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Trondheim Jazzfest 2018

Trondheim Jazzfest 2018
Henning Bolte By

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Olafshallen, Dokhuset and other venues
Trondheim Jazzfest
Trondheim, Norway
May 8-12, 2018

Trondheim, Norway's third largest city, is the country's main center of intelligence in science, engineering and technology. It holds a key place in Norwegian history and identity in general, and in jazz/music specifically.

The six-day Trondheim Jazzfest is part of the coastal series of spring festivals along with Stavanger and Bergen. For as long as I have known it, Jazzfest Trondheim has been a matter of unpredictable diversity, astonishing contrasts and opposites. It is not forced into a single direction. The next different thing is always 'around the corner,' which turned out to be the case again in this year's edition. This report is necessarily selective then. Running from 1979 with an interim hiatus from the mid eighties into the early nineties it reached its 30th anniversary this year.

Not only are different things 'around the corner' at Trondheim Jazzfest. You quickly learn that almost everything is literally around the corner (within walking distance) -only the director of the fest, Ernst Wiggo Sandbakk, could be met regularly on his bike. This year's anniversary edition was centered at the Olavshallen complex, which was built some 30 years ago and opened in 1989 with a concert by Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson. Lots of last century things here appear including the compositions by maestro Chick Corea who made the 'last century' reference a running gag during his concert with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, a collaboration established a time ago on the threshold of the 21th century.

Cradle of jazz offspring

Trondheim started the first academic jazz-education in Norway at the end of the '70s of the last century that is now part of the Music Department of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Trondheim stands for an innovative approach of institutional jazz education. It has yielded a long series of musicians of the post-Garbarek generation with a strong impact on the development of Norwegian jazz in all its facets over the past few decades such as Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henriksen, Mathias Eick, Hakon Kornstad, Trygve Seim, Tore Brunborg, Daniel Herskedal, Kjetil Møster, Mats Eilertsen, Ole Morten Vågan, Per Zanussi, Ola Kvernberg, Thomas Strønen, Paal Nilssen-Love, Per Oddvar Johansen, Gard Nilssen, Ingar Zach, Christian Wallumrød, Ståle Storløkken, Eldbjorg Raknes, Kristin Asbjørnsen to name a few, names that indicate a noteworthy diversity of temperaments and temperatures in their ways of music making. They all immersed themselves in the special Trondheim learning environment, which produced a remarkable output of musicians that left their distinctive mark over the last three decades.

The festival opened to a packed 1200 seat Olavshallen auditorium with the sound of Gregory Porter's eminent voice. Porter delivered entertainment of the finest carrying his audience generously through a multitude of rich and captivating songs, always telling a touching story, and wonderfully giving weight to every clearly articulated word. What made it so delightful was a deep-reaching, strong endearing voice embedded in, or surrounded by, a fiery, warm sounding band of five impeccable musicians. Jahmal Nichols is a mighty bassist and Emanuel Harrold's drumming is intense, differentiated and restrained at the same time. Pianist Chip Crawford and hammond organist Ondrej Pivec complemented each other in a beautifully orchestrated way. Saxophonist Tivon Pennicott dished up a full Illinois Jacquet-type-of-sound. It was the specific fabrics of space, flow, sustain and pointed rhythmical accentuation that lifted it up to a gorgeous quality. This deeply rooted Afro-American music has been growing through the years to an increasingly higher level of sophistication, not getting worn out but gaining higher intensity instead.

The opening by an eminent vocalist emphasized the importance of the human voice in this musical field, and gave leeway to a total of 18 vocalists in the festival line-up, a strong and clear representation.

Highlights: Frisell/Morgan, Arild Andersen, Cécile McLorin Salvant

The first night already offered a personal highlight immediately after Gregory Porter's opening concert, namely the twosome of guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. They entered the stage at Trondheim's intimate venue Dokhuset: "I'm Bill and this is Thomas." An exceptionally beautiful, clear, intense and joyful flow of music started with those words. It revealed two confluent musicians, two confluent instruments, as one confluent musical happening. It became a journey of momentum unfolding.

