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Trondheim Jazzfest 2019: Part 1-2

Trondheim Jazzfest 2019: Part 1-2
Henning Bolte By

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Trondheim Jazzfest
Trondheim, Norway
May 9-10, 2019

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

The source

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 and a noteworthy diversity of temperaments and temperatures in music making. This year's festival celebrated 40 years of his practice of Jazzlinja of NTNU with a Festkonsert.

Females ruling

The six-day Trondheim Jazzfest starts the coastal series of spring festivals along with Stavanger and Bergen. Jazzfest Trondheim has been a matter of unpredictable diversity, astonishing contrasts and opposites so far. It is not forced into a single direction. The next different thing is always 'around the corner' (see my reviews at All about Jazz). Part of this year's edition was a JazzExpo with special showcases that is reviewed here.

The festival presented about 46 acts over the course of seven days. 12 of these acts were male fronted, 20 were female fronted and 14 were mixed groups of more or less egalitarian character. A larger part of the male lead units were solely male. Among the female-lead units six of them were solely female units (Eldbjørk Raknes, Mette Rasmussen, Trondheim Voices, Gurls, Maria Bertel/Nina Garcia duo, Young Voices). Four of the acts were solo-performance, of which two were female shows (vocalist Eldbjørk Raknes, saxophonist Mette Rasmussen), one male (guitarist Miles Okazaki) show and one queer (saxophonist Bendik Giske) show. The expo-part also had a high proportion of female musicians and female-lead groups (4:2).

In the festival a remarkable number of female vocalists made appearances. Next to the seven vocalists of Trondheim Voices a total of 10 vocalists performed: Kristin Asbjørnsen, Johannes Tiefenbrunner, Kirsti Huke, Angelique Kidjo, Jelena Kuljic, Emilie Nicolas, Tamara Obrovac, Madeleine Peyroux, Eldbjørg Raknes, Natalie Sandtorv, and Rohey Taalah—a clear female predominance. Male vocalists were completely absent. And finally, about the proportions of Scandinavians vs. non-Scandinavians: there were eight non-Scandinavian units: Tony Allen, Sylvie Courvoisier Trio, KUU!, Christine Jensen, Tamara Obrovac Trio, Miles Ozaki, Madeleine Peyroux and Strobes—a clear predominance here too.

JazzExpo: six concerts

The music(ians) of the Jazzexpo showcases represented a well-balanced variety of firmly interconnected knots of a musical network with strong Trondheim anchorage. It can be depicted as a hexagon with Mette Rasmussen and Natalie Sandtorv as crest points and the other four as angles of a solid body of varied work with Trondheim Voices and Kirsti Huke on the left and Hegge and Sondre Ferstad Ensemble on the right (see slide show).

Mette Rasmussen

Mette Rasmussen is the ultimate free blowing musician. Operating in free improvising, real time creation mode the energy, strength, clarity and endurance of her music made a memorable mark. Her music, full of passion, drove forcefully on a firm inner pulse without falling into any metrical trap. Her sound and music are highly condensed and penetrating as well as permeable. During the performance I was wondering where the fulminating, explosive and unrelenting forces came from. Rasmussen is able to get through the heaviest walls of sound of tough rock and noise bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Moe she performs with. To be able to accomplish this you have to know the instrument and have absorbed the striking saxophone Spielarten of your predecessors. Presently there are few musicians who can make such a comprehensive, strong and captivating sound on the alto sax. She convincingly summarizes the art of her instrument and the traces it left in the jazz field. It was more than fitting that Rasmussen was announced as recipient of this year's jazz award of Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Hegge

Bjørn Marius Hegge possesses a perplexing combination of improvisational looseness and strong, yet delicate, awareness of form and structure garnished with a considerable portion of vigorous dry humor. Witness his album title: "Vi är ledsna men du får inte längre vara barn" / "We are sorry but you no longer have to be a child." It prevented the music from becoming pompous, overbred or him becoming a diligent epigone even though it remained close to the historical source of the likes of Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. Hegge has a great talent to recreate and reshuffle old idioms in a stupendous, fresh and vivid, heart-warming manner that captures audiences in a mutual complicité de chose. In 2017 it earned this young musician already a Norwegian Grammy (Spelemansprizen). The performance also proved Hegge's class as leader igniting his excellent and splendid two horns frontline quartet consisting of Scandinavian heavyweights Jonas Kullhammar and Martin Myhre Olsen on saxophone, Vigleik Storaas on piano and Håkon Mjåset Johansen on drums.

