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Vossa Jazz 2014

Vossa Jazz 2014
Bruce Lindsay By

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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.

Rubicon

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.

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