Quite loosely, and unerringly, they circled around each other and a common imaginary center, thereby subliminally giving shape to every single note, melding into a flowing line fanning out and contracting—Morgan by (de-)intensifying the sustain of the sound acoustically and Frisell by subtle electronic effects and loops. Both drew each other in, set each other free, entered and left, drifted and lifted, marked and effaced. It was ultimately fascinating, especially the sustained concentration they maintained over such a long stretch of time. Only a few musicians accomplish this in-statu-nascendi mode with such attractive momentum quality.

The distinction between basic melodic lines, extensions and variations became completely blurred. An encore seemed inevitable but, before departing, Frisell took the floor conjuring the remote past of touring in Norway in the early 80s (of the 'last century'), touring the old Dokhuset included, with another magic bassist, Arild Andersen, a key voice of the older Norwegian generation, who, as it turned out, was present in the audience. Frisell recorded his first duo album with Andersen, In Line, for ECM in 1982. With the words "the place looked quite different then, Arild! We were on a mission then" he and Morgan gave a magical rendition of John Barry's "Goldfinger." Scenes of the first time I saw Frisell in the early eighties (at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam) playing in the quartet of Jan Garbarek surfaced up. The young guitar students from the conservatory sitting beside me told what they had recognized in the concert of Frisell's ECM album Rambler from 1985. Times seemed to fuse, awesome moments!

Next day there was the opportunity to watch a new documentary on Bill Frisell by Australian filmmaker/musician Emma Franz on the basis of a still fresh live concert experience. Franz succeeds beautifully in letting the viewer perceive how you get into the essence of things by not demarcating things but by opening your mind repeatedly. Step by step she draws a picture that clears the view on this mindset, attitude and way of doing things. In watching the film (see the trailer here) you learn what the power of smiling is where reconciliation of seemingly incompatible things is concerned—a counterpart to Paul Motian's philosophical laughter. You learn how certain things came about in a thrilling way. Drummer Joey Baron is not only a key figure in the early development of Bill Frisell but also a wonderful narrator of that same story (for more see also the review by John Kelman on All About Jazz).

Arild Andersen's appearance three days later, together with Trondheimsolistene, a renowned 12-piece string ensemble, in the Vår Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) presented a majestic-sounding affair in the space of the church -full bodied, colorful and richly varied, ranging from melancholic, lamenting chants, folk dance inspired merry go round to earthy tangos, rocking attacks and Oriental maneuvers—a huge pleasure all through. Trondheimsolistene is Sigmund T. Vik, Anna A. Vestad, Nella Penjin, Stefan Penjin, Stina E. Andersson, Kaja C. Rogers, Olivia H. C. Ruud on violine, Bergmund Skaslien, Karoline V. Hegge on viola, Marit Aspås, Lovisa Wangby on violincello and Rolf H. Baltzersen on double bass.

Andersen has never shunned the huge sound with his bass fiddle together with other strings as its natural extension (or echo) flowing into or emerging from space. He has been a key musician from his beginnings in the early 70s. Here not only was the variegation of the pieces highly enjoyable but also and especially the shift from leading to a more restrained role in the background, the back and forth dynamics that kept the performance so lively and captivating. It confirmed Andersen's status as a string man in heart and soul playing his instrument truly like a dark fiddle. Witness also one of his central works Hyperborean (ECM, 1997), a commission for the Molde Festival with renowned Cikada String Quartet. A reprise of the work with Trondheimsolistene took place the next day at Victoria Nasjonal Jazz Scene) in Oslo -available on demand at the venue's website and Youtube channel.

The outstanding performance of vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant's unit comprising pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Lawrence Leathers at the intimate venue Dokhuset, was the first time I saw her, and was nothing less than a revelation for me. She has a wonderful talent to bring a song of life to life on stage. She quickens the situation and illuminates the emotional constellations the song is about not only by wonderful modulations of her voice. She has a great gift to enact the situation by gestures, gazes, smiles, by halting and letting loose. It's the way she conjures up the drama, joy and sorrow in close connection with her audience and there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek Fats Waller like enjoyment too. The music is fully in the classical tradition of the American songbook with lots of playful creative twists, especially by pianist Aaron Diehl, making it current, delighting from moment to moment in a captivating joyful flow. As in the case of Gregory Porter, the instrumental musicians played a crucial role in the achieving her kind of personable, drama-driven singing. For me, Salvant's rendition of Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes' "Somehow I never could believe" became the most captivating Weill since Betty Carter's rendition of "Lonely House." Savant's performance was a striking example of giving old songs a fresh and true in-depth impact.

