Vossa Jazz 2015

Henning Bolte By

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March 28 -29, 2015

Vossa Jazz, founded in 1973, an annual three-day event with a great variety of groups and acts, is a highly prestigious jazz festival in Norway. Thanks especially to its commissions and awards, it has an important national and international function. In 1983 the festival became the first in Europe to start assigning commission work. After more than 30 years the series has become an impressive list including Arild Andersen's Sagn (ECM, 1994) and Terje Rypdal's Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006). Nils Petter Molvaer's classic Khmer (ECM, 1997) began its life as a Vossa Jazz commission titled "Labyrinths."

My first visit to the festival was restricted to Saturday and Sunday, March 28 and 29. Yet even these two days alone offered such a great diversity of events and acts, that it was impossible to attend and cover them all—like the performances of Carsten Dahl, Julia Biel, Peter Evans, Thea Hjelmeland, Steinkopf&Lauvas, Supersonic with the Jazz Choir of Voss (Jazz For Children commission), Fiflet/Hamre with Bergen Big Band, the youth concert Peace, Love and Swing, and Svein Olav Herstad Trio.


Voss is a municipality of about 14,000 inhabitants in Hordaland county, 100 kilometres east of the city of Bergen, right in between the southern Hardangerfjord and the northern Sognefjord. Situated in the valley at lake Vangsvatnet it offers magnificent mountainous scenery with an ever impressive continual theatre of light. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, forests, lakes, and fast flowing white water rivers. Since the 1960s it has developed into a notable center of skiing, water sports, skydiving, paragliding, and other adventure sports. The area hosts the annual Ekstremsportveko, the Extreme Sports Week (in combination with a lot of music) in the last week of June, which is regarded as the world's premier extreme sports festival.


The annual jazz festival always takes place in the weekend before Easter and is a high level Scandinavian affair presenting only a few non-Scandinavian musicians and groups. This year a Portuguese group, two British groups, and one solo-act from the United States were among some 30 programmed acts. There were two mixed groups with predominantly Norwegian proportions, such as The Young Mothers of Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the French-Italian-British-Norwegian group of drummer Manu Katche.

It was the festival's 42nd edition and the 8th of current director Trude Storheim. Storheim, who is the same age as the festival, is intimately inter-grown with the festival's history and the area where it is held. She is one of the real vital global locals. This is clearly manifested in the programming and documented by recordings of festival productions on internationally renowned labels. The profile of the festival, according to Storheim, is jazz combined with folk music—both the Norwegian version of folk music and world music in a strong, innovative and trendsetting way.

Storheim heads an all female staff aided by a highly motivated troupe of 200 volunteers of all genders. They ensured smooth running for the festival and achieved the same ticket sales as the year before. There were exceptional weather conditions for traveling to Voss (blizzard in Oslo) but even the Ekstremjazz performance, —one of the special items besides jazz for kids and for elders—happened as planned with pianists Jon Balke and Andreas Ulvo together with vocalist Åshild Vetrhus. Only one show had to be cancelled due to illness of one of the performers.


Embedded into the rich variety of activities is smalahovemiddagen, a genuine old Voss traditional mouton head dinner —'smala' the (old) Norwegian word for sheep and 'hoven' the word for head. Nowadays lamb is used for this dish. The skin and fleece of the head is torched and the brain removed, then the head is salted, sometimes smoked or dried. The head is then boiled or steamed for about three hours. It is served with mashed rutabaga (turnip) and potatoes. Every person is served one integral head. First the ears have to been eaten, then the rest. The big treats are the eyeballs and real heroes also suck the fat lying behind the eyes of the skull. A smalahove meal is not only accompanied by large amounts of beer and aquavit but by telling stories and singing (old) songs. This time, Bjørn Tomren aka Polkabjørn gave a wry comical demonstration of virtuosic yodelling and overtone singing. Still more impressive was the closing bard singing of Jon Skjerdal, the director of Bergen's Nattjazz Festival.

Diversity, interconnectedness, climate change

Folk music and jazz were the obvious but nonetheless challenging keywords for the commission of the opening concert. The connection had previously been done with great success by, among others, bassist Arild Andersen with his commission work Sagn from 1990 with folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg (ECM, 1994). Jazz pianist, composer and arranger Erlend Skomsvoll was chosen this year to unite a star team from both genres to perform at the festival opening.

Skomsvoll is a musician who has participated in many collaborations in the fields of classical music and rock (three albums with prominent Norwegian rock band Kaizers Orchestra). Last year he earned the prestigious Spellemansprisen in the Classical Music category, for his rendition of Grieg's Holberg Variation s (Simac, 2014), called recompimprovariations by himself.

