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Vossa Jazz 2014

Vossa Jazz 2014

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Vossa Jazz
Voss, Norway
April 11-14, 2014

Vossa Jazz: a jazz festival that's about more than just jazz, an event that takes place at the same point in the calendar every year but not on the same days, a place to celebrate hundreds of years of musical tradition and to encourage music's future with highly-prestigious annual commissions of new work. All of those things, in a small town tucked away among the mountains and fjords of Norway. The phrase "small festival, big heart" has probably been applied to other events across the world, but it seems especially apposite for this particular one.

Vossa Jazz takes place on the weekend before Easter—hence it's easy to work out when the festival will happen even though the dates vary from year to year. The 2014 Vossa Jazz, edition number 41, took place between April 11 and 14 (in 2015 it will be March 27-29). The relatively late point in the year meant that this was technically a spring season event, but the snow-capped mountains, the occasionally icy blasts of wind and the preponderance of rain clouds meant that spring was rarely in the air. Not to worry—the Vossa Jazz line-up offered plenty to warm the hearts of its audience.

Big names for 2014 included the Bill Frisell Beautiful Dreamers Trio and saxophonist Dave Liebman. The program always emphasises the wealth of talent that comes from within Scandinavia, and Norway in particular: this year was no exception, with visits from a host of superb musicians such as Giovanna Pessi, Arve Henriksen and Jaga Jazzist. Vossa Jazz also commissions new music from leading players and composers—this year bassist Mats Eilertsen was the recipient of the prestigious honor.

Much of the pleasure to be had during this weekend was in the discovery of new music, new players and new ensembles. The program, put together by the festival's managing director Trude Storheim, offered plenty of opportunity for such discovery—particularly in the Jazzintro concerts on Sunday morning, showcasing young Norwegian bands Monkey Plot and Morning Has Occurred.

Voss is home to around 14,000 people—a small town, even by the standards of Norway. It's also a holiday destination for many Norwegians—a ski resort and a noted center for extreme sports such as mountain biking and paragliding—and there are plenty of holiday homes in the area. As John Kelman pointed out in his AAJ review of Vossa Jazz 2013, the location is an idyllic setting worth visiting for the scenery alone. Fans of American Football might also feel it's worth the pilgrimage to visit the birthplace of legendary player and coach Knut Rockne—there's a statue in the town and a commemorative plaque near the railway station.

The festival's place in the calendar on the weekend preceding Easter, at the start of a holiday period, gives it the chance to draw on a potential audience that's much larger than the local population alone. It's a shrewd move which pays off: promotional materials for Vossa Jazz were all over the town, banners hung from buildings, bus stops and bar entrances, there was definitely a festival going on. The audience was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and respectful—even better, the 2014 audience was larger than the 2013 one (despite fewer events taking place) with around 5,000 people attending the concerts. The volunteers—around 260 of them, mostly young people—were equally enthusiastic and on hand at every gig to help, advise and assist.

Vossa Jazz: venues and events

The Park Hotel was the focus for Vossa Jazz. It provided accommodation for staff, performers and press: it made space for the press center and the box office; it also contained three of the festival venues. The Vossasalen was the largest of these spaces, home to most of the major concerts. The smaller Festsalen hosted some of the lesser-known or more experimental, left-field, acts and the Pentagon nightclub offered hip-hop acts and DJs into the early hours.

The festival made extensive use of other venues across Voss, all of which were within a few minutes walking distance of the Park. Of course, with multiple events on at the same time it proved impossible to experience each one, but with careful planning I made it to about a third of the 40 or so Vossa Jazz events.

Friday April 11

The honor of opening the 2014 Vossa Jazz festival went to Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers Trio—Frisell on guitar, Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums. A sold out Vossasalen witnessed some beautiful playing from the trio, a worthy opening concert from three masterly musicians.

Frisell took center stage, with Kang to his right and Royston to his left. The trio's members presented a fascinating visual contrast—Kang was generally impassive; Royston moved smoothly around his kit, rarely seeming to make eye contact with the others; Frisell looked like a man who had just discovered the electric guitar. For most of the performance, the guitarist stared downwards, at the music stand or at his bank of pedals, a picture of concentration. Every chord and single-note run appeared to take huge effort, both of body and of will. It's not how he sounds, of course: his sense of swing, feel for the use of space and ability to craft fluid phrases and runs made it clear that he's fully conversant with his instrument of choice.

There were plenty of moments when Frisell smiled, his studious persona breaking to reveal the enjoyment of a player for whom everything was coming together. Lots of those moments came when trumpeter Arve Henriksen joined the trio for a few minutes (prior to his own late-night appearance). With Henriksen on stage the music took on an earthier, sexier, quality: a shift in mood that clearly pleased all four musicians.

