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

John Kelman By

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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
MONO
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

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