen is best known, perhaps, as a co-conspirator with British saxophonist Iain Ballamy in the ongoing group Food—now celebrating 15 years together and last heard on record with the superb Mercurial Balm (ECM, 2013)—and similarly as a partner in crime with Elephant9 keyboardist Ståle Storløkken (he does get around) in Humcrush, whose most recent recording, Ha! (Rune Grammofon, 2012), documented an ongoing collaboration with intrepid vocal artist Sidsel Endresen. But if these two projects are all about in-the-moment improvisations of a very different kind, Strønen's Conexions show—which brought together five additional Norwegians with two British musicians—demonstrated that he's as capable of wonderful writing as he is boundary-pushing improvisation.

"There was a lot of tension building up to this show, because I've been working on this for six months," Strønen revealed after the show. "There's a lot of written material, and I've been trying grooves and drums and bringing out all the harmonics on the piano and checking how the music sounds on the cello and the violin. I think it worked out fantastically; the group managed to play the material, a lot of which is quite difficult, and I felt that it really opened up. Everyone relaxed. I'm happy."

Strønen's suite was called Time is a Blind Guide, a rather unusual, evocative and provocative title. "It has many sides," Strønen explained. "First of all, Canadian author Anne Michaels has written a book called Fugitive Pieces (McClelland & Stewart, 1996), and if you open to the first page of the book, that's the first sentence. I read this book for the first time a couple of years ago, and I remembered that it was fantastic. This past summer I was going through my books—I'm quite into reading, I'm quite into literature, semantics and language—and I thought, 'I'll read this again,' as I'd remembered it being really, really good. And it was just at this time that I'd started writing the music, so in the daytime I would compose music and in the evenings I read this book. I finished it, and I thought, 'This is so well written, I'm going to read it one more time.' So I did, and the language is just fantastic; I thought that this sentence, 'Time is a blind guide'; I'm not going to put words into it, but it has to do with music, it has to do with life, with literature...whatever you want to read into it."

Now in its second season, Conexions is the brainchild of Fiona Talkington, but those who know her also know that when she works with musicians to come up with ideas for her series, it's a truly collaborative affair, one where she presents her ideas and then gives the artists complete freedom to turn them into something tangible. "First of all, Fiona is a fantastic person," Strønen recounted. "I met her for the first time, it must have been 1998 or '99, and I just remembered that she was always there when we played in Britain with Food, and she was interested in presenting the band. We're spoiled in Norway, having the National Radio broadcasting music like that, and it was really fantastic that she was into the music that we played. She presented us a couple of times when it was a quartet with [trumpeter] Arve Henriksen and Iain [Ballamy], and I got to know her a bit. After that she came to Norway quite often and she's been very interested in the music, in presenting, and in bringing people together.

"When she started the Conexions series, one of the first bands she asked was Food, which was obvious because that Britain/Norway collaboration's been going on since '98," Strønen continued. "So we presented Food at Conexions with [singer/lap steel guitarist] Prakash Sontakke and [guitarist] Eivind Aarset, and she just mentioned that it would be nice if I would be interested in doing something else with British musicians. It's always great to get the chance to meet like-minded musicians, but I don't think it's that often that you meet musicians you really connect deeply with, and understand and respect each other—who can challenge each other and make great music together. I'm extremely grateful for having met these guys, as it's given me the chance to put together this ensemble and present it. Recently, people have asked me 'Do you want to go on with this ensemble, and do a record?' I couldn't say; I already play in nice bands, so in order to move on with this band it has to be something brilliant, something that I don't already have in my vocabulary as it is."

Based on the performance, which combined heavily structured, micro-detailed passages with occasional moments of greater spontaneity, it certainly sounded like something new to the percussionist's vernacular. Not only did he present the full ensemble of piano, bass, drums, violin, cello and three percussionists, but at various points Strønen broke the octet down into various subsets, including a particularly memorable passage for the string trio of British cellist Lucy Railton, and Norwegians Nils Okland (violin, viola d'amore and Hardanger fiddle) and Ole Morten Vågan—normally a muscular, Charles Mingus-informed bassist who, here, demonstrated a particularly beautiful and, for a jazz player, atypical way with a bow.

How these kinds of collaborations come together is sometimes by absolute design, but other times is the result of confluence and coincidence. "When you start a new group, I guess it's always about a number of coincidences," Strønen explained. "I don't start many new bands because I like to keep the ones I already have. I'd started talking to Fiona, and we started name-dropping people. I'd written a lot for strings, I'd written a lot for percussion ensembles and I thought it would be nice to combine that somehow. She mentioned a few names and among them was Kit Downes, on piano, and I thought that I'd remembered Kit, as he'd sent me some of his records and he was a student of [saxophonist and Food Partner] Iain [Ballamy], at the Royal Academy in England; I remember hearing him for the first time and thinking it was really nice.

