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Vossa Jazz 2014

Bruce Lindsay By

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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.

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.

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