Following Henriksen's guest spot, the trio moved on to its finest tune of the set—an emotive and romantic reading of Lennon and McCartney's "In My Life." Frisell opened with the familiar melody line, then joined with Kang to play the equally familiar instrumental break before returning to the melody and expanding on it to build a fine guitar solo of real feeling.

Later that night the Vossasalen was once again full, this time with the front half of the auditorium transformed into a standing/dancing area, for the appearance of Norwegian Americana performer Stein Torleif Bjella and his band. This was one of the standout sets of the weekend, a performance full of beautifully-crafted songs.

Bjella sang in Norwegian but his emotional connection with the lyrics and the sympathetic playing of his bandmates made the feeling of the songs, if not their precise meanings, eminently clear to this reviewer. These were melodic and immediately engaging songs, with a close resemblance to the work of Americans such as T Bone Burnett or Slaid Cleaves—not the happiest or most hopeful of compositions, but songs that bore witness to the small triumphs and tragedies of everyday life.

Saturday April 12

Saturday was a joy, an embarrassment of riches that encompassed 17th century song, contemporary jazz grooves and the world premiere of Rubicon. The first of the day's treats was Susanna Wallumrød and Giovanna Pessi's early afternoon concert in the Osasalen, the performance space in the Ole Bull Academy. The room was small and cosy, lending itself well to the lower-key, more intimate, style of performance typified by this concert.

Vocalist Wallumrød and harpist Pessi first combined when Pessi asked the singer to perform songs by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. Over time the pair gradually began to perform works by modern songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. This concert was based largely on the duo's If Grief Could Wait (ECM, 2012), which also featured Jane Achtman on viola da gamba and Marco Ambrosini on nøkkelharpe (aka the nyckelharpa or key fiddle). Achtman wasn't available for Vossa Jazz, having recently given birth. Martin Zeller replaced Achtman, playing the baryton rather than the viola da gamba.

Instrumentally, this was probably the most unusual ensemble of the festival—the combination of the three instruments and Wallumrød's crystalline voice made it the most beautiful as well. From Purcell's "The Plaint" to Cohen's "Who By Fire" (via an encore of AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top If You Wanna Rock 'N Roll") this was an exquisite set.

Each instrument had its own distinct character—the bright, clear notes of the harp, the softer tones of the baryton and the sprightly yet often melancholy nøkkelharpe. In combination they created a wide, varied, foundation for Wallumrød, who sang in English throughout. Ambrosini and Zeller did much to create the dark, downbeat, backdrop to Wallumrød's "The Forester" as well as the more light-hearted feel of the AC/DC song.

Wallumrød and Pessi performed Drake's "Which Will" as a duet. Pessi's harp tone brought Drake's own guitar sound to mind and Wallumrød's vocal drew out the mournful beauty of the lyrics. It was a superb performance in a superb set.

Discussing the set with Wallumrød afterwards I asked her what she liked about the Vossa Jazz audience: "It's a listening audience," she responded. Wallumrød's response stayed with me throughout the weekend as I was struck time and time again by the respect each audience afforded to the performers.

Jaga Jazzist took over the Vossasalen for an after-midnight show that was notable for high energy, great grooves, genuine stage presence and enthusiasm for the music—which readily transferred to the capacity audience. Drummer Martin Horntveth proved to be a commanding stage presence, both as the band's engine room and as its MC, connecting with an audience that was already familiar with the Jaga Jazzist sound.


When a festival commissions a new composition and when that commission is considered to be one of the most prestigious awards in Norway's cultural calendar then expectations are high. The Vossa Jazz 2014 commission, Mats Eilertsen's Rubicon, met and probably exceeded those expectations.

Rubicon's premiere took place in the Vossasalen on Saturday evening. From Eilertsen's solo bass introduction to the final few seconds of Harmen Fraanje's solo piano the composition moved through passages of great power, solid 4/4 grooves, dynamic rhythms and reflective, meditative interplay. The piece lasted for around 75 minutes but held the attention to such an extent that time seemed to pass much more quickly.

Rubicon proved to be a very dynamic work. Eilertsen ensured that each of the instrumentalists took their share of the spotlight, brought together combinations of two or three players that emphasised tonal variation and created ensemble sections bursting with life. Three connected sections, around the beginning of the second half of the work, served to illustrate these qualities.

