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Vossa Jazz 2016

Vossa Jazz 2016
Ian Patterson By

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The freedom to congregate, to express creativity and to have fun into the bargain is something we often take for granted, as the sight of a few asylum seekers looking on underlined. —Ian Patterson
Vossa Jazz
Various venues
Voss, Norway
March 18-20, 2016

Perched high on the mountain side, the weather-beaten wooden farm houses of the Voss folk museum command a truly impressive view of the town below, ringed by snow-capped mountains, interlocking valleys and ice-covered fjords that stretch to the four points of the compass. Founded in 1917—the same year the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the first jazz record—the museum's bric-a-brac of bygone days and largely bygone ways represents an eye onto the past. It's a fascinating, beautiful relic.

Traditions in jazz, just as in life, have never stood still for long. They might wither and die, as in jazz's fabled cutting contests or the so-called 'ambushes' of some of the early beboppers, and they can take unexpected new directions whose impact is felt over time—like Sun Ra, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman—but they rarely stand still.

To remain blind to new developments—to new possibilities—is to atrophy, and in the end, to be consigned to museums.

Yet our urgency to progress is nearly always tempered by a healthy respect for the old ways. That balance is surely important. If it wasn't, we wouldn't need to make pilgrimages to museums half-way up mountains; we wouldn't need to guard selective memories so preciously. As any historian will tell you, the greater our understanding of the past, the greater our handle on the present. Admittedly, it's sometimes easy to get lost in one at the expense of the other.

Vossa Jazz excels at exploring the symbiotic relationship between past and present, between folk and jazz as practised and understood in Norway and elsewhere. These dualities are a defining element of this one-of-a-kind festival and the 2016 edition was no exception.

Lokomotiv

The program got off to a flyer with the twelve-piece Lokomotiv, second-year students all of the famous Trondheim jazz program. With two drummers, two guitarists, two double basses and a harmonica player in the ranks alongside a pianist, three saxophonists, and a vocalist, the line-up was striking. So too the music, which ranged from chugging blues, ethereal sci-fi lyricism and urban jazz-funk to schizophrenic polyphony. The orchestral ambition of "Cooper Fuglen" hinted at the influence of Marius Neset but these were all tunes where the individual personality of their respective composers shone forth.

Agile as a quintet and as powerful as a big-band at full throttle, the solos were exhilarating and the collective voice utterly persuasive. Lokomotiv's lunchtime performance was a great advert for jazz and warmly received by the school children and music students present in the Festsalen of the Park Hotel.

Then, having packed up leads, pedals, amplifiers and drum kits, Lokomotiv crossed the road and did it all again, this time in the well-appointed surroundings of a local bank to an audience of more seasoned vintage.

Music for the Ages

While many jazz festival these days have special programs for kids, few take Vossa Jazz's approach in involving the young, old and disadvantaged alike. Write an Opera, for example, in the Voss Culturehouse, presented an opera written and performed by local children with professional musical accompaniment.

Whilst the twists and turns of the plot were hard for non-Norwegians to follow the enthusiasm of the children was obvious. Eleven-year old Down syndrome actor Amina excelled, dancing, as the saying goes, as though no-one was watching. To see the colourfully costumed children launch their hats triumphantly into the audience during the ovation at the opera's end was a delight that no doubt brought a tear to a few parents' eyes.

Making children central to the creative process is clearly more meaningful than to merely provide entertainment for them. To this end, for the past seven years Vossa Jazz has held musical workouts for Down syndrome children and adults. This year, over thirty children and adults aged between twelve and sixty four created a glorious polyphony in the Festsalen, an occasion punctuated by a lot of smiles and laughter.

A competition for Young Jazz Talent was part of the program in conjunction with other major Norwegian jazz festivals to help bring exciting new jazz voices to the fore.

Some of the most moving interaction between musicians and audience took place in the concerts for the elderly of Voss's nursing homes. The Valerina Fortes Orchestra—a sextet from Bergen—gave the first of three performances that day, in the Sjukeheimen nursing home. Its one-hour set drew liberally from the songbook of Kurt Foss and Reidar Bøe, popular Norwegian troubadours and radio stars from the 1940s to the 1960s. Engaging tempos, melodious vocals and no little humor characterized the folk-flavored tunes, waltzes and popular arias of love.

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