Sondre Ferstad, one of the few harmonica players in present Norwegian Jazz scene, is a young, thorough master of orchestration of a greater sound body. He brought this to a young double quartet line-up of four string instruments and a rhythm section including piano. Ferstad uses his instruments sparingly as an integral part of that sound body as a whole. The ensemble's music started in a rather understated fashion, reminiscent of Carla Bley as well as of the early sextet of Christian Wallumrød. It also covered a broader range from vivid dance pieces along upswelling fairground echoes dissolving in stomping noisiness to wider cinematic sound fields. The interaction of whisper and tutti forte, the commenting role of instruments creates a very unique intimacy of communal group music in the security of a familiar space. The music is dreamily awake. The threats of the outside world can be sensed but are transformed to a deeper essence.

Kirsti Huke

Vocalist Kirsti Huke's quartet with two percussionists (Wetle Holte and Erik Nylander) and Gunnar Halle on trumpet, synthesizers, vocals and Huke herself playing omnichord worked from solid stamping grounds and catchy motifs, ascended to airy heights and transformed the rising motifs into undulating sound weavings. They played the game of tension, tension of melody and rhythm, the game of what's in a note, the game of glory and the game of detouring and slightly undermining.

The music of Huke's group was part of a 2017 commission work for Trondheim Jazzfest. Huke is a Trondheim mainstay. She was the lead singer of Norwegian experimental metal band 3rd And The Mortal, is a member of well-known vocal ensemble Trondheim Voices and participated in several programs of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. For the 2017 performance see my report here: "The pow-wow drumming together with Huke's singing conjured up scenery of rutting deer in the company of a gentle fairy—a broad range of expressive power. In substance there were catchy tunes with strong vocal climaxes all buttered by and wrapped in cottony layers of electronics."

Trondheim Voices

Trondheim Voices and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra are the brilliant and the pearl of the rich musical ecosystem of Norwegian tech-and science center Trondheim. The seven-piece vocal ensemble, under direction of saxophonist/vocalist Sissel Vera Pettersen, established in 2001, has become a leading vocal avant-garde unit. Its mission and its solid structure has bred, fostered and nurtured a lot of pioneering work, both musically and choreographically, such as, for example, the "Rooms&Rituals" program I wrote about earlier on All About Jazz:

TVoi "improvise collectively in real-time creation, don't work in fixed positions on stage, but move in different configurations (circles, rows) through the performance space and use a special electronic device that allows every vocalist to loop and shape their vocal sounds related to the other voices, and let their sound migrate through space as well as to control light. The evocated sounds are live regulated by the group's eighth member, sound design maestro Asle Karstad. In Berlin they presented their music dressed in a futuristic abstraction of traditional costume dresses, an outfit newly designed by Henrik Vibskov, the Danish designer/musician who also worked with Björk. The unity of technology, art and tradition, and the special Trondheim signature/trademark can be clearly recognized here."

A concert of TVoi in general, and especially the work "Rooms&Rituals" that TVoi enacted at the JazzExpo, entails a special performance constellation. It is a constellation in which improvisation, vocal techniques, movement, light design, costumes and sound design form a rich interactive whole for the audience. From a performing point of view then "to relate freely to six other free individual voices and proceed in an open as well coordinated collaboration is quite a challenge, every time" (Henning Bolte, All About Jazz).

For the Trondheim JazzExpo showcase of "Rooms&Rituals" the performance conditions were almost ideal. It took place in the smaller, totally darkened space of Verkstedhallen, where the audience was seated in a circle with the vocalists working inside that circle. In terms of light, the movement of vocalists, and sounds it was a fascinating, amazing and unique piece of music for the audience, a piece of music that kept you on the edge of your seat and let you wonder. From their rich practice TVoi have lots of surprising and thrilling turns and transitions to hand. This Trondheim performance that clearly had developed into a still more compact and sophisticated form, in the long run however suffered from its over long duration and a "restart" issue. At a certain moment, when a tension arc is closing, the upcoming conclusion is sensible. As a special effect concluding a piece sometimes can be suspended. Here, however, there was too much reiteration of brilliant moments that felt like restarts, which slightly weakened the brilliance of the whole.

Natalie Sandtorv

Natalie Sandtorv (1988) is a musician/vocalist of her own category, navigating between rock and free form. The show with her four-piece group of saxophonist Jonas Hamre, guitarist Eirik Havnes, keyboardist Martin Vinje and longtime collaborator drummer Ole Mofjell was an emphatic and memorable statement. Driven by rock energy, riding in a sandy coconut groove, on a deeply ritualistic beat, Sandtorv's group ignited a dome of a sound, a noise of something to project Sandtorv's supple sliding voice forcefully conjuring primal spirits. It was music opening up a wider view of a road movie as a space where Sandtorv's vehement whirlwind attacks conjured up urgent tales of the thorny and lush paths of freedom. Her singing has a strong celebratory quality and a catchy ritualistic character, noticeably based on a tight voice-drum-interaction that we also know this from Swedish duo Wild Birds & Peacedrums of Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werlin. Hailing from the same area as trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, the island Sula near Ålesund (situated between Bergen and Trondheim), Sandtorv and Molvær already found each other recently on a deeper visceral level in a joint concert.