The first section brought together Thomas Dahl's guitar—sounding at this point more like a banjo—and the curved soprano saxophone of Trygve Seim before Fraanje added brief flourishes of Fender Rhodes and brought the section to a close with a piano solo. The second section was a showcase for drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Louhivuori built his solo slowly, beginning by playing the snare and tom-tom with his hands, then picking up his sticks as he added bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat, upping the energy and intensity little by little until he was engaged in a full-on assault on his kit and the crowd were whooping and shouting in encouragement. Almost imperceptibly, he started to reduce the intensity of his playing. Eilertsen rejoined on bass and the entire band re-entered, with Dahl's guitar and Eirik Hegdal's baritone sax now given prominence.

Eilertsen had chosen a strong group of musicians to work with and gave each one the chance to stamp his own character on the music. Special mention should go to Seim, who stepped in only a few days before the premier to replace Tore Brunborg who had to withdraw for personal reasons.

The following day, after he had played as a sideman in two afternoon concerts, Eilertsen spoke with me about Rubicon. He had been offered the commission in late May or early June of 2013 and had taken no more than a day to decide to accept: in his words, "You just have to go for it."

There is no submission or application process for the Vossa Jazz commission, a single composer is selected and offered the award each year. The commission began in 1983 and previous composers include Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal and Nils Petter Molvaer as well as Brunborg and Seim. Eilertsen was clearly proud of this award, telling me "I'm very honored to be asked. I respect the line of previous artists and I am aware of the other possible artists who could have been chosen."

For Eilertsen, this was ..."a once in a lifetime opportunity." He explained that his first task was to select the players who would join him—the core group of players (Dahl, Louhivuori and, initially, Brunborg) coming from his Skydive band. As to the music itself, this represented Eilertsen's response to the challenges in life and in particular to the challenges represented by the commission—the title refers to the river which Julius Caesar crossed with his army in 49BC.

It was clear during the performance that Eilertsen is an unselfish player. This refreshing approach is also reflected in his writing, with the musicians being given the freedom to interpret his ideas and to engage in a dialogue about the work as it progressed. He's also disarmingly honest, revealing that though he had always planned to open Rubicon with a bass solo, he hadn't had time to write or prepare one, so he had improvised. When asked how he would measure the success of Rubicon Eilertsen responded without a pause—it was a success because his fellow musicians wanted to contribute, to feel "ownership" of the work.

Will the rest of the world get the chance to hear Rubicon? It's to be hoped so. At the dinner held to celebrate the work, festival director Trude Storheim's suggestion that it needed to be recorded and released met with universal approval. The concert had been recorded for radio broadcast, but Eilertsen explained that he would prefer to produce a studio version of Rubicon for commercial release—hopefully word will reach the ears of at least one discerning label owner.

Sunday April 13

Sometimes events occur to gladden the hearts of elderly jazz fans who in their more pessimistic moments feel that the genre no longer has any meaning for the younger generation. Jazzintro was such an event. Open to young and emerging jazz bands across Norway, Jazzintro takes place every two years. A jury selects eight bands from those that apply and two bands play at each of four festivals. One band from each festival concert is chosen to play in a final concert at Molde Jazz later in the year.

Monkey Plot and Morning Has Occurred were the featured ensembles at Vossa Jazz. It's hard to imagine two more contrasting bands—one improvisational trio, one song-focused group with its roots in R&B and soul as much as jazz. A "chalk and cheese" pairing if ever there was one, but the best quality chalk and cheese.

Monkey Plot took to the stage quietly, settled into position then spent a few seconds in silent contemplation before the music began. Once underway the band carried on unceasingly for 40 minutes, playing a single improvised piece that moved from moments of total calm to flashes of assertive, energetic, invention. Okay, at one point the band members did seem to lose track of each other but they were soon on their way again and the musicians' slightly embarrassed laughter hinted at a sense of humor hitherto missing from their on-stage demeanour.

Monkey Plot's instrumentation—double bass, drums and guitar—was made rather out of the ordinary in a jazz context by Christian Skar Winther's decision to remain fully acoustic, playing his 6-string jumbo guitar into a microphone placed a few inches in front of him, with no onboard pickups and no effects. Winther's style resembled Sonny Sharrock or Duck Baker, with a touch of John Fahey in its bluesier moments. Interestingly, when he spoke with me after Monkey Plot's set he said that he had been compared to Sharrock in the past but had only recently heard him: his own influences came from rock, rather than jazz or folk.

Morning Has Occurred also performed original material, but this young quintet's set was firmly rooted in the songs of vocalist Natalie Sandtorv and pianist Marte Eberson. Sandtorv, who sang in English and Norwegian, had an expressive voice: one that drew the listener into the song and conveyed the lyric with a straightforward honesty. Songs such as "A Million Bombs" and "Icy Air" were immediately accessible, well-crafted and lyrically adept.

