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Trondheim Jazz Festival: May 9-13, 2012

Trondheim Jazz Festival: May 9-13, 2012
John Kelman By

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Trondheim Jazz Festival
Trondheim, Norway
May 9-13, 2012
Being Norway's third largest city, next to Oslo and Bergen, means something completely different to being the third largest city in Canada or the United States. With more than 25,000 students in a city of approximately 160,000 people, it's not unlike (albeit a little larger than) Kingston, Canada, another university town whose size places it, however, as that country's 58th largest.

But there's more to Trondheim than its Norwegian ranking and paradoxically diminutive size. Traveling to Norway every year since 2006, it's become evident that small town Norway means something else entirely. At the southern tip of the country in Kristiansand, home of the annual Punkt Festival, a town of 75,000 means not just an art gallery (Sorlandet) and a conservatory, but a new state of the art concert house in the recently opened Kilden, housing the Agder Regional Theatre, Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra and Opera Sør. Compare this to most North American towns that size, which would be lucky to have a few cinemas, and Norway's commitment to supporting culture around the country becomes crystal clear.

Like Kristiansand, Trondheim's support for the arts is certain—perhaps even more so. Its NTNU-Trondheim—the Norwegian University of Science and Technology—houses a Department of Music that consolidates its former Department of Musicology and the renowned Trondheim Conservatory of Music, a school that has seen a number of now well-known artists pass through its doors, including trumpeters Mathias Eick and Arve Henriksen, bassist Mats Eiltertsen, drummer Thomas Strønen and saxophonists Hakon Kornstad and Trygve Seim, and continues to funnel creative young artists into the vibrant Norwegian scene like bassist Ole Morten Vågan, violinist Ola Kvernberg and saxophonist Kjetil Møster.

With such a remarkable focal point for music, it's perhaps surprising that the town's annual jazz festival has experienced something of a checkered past. An initial kick at the can ultimately failed, until the mid-1990s when now-festival director and drummer Ernst Wiggo Sandbakk, along with two other musician friends, revived the festival, initially as a chance to create a one-night opportunity for each to play with their own groups.

Nearly twenty years later, Trondheim Jazz Festival has expanded to five days and, for the first time in 2012, unveiled a daytime event called The Jazz Summit, which invited speakers from around the world to come and discuss a variety of topics, ranging from the state of jazz and jazz education to career management and the road ahead. Pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, saxophonist Petter Wettre and the surprisingly successful vocal/tuba/drums trio PELbO spoke about their own place in the music industry, while saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist/horn player Django Bates spoke, along with Trondheim Conservatory's Erling Aksdal, on the challenges of engendering not just technical excellence but creativity in the classroom. Stuart Nicholson spoke on the vast experiences that ultimately led to his publication of the popular book, Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to A New Address) (Routledge, 2005), while Peter John Martin challenged some of Nicholson's assertions—or, at least, how they have been perceived and interpreted.



While attendance of The Jazz Summit was, perhaps, smaller than anticipated/hoped, it was successful enough for Sandbakk and Trondheim Jazz Festival programmer, Petter Vågan, to already be talking about round two in 2014, though a final panel discussion that, in addition to some of the speakers already mentioned also included Italian journalist Francesco Martinelli and Fiona Talkington (host of the successful BBC Radio program Late Junction), revealed a couple of noticeable omissions in the 2012 program. First, with the average age of the speakers well over 50—and despite it being clear that they were clearly connected to the scene as it is today, not some past context for which they continue to pine—the summit could have used greater representation from the age group about whom most are concerned, when discussions about the future of jazz arise. True, the majority of the four showcases that opened each morning and afternoon of the two-day event—the free improvising trio Moskus, solo electric bassist Mattis Kleppen, guitarist Nine Kristine Linge and her Sommerfuglfisk trio, and PELbO, which put on the most immediately captivating performance—consisted of youthful players. But if the intended audience for The Jazz Summit is to glean practical advice, more direct participation by younger people, in the trenches, would be a good thing.