Sassy orchestral reworking

One by one musicians fill up the stage of the large and packed-out Olavshallen auditorium, every musician, three women, eight men, warmly greeted by the audience. One of the guys without an instrument is busy with some cumbersome stuff in front of the other musicians. A kind of conductor, maybe, but he seems rather disengaged -lots of fumbling, waiting. Then, all of a sudden a disoriented guy appears from the back of the stage. He seems surprised first but then apparently realizes what's going on. He jocundly greets the audience, introduces himself and the undertaking. The fumbling guy appears to be Erlend Skomsvoll, gifted arranger, composer and pianist. He arranged a couple of famous pieces of the jocund guy (including some of his own pieces that sneaked in), all 'stuff from the last century' according to the jocund guy, who meanwhile had taken his seat at the grand piano. It seems the guy at the piano is a famous jazz figure and— apparent from the proceedings on stage -he and the 10-piece-ensemble know each other quite well, which allows them to play around with the common ritual of entering the stage and greeting the audience. No we-are-happy-to-be-here-addresses, they clearly WERE happy to play at the home base of the large ensemble. The frequent collaboration of TJO and Chick Corea, the guy at the piano, dates back to 2001, the second year of the ensemble's life and since then they have shared the stage of major festivals and venues in Europe, New York and Tokyo including Corea's last year's 75th birthday celebrations in New York. TNO has become a kind of house orchestra.

It was something to experience a living legend, Chick Corea (1941), in a truly fresh, playful and strong way like this appearance with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (TJO). It was pure pleasure and fun to see this crew at work, especially with the extended vocals of Trondheim native (and artistic director of Trondheim Voices) Sissel Vera Petterson in the "Children Songs" 1 and 4 of Corea. Opening with "Humpty Dumpty" the ensemble took a journey through Corea's oeuvre (from back of the last century). In the second piece saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg played a wonderful solo, "Duende," with a beautiful intro by trumpeter Eivind Lønning, and "Windows," a piece reminiscent of flautist Hubert Laws, got a splendid orchestral reworking. The two Children Songs were paired with Erlend Skomsvoll's "My Guitar," all strong pieces in colorful versions. Catch them if you can: pianist Chick Corea, conductor Erlend Skomsvoll, Sissel Vera Pettersen, Hanna Paulsberg, Martin Myhre Olsen, Kjetil Møster, Eirik Hegdal, saxophones, Hildegunn Oiseth and Eivind Lønning, trumpet, Øyvind Brække, trombone, Ole Morten Vågan, bass, and Håkon Mjaset Johansen drums.

Corea and TJO found a playful way to keep the repertoire utterly fresh and enjoyable. It was a remarkable example of challenging, channeling and developing musical talent. TJO is one of the most important vehicles in Norwegian jazz for musical development in national, as well as international, artistic collaboration. Recurrent collaborations have taken place, and take place, with key figures like Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, John Hollenbeck and Chick Corea. A documentary on Chick Corea (see the trailer here) by Norwegian filmmaker Arne B. Rostad was released last year on Concord Records (see the review of John Kelman on All About Jazz).

Suomi Soul

Trondheim presented its Finnish connection with the opposites of a heavy swirling electric trio and a bouncy lyrical acoustic trio. The Finnish connection was personalized by young power drummer Ilmari Heikinheimo, an exchange student at Trondheim jazz line, who is part of Triad of Finnish electric guitar vedette Raoul Bjorkenheim's together with raucous bassist Ville Rauhala. Triad played a boisterous kind of Finnish orientalism, as recorded on its latest album Beyond (Eclipse Music), something in between The Thing, Turkish psychedelics, North African gnawa pulses and agitated string speeding. The musicians might have absorbed from mentioned sources but evidently do not play or combine it consciously. They produce fabrics that might evoke those, as well as other associations and projections by listeners. The highly energizing threesome steadily and wildly shaved its way into its very own sonic thicket, taking no prisoners.