Sandtorv is a musician in transition. Established as a strong voice in jazz and free improvisation she now carves out ground in alternative pop music. She, alongside her fellow musicians, belongs to a generation, which explored and still explores free approaches without restricting itself to that specific direction or let their musical identity be defined by it or get stuck in that genre or style. Rather, they transfer the acquired techniques and skills to other areas and combine it with other influences. Sandtorv is on a solid path towards establishing her band and herself internationally as a strong rock-or better rhythm-based genre-defying unit.

Aside: Jazz and rock xenogamy (cross-pollination)

Sandtorv has had a long collaboration with drummer Ole Mofjell, especially in the group Morning Has Occurred with Marte Eberson, Bjørnar Kaldevoss Tveite and Karl Seglem that started 2010 in Bergen. Mofjell has thoroughly explored free improvisation in different urban scenes such as Berlin and Copenhagen, where he performed among others with Thurston Moore. I saw Mofjell first in Copenhagen performing in Danish-Norwegian group Amoeba of altoist Signe Emmelutsee my review at At All About Jazz).

Keyboard player Martin Vinje is a similar example of a versatile multifaceted musician covering a professional range from baroque music to contemporary pop music. As musical director he works with international shooting star pop singer Sigrid (also from Ålesund). Vinje here provides his compositional, arrangement and instrumental skills to a pop singer. Also in the band of famous young Norwegian pop-singer Emilie Nicolas, who played a magical concert in the Nidarosdomen cathedral during the festival, we find jazz musicians such as saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg.

In the case of Sandtorv the whole band consists of jazz musicians and hardcore improvisers, just like Norwegian band Broen (British pop label Bella Union), Danish bands Eggs Laid By Tigers and Girls In Airports or German band Pranke. The line-up of Sandtorv's band at Molde Festival 2017 for example comprised hardcore improvisers from Berlin and Copenhagen as Liz Kosack, Lars Greve (Girls in Airports) and Dan Peter Sundland. These are musicians that freely exploit elements of free approaches. They transfer acquired extended techniques to other areas too and combine it with other influences. Sandtorv's saxophonist Jonas Hamre's bio, for example, introduces him as generalist: "His energetic and explorative nature allows him to be comfortable in genres spanning from pop and rock to free jazz to noise genres." Guitarist Eirik Havnes bio introduces him as "sound artist, composer and creator of some other stuff," who focuses on "producing sound on the fringe of genres and technical barriers."

Teaming-up of jazz musicians with rock groups has a longer tradition with prominent examples as Marc Ribot (Tom Waits), Charles Lloyd (The Beach Boys), Don Cherry (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), and Branford Marsalis (Sting). In the Scandinavian context it goes without saying especially for this young, highly educated generation. The Thing teamed up with Neneh Cherry, recorded an album and toured together. Actually The Thing is a highly explosive amalgamation of jazz and rock traces and energies. It seems less common in other European countries. Germany has, as a recent example, drummer Max Andrzjewski's Pranke, Tied & Tickled Trio, and as an example from the glorious past Embryo and krautrock greatness Can from Cologne. Belgium has its combination of rock-and jazz musicians in the bands Taxi Wars, Dans Dans or Nordmann playing rock based music and in the Netherlands it works mostly in the other direction: punk band The Ex collaborates with improvising musicians mostly in free improvisers' contexts and sometimes improvisers' horns (like that of Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars) join the rock shows of The Ex.

Konklusjon

Jazzfest Trondheim has a voice and always brings plenty of voices to the stage, this year even more: 17 vocalists, solely female. Should the male vocalist already be on the list of extinct species? Nonetheless 17 vocalists presented a broad range of ways to shape inspiring expression through human voices. Trondheim Jazzfest not only —as usual—provided great diversity. This year's edition clearly determined and with full conviction, presented a great gender-balanced program of a high artistic level for the whole festival and also in the showcases of the JazzExpo: 'reichlich weiblich durchströmt' it flowed abundantly, femininely. Another trademark of jazz from Norway, the flexible overflow of genres, especially between jazz and pop/rock, manifested itself in significant way, especially through the groups of Natalie Sandtorv and Emilie Nicolas. Finnish-German-Serbian unit KUU, with stunning vocalist and actor Jelena Kuljic, would, at the end of the festival, draw its own striking line into the same direction. It is surely not a question of mere overflow and cross-fertilization. It is also connected to addressing and opening up to a different/larger audience. It raises the question through what and how it is brought into reality, what has to happen to achieve that effect? One of the prerequisites is the willingness and urgency to thoroughly explore, to exchange and challenge each other. Another important factor is the tacit incentive and acceptance by the cultural context. The third factor is the infrastructure enabling musicians to initiate and pursue this exploration, to gain experience and develop, and a scene-climate to trigger that in inviting, challenging and encouraging ways.

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