The other noticeable gap, raised by Talkington, was the absence of women in the program. With singer Eldbørg Raknes recently named Associate Professor at NTNU, and with the Norwegian scene's strong representation, from intrepid experimental singer Sidsel Endresen to saxophonist Froy Aagre and trumpeter Gunhild Seim, there's far from equal representation across the genders, but there's certainly more than sufficient to suggest participation in a summit such as this.

Still, the four showcases, eleven speakers and final panel discussion revealed that while there will always be work to do, there's little reason to worry about there being a future for jazz, as long as it continues to be defined by inclusion rather than exclusion, and the cultural cross-pollination that has turned it from an art form created in America to one now owned by the entire world.

While it's not uncommon, these days, to actually find an almost knee-jerk reaction at some European festivals when it comes to programming American content, given the difficulty artists from abroad have obtaining work visas to enter the United State, the festival's first evening suggested it harbors no such ill will, with singer Stacey Kent and young trumpet phenom Ambrose Akinmusire delivering back-to-back performances at Dokkhuset and Blæst, respectively.

Chapter Index
May 9: Stacey Kent

May 9: Ambrose Akinmusire

May 10: Splashgirl

May 10: Allan Holdsworth / Jimmy Halip / Virgil Donati

May 11: Food, feat. Prakash Sontakke and Petter Vågan

May 11: Bugge Wesseltoft

May 12: The New Songs

May 12: Jazz Students Go Difference


May 9: Stacey Kent

Kent first came to attention in 1997 with Close Your Eyes (Candid), but her career took a decided leap when she signed with Blue Note in 2007 for Breakfast on the Morning Tram (2007) and, in particular, a 2010 all-French follow-up, Raconte Moi (2010), an album that reflected the New York-born, now England-resident's broader concerns, both artistically and linguistically (she has a Masters degree in Comparative Literature, after studying French, Italian and German).



While Norwegian isn't a language in Kent's arsenal, she still managed a multilingual set, singing in English, French and, for a mid-set shift, a taste of Brazil, with the singer sitting down and contributing some nylon-string guitar accompaniment to a quartet that, in addition to husband/musical director/saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, also included fellow Englishmen Graham Harvey (piano), Jeremy Brown (bass) and Matt Skelton (drums). Kent and her group took full advantage of a relatively rare opportunity to play in the more intimate, club-like surroundings of a venue like Dokkhuset, the singer amiably engaging her audience with plenty of between-song stories to tell throughout a set culled from recent albums, including the soon-to-be-released Dreamer (Blue Note, 2012), her first-ever live recording.

May 9: Ambrose Akinmusire

Across the way from Dokkhuset and situated just feet from the Nidelva River that snakes through the town and empties into the Trondheimsfjord—Norway's third-longest fjord at 130 km in length and reaching a depth, in parts, of over 600 meters—the upstairs Blæst is normally not a jazz venue, instead largely favoring alternative rock, metal, funk bands and more. Still, it was a suitable venue for the Trondheim Jazz Festival, capable of squeezing a couple of hundred people in on a standing room basis, though more often than not the music brought to the venue was not the "get up and dance" kind, even of a jazzier variety. But like Dokkhuset, it's a fine venue, with a good sound system and, for the most part, good sight lines.

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's career has been on a rapid upward trajectory, first, as a sideman for people like keyboardist Alan Pasqua—whose post-Miles Davis fusion of The Antisocial Club (Cryptogrammophone, 2007) was a surprise hit and one of the best releases of 2007, in no small part due to Akinmusire's stunning performance—and more recently for his own recordings, like his 2011 Blue Note debut (and sophomore disc as a leader), When The Heart Emerges Glistening.



Still on the shy side of 30 and recording for a high profile label like Blue Note might suggest an artist attempting to reach a large audience with easily accessible music. Akinmusire made clear, however, as he charged out of the gate with a powerful modal opener driven hard by bassist Harish Raghavan and powerhouse drummer Justin Brown (who both play on When The Heart), that it was his goal to challenge his audience as much as himself. Introducing the band, which also included Sam Harris—a pianist who was not on Akinmusire's recording but is clearly someone to watch—Akinmusire thanked the crowd for listening, suggesting that, perhaps, he's encountering some difficulties from those looking for an easier-on-the-ears experience.

