Vossa Jazz 2014

Bruce Lindsay By

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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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