The acoustic side was represented by the bouncing and lyrical Kari Ikonen trio with bassist bassist Olli Rantala and drummer Markku Ounaskari. Pianist Kari Ikonen is the main composer of the group's material. As a piano trio it has its very own vivid characteristics not minimalizing or extending into spherical spaces. They presented music from its just released (programmatic) third album Wind, Frost & Radiation (Ozella Music). Just like climate, with its (sometimes) rapid changes between serenity, harshness and violence, the unit developed similar shifts and transitions from witty nuclei, alert rhythmical alternations yielding a vivid overall structure. Fast, forward driving and cascading, the music sought its way like water through rocky crevices, regularly creating mirroring pools and quietly overflowing places. Ounaskari was revealed as a master drummer who can manage these shifts of intensity as a continuous undercurrent in dynamic ways. Olli Rantala, on the other hand, was revealed as a secret weapon with his economical pizzicato and the timely sublime beauty of his bowing identifiable as a creative outgrowth of his studies with superb Swedish bassist Anders Jormin from Gothenburg. It was a captivating performance, full of drive and surprise, terminating with a beautiful rendition of the "Waltz" theme from the Masquerade Suite written by of Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) in 1941.

Trondheim—Cheltenham/Birmingham exchange

Besides the French and Finnish connection Trondheim has a strong connection to, and exchange with, Birmingham/Cheltenham in the UK. Six students from the Birmingham Conservatory met six students of the Trondheim NTNU jazz line and elaborated on a common performance in three combinations, first at the Cheltenham jazz festival end of April, and then as a follow-up at Trondheim Jazzfest. Here are the three ensembles (predominantly men): Ensemble 1: Magnus Skaug (g), Christos Stylianides (tr), Oliver Stanton, Christian Cuadra (sax), Elias Østrem Tafjord (dr) Ensemble 2: Georgia Wartel Collins (b), Ask Morris Rasmussen (sax), Aidan Pope (g), Charlie Johnson (dr), Ensemble 3: Vilde Aakre Lie (voc), Håvard Aufles (p), Harry Weir (sax), Shivraj Matwala (b). The students had remarkable chops, showed stylistic versatility and the vast majority were good at ensemble work. Most significant were the loose and creative use of popular styles and the frugal singing of vocalist Vilde Aakre Lie. Trondheim harbors mainly Scandinavian students and there is longer lasting co-operation with UK now for a while. For the first time I met a regular (drum) student from Germany, and it seems that even Amsterdam conservatory is reconsidering its scholastic conception in favor of more creativity, fostered among others by exchange with Trondheim.

Lost in amplification

The history of music could be described as a history of the development of amplification. Presently we have reached such a high level that it is hard to imagine how it could be considerably surpassed and expanded. Nevertheless, the incentive and the urge still exist and the exploration of small and huge sounds etc. continues. The units Yodok III and MoE & Mette Rasmussen dive into present day loud and noisy realms from different angles. Yodok III is a Norwegian-Belgian unit consisting of drummer Tomas Jarmyr, Kristoffer Lowe/tuba, flugabone, and electric guitarist Dirk Serries. They create slow-paced rising and falling walls of sound—as if ambient and noise have been merged and blown-up. The unit premiered a new work "As We Fade Out Into The Sweet Stream Of Oblivion" in collaboration with a group of dancers from Trondheim (Mari Flønes, Ingeborg Dugstad Sanders, Live Strugstad), Norwegian light designer Ingrid Skanke Høsøien, and video scenographer Pekka Stokke, a coproduction with theatre and dance organization in Trondheim/Mid Norway. Before entering the hall the visitors were offered ear plugs as protection in case the music would become too loud/unbearable. There is the question of protection against too many decibels and there's the question of the quality of loudness and its bearableness. It is not the loudness as such which can make it not bearable anymore. It is the interference of certain frequencies, certain ways of feedback and similar or related things, which are spoiling the quality of loud sounds. Clear loudness can be a special and fascinating experience, like in Ravel's Bolero or a concert by for instance Japanese group Mono, Westcoast group Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum or Canadian Godspeed You! Black Emperor. For Yodok the sound worked quite well, and had good dynamics, especially near the end when it was bursting. The unfolding of the geometrics of the videographic design framed the space and the proceedings of the music. The dancers had to interact with both of these entities through their movements and gestures between zones and spots of darkness, light and color. Forms emerged through a special combination of letting things go and become aleatory as well as more targeted interventions. During the second half of the performance some thrilling and fascinating configurations emerged from it, densifying and integrating it as a whole, while it was not that strong in the first half of the performance. In the first half the dancers were tentatively using their vocabulary and grammar of body movement and getting in touch with the space. The performance had a strong impetus and can/should still be improved. It was an inspiring, much-appreciated experience, important to foster this kind of work in the future. It will be performed next at Molde Festival, a good opportunity to develop and grow.