He worked with his own group Come Shine for a long time, acted as a conductor and arranger for Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and collaborated with top international names like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. He has a long time fascination for Norwegian folk music, and it was time finally to bring that into practice. He chose musicians who fully master folk and related styles: vocalist Wenche Losnegård, fiddler Erlend Apneseth, guitarist Anders Røine, bassist Ole Morten Vågan, percussionist Birger Mistereggen and young drum talent Hans Hulbækmo who recently took over the drum chair from Paal Nilssen-Love of renowned Swedish-Norwegian group Atomic.

The first—not attended—phase of the festival was full of incentive diversity. There was young country singer Ida Jenshus with her group and a couple of duos and trios, such as the duo of sPacemoNkey (pianist Morten Qvenild/drummer Gard Nilssen), of pianist Espen Eriksen and trumpeter Gunnar Halle (tr), as well as guitarist Martin Hagfors with trombonist Eirik Johannessen. Then the trio of pianist Harald Dahlstrøm, saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and percussionist Ole Hamre, the trio In The Country with singer Froda Annevik, the new trio of Ellen Andrea Wang with pianist Andreas Ulvo and drummer Grad Nilssen and Finish trio PLOP with saxophonist Mikko Innanen, bassist Eeron Tikkanen and drummer Jonas Riippa.

Well-known trio In The Country presented its collaboration with outstanding singer Frida Ånnevik on poems of Hans Børli, documented on the brand-new album Skogenes Sang (Grappa, 2014). Young bassist/singer Ellen Andrea Wang, one of Norway's biggest upcoming talents, recently took a step out as solo artist and presented the trio of her debut album Diving (Propeller Recordings, 2014).

The trio Supersonic (saxophonist Petter Frost Fadnes, guitarist Chris Sharkey and drummer Ståle Birkeland) got together with the Vossa Jazz choir for this year`s commissioned work of Children`s Jazz. They worked on making music from traffic noise and the rumbles of washing machines. A school not simply of making music but, in the first place, a school of getting music by listening attentively.

It went on with the quartets Fluxed Markings with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, Fredrik Ljungkvist, woodwinds, bassist Mike Majkowski and drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen, and Swedish punk jazz group Se & Hör of saxophonist Anna Högberg, jazzcat of the Year 2013, with trumpeter Niklas Barnö, bassist Emil Skogh, drummer Dennis Egberth and two large ensembles, The Young Mothers, with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and the ensemble of Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen, 10+.

Saxophonist Trygve Seim performed in a series of spoken word related acts: first with actor and writer Henrik Mestad -which had to be cancelled— and then with actor Thorbjørn Harr and bassist/rapper Aslak Hartberg (together with trumpeter Sjur Milleteig, drummer Per Oddvar Johansen and pianist Jørn Øien). Seim would also play on the last day in the group of Sinikka Langeland.

What you see is not only augmentation of jazz by pop, rock and folk acts, but a high degree of diversity and interconnectedness of musicians operating in different genres crossed in one group or between groups. It is also quite remarkable that this year's Vossajazzprisen was awarded to pop singer Thea Hjelmeland (1987). With her second album Solar Plexus (TheaH Music, 2014) she was already awarded the prestigious Spellemannprisen (the Norwegian Grammy), in the Indie Pop category last year.

Commissions play an important role for Vossa Jazz Festival, with Tingingsverket, the main commission, one of the most prestigious assignments in Norwegian jazz. This year's commission—supported by generous funding from Norwegian Art Council—was, however, the first one in the history of the festival not to be recorded and broadcast by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. It was the first time the P2 department, with its own jazz employees, did not attend the festival. Editorial cuts of NRK culture has hit P2 jazz coverage of NRK. From four permanent weekly journalistic jazz programs in 2009, NRK P2 cut back to one weekly fixed magazine program about jazz. As a result, the public no longer benefits from productions realized through considerable public funding. At first glance it seems a question of money, but in fact it is a clear sign of cultural climate change.

Live Maria Roggen

This year's commission of Tinkingsverket was assigned to revered vocalist Live Maria Roggen (1970) who composed the work entitled "Apokaluptein—The Uncovering." Her career as a musician is as impressive as it is successful, with acts like Wibutee, and not least Come Shine, who played at Vossa Jazz last year to standing ovations. Roggen has gone the grades from a budding violin pupil as a kid to her current position as professor of vocal jazz at the Norwegian Academy of Music. In 2007 she won the Norwegian Grammy (Spellemannprisen) with her album Circuit Songs.
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