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 Easterhence 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 worrythe 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 composersthis 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 discoveryparticularly in the Jazzintro concerts on Sunday morning, showcasing young Norwegian bands Monkey Plot and Morning Has Occurred.
Voss is home to around 14,000 peoplea small town, even by the standards of Norway. It's also a holiday destination for many Norwegiansa ski resort and a noted center for extreme sports such as mountain biking and paraglidingand 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 Rocknethere'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 respectfuleven better, the 2014 audience was larger than the 2013 one (despite fewer events taking place) with around 5,000 people attending the concerts. The volunteersaround 260 of them, mostly young peoplewere 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 TrioFrisell 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 contrastKang 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 setan 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.