The performance of the MoE & Mette Rasmussen configuration on Thursday night -following on the concert of Chick Corea and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra -was a different affair. It was illustrative of the Trondheim 'round the corner' situation. A stark contrast between both kinds of performance and at the same time a connection through Mette Rasmussen, who was, and still is, involved in Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. MoE is the Norwegian noise band of bassist Guro Skumsnes Moe (1983) together with guitarist Håvard Skaset and drummer Joakim Heibo Johansen. The group has a growing following not only in Norway but also in Asian countries and in Mexico. Moe is a bass and equally raw performance obsessed musician but also a works as a composer for different contexts (chamber music, film music etc.). She is also known for her exploration of the octobass producing the lowest frequencies in combination with (special) extremely high frequency violins. MoE's music is recklessly loud and rough, right into your face, an art brute approach through obsessive and explosive loudness. The group is not wrapped in cult-like theatricality. It is rather down to earth, functioning as a part of, and articulation organ of social movement among the younger generation, as a connecting entity. Although an old style jazz festival is not their most natural habitat, the group brought in plenty of its origin and originality, in this case especially mediated and reinforced by the first live collaboration with saxophone force extraordinaire Mette Rasmussen (based in Trondheim). Rasmussen (1980) is one of the most astonishing younger musicians of this moment. She pairs great clarity and grace with enormous force based on high artistic commitment and integrity, as well as physical, mental and emotional mobility. She has made her way internationally, becoming a factor to count and build on. She is/was just returned from an extended tour with Canadian post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In the beginning Rasmussen had to work 'hard' to stay afloat but, after a while, and characteristically, she managed to get her voice into the violent and visceral fabrics of sound and fully contributed to pushing it up to a higher place.

I observed the performance in a more distanced way having an ear for the developing crashing, hammering, bursting, furrowing sound without fully immersing in its visceral qualities and getting fully engrossed by it. Apparently, I was expecting overflow into trance qualities but that is a different game (as played in Yodok III's performance the other day). Consequently I did not get lost in amplification. Nonetheless it was a memorable performance especially due to the strong visual impressions and differences in approach not only from Yodok III but also from the memorable performance of French guitarist Julien Desprez at last year's Jazzfest (see my review). It would be worthwhile to shed some more light on MoE's and Rasmussen's kind of self-organization, performance and traveling practice, as well as their self-image touched upon during the conversation with them in the series of daily morning talks with performing musicians. It will be the subject of a later article.

Lost in technological acceleration

I want to conclude with reference to the emphatic and incisive lecture given by Kenneth Killeen of Dublin's Improvised Music Company and director of 12Points Festival. He discussed the acceleration of digital technologies/artificial intelligence, its inescapable consequences for the creation, production, distribution of music, consequences of how it is consumed/listened to in a hyper-connected world. He also presented his analysis of its mental, emotional, and economical consequences and shifts, including new digital landscapes of block chain and mycelia networks. The high-speed ride of Killeen's lecture functioned as a realistic orientation point and stepping-stone to the European Jazz Conference held in Lisbon in September of this year, a conference that will dig deeper into these technological challenges.

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