Sandtorv and Eberson originally formed Morning Has Occurred (the band's name comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, although she wrote "Morning has not occurred"). The band was completed by bassist Bjørnar Kaldefoss Tveite and the twin drum kits of Ole Mofjell and Mats Mæland Jensen (the most recent addition). The second drummer added extra depth to the sound and also brought additional propulsion to the faster tempos. Mofjell tended to play in a fairly straight-ahead style—he also contributed some electronic effects—Jensen took a more exploratory approach to his kit.

Two excellent young bands, but only one place at Molde Jazz up for grabs. In the end the judging panel gave the place to Monkey Plot. It can't have been an easy decision. The members of Morning Has Occurred shouldn't be disheartened—as with Rubicon, it's to be hoped that at least one discerning label owner will pick up on this talented group.

In between concerts there was time to check out This Is Not The Right Color, by the festival's visual artist in residence Kiyoshi Yamamoto. The young Japanese/Brazilian artist's exhibition was inspired by color-blindness (or color vision deficiency) and explored what this might mean for a person's experience of the world.

After a few minutes in Yamamoto's intriguing and enlightening conceptual world it was time for vibraphonist Ivar Kolve's set at the Gamlekinoen. Kolve's quintet, including his brother Kåre on tenor saxophone and Pixel bassist Ellen Andrea Wang, played his original compositions with flair and freedom. The interplay between vibes and tenor was especially joyous—Ivar Kolve's warm, precise, vibes contrasted beautifully with Kåre Kolve's throaty tenor sound, especially when Kåre opened up with some fierce, aggressive, R&B inflected playing.

Shortly before Solveig Slettahjell began her early evening concert in the Vangskyrkja the skies opened and a torrential downpour fell on Voss. Even the short sprint between venues proved to be too long to avoid a soaking. The prospect of sitting in a cold church, shivering quietly as dampness gradually dispersed was not altogether pleasant. Thankfully it never arose. The church was already full to bursting, warm and abuzz with anticipation. Slettahjell—aided by long-term musical partner Tord Gustavsen on piano, Sjur Mijeteig (from Slettahjell's Slow Motion Orchestra) on trumpet and Nils Okland on Hardanger fiddle—took the audience and held its attention for almost an hour and a half with a set of slow, gentle, songs that proved perfectly-suited to the atmosphere of the stately 13th century venue.

Like Wallumrød, Bjella and Sandtorv, Slettahjell's vocals have an emotional honesty, a believability, that seems to create an emotional connection regardless of the language of the lyric—in this concert, based on her album Arven (Universal, 2013), she sang exclusively in Norwegian. For most of the time she sang with only Gustavsen's piano accompaniment, singer and player always in sympathy with each other. Mijeteig and Økland were rather underused—the full quartet played together on just one or two of the songs. A pity, for both men played with a calm, spacious approach that melded well with the songs and the Vangskyrka's ambience.

And There's More...

In a busy weekend of concerts and events there was no time for me to see Dave Liebman and the Andy Emler Trio, the Bergen Big Band, Atomic or Henriksen/Bang/Westerhus/Zach, among others. In other cases I managed to see part of a set: sometimes the beginning, sometimes the end, occasionally the middle.

Poesislam, a lunchtime poetry slam for children, drew another full house to the Vossasalen as poets, musicians and storytellers kept adults and children alike enthralled. Folk duo Sudan Dudan—a mix of Sandy Denny style vocals and Bert Jansch acoustic guitar—showed promise, albeit in an easy-listening style. Singer Åsne Valland Nordli and Hardanger fiddle player Benedicte Maurseth (both ex-students of the Ole Bull Academy) returned to Voss to play in the Osasalen. They presented a purer, starker, vision of traditional Norwegian song—centered on their 2014 ECM debut Over Tones. The duo performed with percussionist Snorre Bjerck whose idiosyncratic approach to percussion, using a huge upturned bass drum as an amplifier for his waves of sound, would've fitted neatly into many a cutting-edge jazz combo. All of these acts deserved more time than I could give them. Maybe next time...

"Next time" will be 27-29 March 2015. Ekstremjazz—the open-air, high altitude concert—will return after taking a break in 2014. The chosen artist for the 2015 commission has been invited to participate and, according to Storheim, has accepted (the name will be announced on December 1). No doubt it won't be long before other artists are being booked. Leaving a festival as enjoyable as Vossa Jazz is always a little sad, but the train journey back to Bergen airport crosses some of Europe's most breathtaking scenery: a small consolation and a chance to reflect on the terrific music I had heard in the town of Voss.

Photo Credit: Ådne Dyrnesli (Courtesy of Vossa Jazz)

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