"At the same time, I got a message from Ole Morten [Vågan]—we'd been working together for many years in [pianist] Maria Kannegaard's trio [last documented on Camel Walk (Jazzland, 2008)], and we'd always been saying we should do more, because that trio doesn't gig that much, and we really love playing together," Strønen continued. "He's got an extremely strong rhythmical sense, and we can play really freely together and still keep the time and the different signatures, so I feel very free; and he's got a great beat, he can really play groove. So he sent me a message that he was at this festival, somewhere in Europe, and he'd heard this great pianist named Kit Downes, saying 'What do you reckon, should we contact him about doing something?' And I thought, 'Well, I have this opportunity with Conexions,' and I thought that would be a nice start, a piano trio with Kit, Ole Morten and me.

"I thought it would be nice to have someone else," continues Strønen, "but I thought if we had a reed player it would turn into a soloist thing right away and I wanted more of a collective ensemble. I'd played a duo concert with Nils Økland a few years ago and always wanted to play with him again. I thought Nils was quite obvious and I mentioned it to Kit and he said, 'Well, I play a lot with this cello player Lucy Railton' [in the pianist's group Quiet Tiger].' He was playing at a festival in Trondheim last year and I was there with Food, and then I heard Lucy play and I had a feeling that she could really work with Nils. So then we had a piano trio with two strings, and I thought, 'Now we have a piano trio as well as a trio with three strings,' and I felt it would be great to integrate a drum ensemble as well. I teach at the Royal Academy in Oslo and I have a drum ensemble there, so I picked out three drummers who I thought would work nicely together [Johan Nordh, Steinar Mossige and Jakob Jannssønn] and that was the ensemble. Luckily, I got this nice gig to write music for the ensemble, so I had a chance to write a whole concert, which is fantastic."

Even in the freest contexts, Strønen has always demonstrated a very particular sense of focus and construction, so the opportunity to hear him work in a more structured environment only served to support the sense that he is truly capable of anything. Before the concert, Strønen said he was "aiming for 60 minutes, hoping for 70 and afraid of 80." The suite went well past that, closer to 90 minutes, and yet there wasn't a wasted note; instead, it clearly felt good to the group, so Strønen simply allowed it to go wherever it would.

As the ensemble moved through the suite's many movements—and despite Strønen's goal of a collective sound (which was successfully achieved)—there were moments for individual players to shine. Downes, who has a new record, Light from Old Stars (Basho, 2013), imminent, delivered a number of impressive solos that worked within Strønen's structures while pushing the group to unexpected places; Økland, who also has a new recording in the works—this time with a full group instead of his duo with harmonium player/pianist Sigbjorn Apeland, last heard on Lysøen: Hommage à Ole Bull (ECM, 2011)—was as eloquent as ever, whether bowing with firm energy or playing so lightly as to be nearly breathing on his strings; and Vågan was, as ever, an endless wellspring of ideas and a firm but pliant anchor, but here revealing new sides to his playing that suggested the bassist with groups including the Deciders and Mellow Motif still has plenty of surprises up his sleeve.

And Strønen, of course, was a similar fount throughout the set, instantaneously responsive to the music around him while at the same time guiding the entire ensemble through a set of music that may have sounded easy on the ears but which, under the hood, revealed far greater complexities. "From the beginning of the concert I thought, 'This is going really well, and it's an extremely nice environment,'" Strønen said. "Immediately after the concert, I could easily say to everyone that this is not the last time we'll play together; we have to move on, we have to do more and develop the music even further. I'm quite impressed with the group, how they managed to adapt to all the music and the different sceneries—with the string trio and the percussion ensemble, the piano trio and the whole ensemble. There's a lot of written material that sounds very easy, melodic and nice, but it's very complicated music with different time signatures and polyrhythms. I love to write music, I really love doing that and it's become a greater part of my life. This group represents the three things I really love: working with drum ensembles; working with piano trios; and working with strings. This group is the perfect combination."

The full house at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria clearly agreed with Strønen. As everyone packed up and, in the case of Downes and Railton, prepared for a flight back to England while the rest of the group moved on to other gigs—including the Vossa Jazz Festival, where both Strønen and Økland had appearances scheduled— Strønen had one last reflection about this project that could have been a one-time affair, but will most certainly continue to evolve, ultimately record and hopefully present a side to the percussionist who's less known on an international level: "To me it's probably a dream come true," Strønen said, adding "but a dream I didn't know I had."

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman

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