An experience that anyone who has heard When The Heart Emerges Glistening knows is simply not going to happen. That's not to suggest Akinmusire can't be lyrical or approachable, with a mid-set number that began a capella proving the trumpeter's conception may be unorthodox, but that his capabilities, both technical and musical, are broad enough to comfortably traverse any terrain. Still, for the most part, with a combination of group interplay working on the subtlest of levels at one moment, a stunning display of collective firepower the next, it's clear that Akinmusire has no interest in compromise. Whether blowing hot liquid lines—suggesting a signature of swoops and swirls as personal to the young trumpeter as fellow horn man Kenny Wheeler's characteristic leaps into the stratosphere—or delivering through-composed miniatures with interpretive aplomb, Akinmusire trumped his admittedly excellent studio recording, proving he's even more impressive live than on record, with a group that's evolving so quickly it needs to be documented. What Akinmusire has in mind for his next record is unknown, but he could do a lot worse than consider a live recording with this quartet—or, better yet, his quintet, when he's able to add incendiary saxophonist Walter Smith III to the date.

May 10: Splashgirl

Since first emerging in 2008 with the one-two punch of a sublime performance at the Punkt Festival and the release of its 2007 debut, Doors. Keys. (AIM, 2008), Norway's Splashgirl has gone from strength to strength, honing an approach to compositional development and interpretive in-the-moment improvisation that, for players this young, is uncharacteristically patient. Young they may be (the oldest member has just turned 30 in 2012), but pianist Andreas Stensland Løwe, bassist Jo Berger Myhre and drummer Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød are all busy on the Norwegian scene in a variety of projects, though it certainly appears as though Splashgirl is a significant priority to all of them. The trio has released two additional records in the ensuing years—2009's Arbor and 2011's Pressure, both on the emergent Hubro label—and is in the process of trying to put together a first-ever North American tour.



Until then, North American audiences must live vicariously through Splashgirl's recordings or, if chance will have it, with the occasional opportunity to experience the trio live somewhere in Europe. Pulling off the kind of music Splashgirl makes at four in the afternoon is no mean feat: this is music that, slow, dark, brooding and subtle, has more of a late-night vibe to it, but the group managed to turn day into night at Dokkhuset, for its 70-minute set.

While improvisation is part of what Splashgirl does, its recent music is largely through-composed, though the manner in which it develops speaks to a different kind of spontaneity; one where the roadmap is lain out, to be sure, but the exact manner in which the trio travels from point A to point B changes from performance to performance. While its recordings have invariably included both guests and more extensive instrumentation from Splashgirl—with Løwe playing guitars and zithers, Myhre augmenting his double bass with kantele and Knudsrød including vibraphone and zither—live, Spashgirl strips down to its fundamentals: piano, bass and drums, with Løwe adding only some additional electronics and the occasional synth.

Drones are often a foundation to Splashgirl's music, and the set opener began with a quiet yet gut-rumbling one, over which Løwe patiently layered a series of gradually evolving lines. While the pieces weren't announced, it was clear that much of the performance was taken from Pressure, including "Ravine," which sounded very much how minimalist composer Philip Glass might write, were he to score for a piano trio, with Myhre's rapid bowing creating a counterpoint to Løwe's pulse-driven chords and Knudsrød's suggestive percussion work.

Splashgirl performances are less about seeing and more about feeling, with moments of beauty emerging like the sun through the clouds. Splashgirl's influences are many, from post-rock groups like Sigur Rós and free improvisers like Paul Bley to the Norwegian chamber jazz of Trygve Seim and classical composers like Erik Satie and Morton Feldman. But five years on, Splashgirl continues to hone a personal sound, one that relies on spontaneity, but always in service of music whose structure may unfold at an almost impossibly unhurried pace that demands an attention and commitment paradoxical to our sound-byte world, but which always pays greater dividends for it.

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