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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.

Some of the audience members—mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians—mouthed or quietly sang almost every word of the songs of their youth. Others tapped feet, or clapped hands as gently and quietly as the beating of a butterfly's wings. Smiles were in good supply.

At the end of the performance, Helga Øvstedal, an occupational therapist in this nursing home since 2003, spoke of the importance of such musical performances to the elderly residents. "You could see the smiles on their faces," said Helga, "but they talk about the concert for days after. Music is a great therapy for the elderly. It brings back old memories. One lady, who is eighty six, told me after, 'I want to dance.'"

Something for Everybody

Friday's wonderfully eclectic, though carefully constructed program offered a little of everything, from the scintillating acoustic/electric hybrid of Dave Holland's trio and the outré experimentation of singer Sidsel Endresen and electronics/sampling wizard Jan Bang, to the post-Coltrane jazz of the elegant saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg. Red Kite's searing, metal-edged fusion, the Afro-beat funk of the legendary Tony Allen and the sophisticated pop of Susanne Sundfør drew quite diverse crowds to Vossa Jazz and more than likely introduced some people to music they mightn't ordinarily check out.

Dave Holland Trio

A man nattily attired in traditional costume sounded a melodious blast from a mountain long horn to officially open Vossa Jazz 2016. This was followed by a few words of welcome from festival director Trude Storheim and then guest speaker and acclaimed writer Ruth Lillegraven. It was then the task of Dave Holland's trio, featuring Kevin Eubanks and Obed Calvaire, to kick-start the festival proper, and it did so with a continuous, largely improvised one-hour performance.

With the notable exception of Holland's outstanding recent duo collaboration with Kenny Barron, which engendered The Art of Conversation (Decca, 2014) and a memorable tour, it's hard to recall a time when Holland wasn't at the head of a quintet, sextet or big-band. This was indeed a rare treat to witness the veteran former Miles Davis sideman in a trio context, in tandem with Eubanks and Calvaire. At the end of a four-week tour, the trio's musical ideas flowed with the well-honed precision of a familiar suite, and only occasionally lapsed into jam-like passages which struggled to assert clear direction.

Holland's, familiar, grooving ostinatos severed as launching pads for improvised exchanges that oscillated continuously between highly charged jazz-fusion and segments of chamber-like delicacy. Individual solos peppered the performance: Calvaire's powerful polyrhythmic juggling, Eubanks' more patiently built extrapolations and Holland's effortlessly lithe dances up and down the fretboard shook up the prevailing dynamic of interactive exploration.

Eubanks first recorded with Holland on the bassist's Extensions (ECM, 1990)—Downbeat's album of the year—and more recently on Prism (Daer2 Records, 2014); an original voice, the guitarist seduced with feathery soundscapes that gradually transformed into soaring flights, part Jimi Hendrix, part James Blood Ulmer. His gritty blues improvisation—with an especially lyrical response from Holland—on the slow-burning "Empty Chair" provided a set highlight.

Having rediscovered the taste for leading a trio—possibly the first time since the late 1980s—and reconnecting with the electric guitar, Holland seems to have found fresh, fertile territory to explore. He may yet return to the larger group format he's favoured for so long but the potential of this trio suggests that it would please a lot of folk if he managed to juggle both.

Sidsel Endresen & Jan Bang

With as many as four gigs running simultaneously at Vossa Jazz, a little hopping around gave a taste of the diversity of music on offer. This was made possible given that four of the venues were in the Park Hotel and the others were all within walking distance Susanne Sundfør, the critically acclaimed, commercially successful singer-songwriter, who has collaborated with electro-popsters Röyksopp, and with Nils Petter Molvaer on Baboon Moon (Sula Records, 2011) drew arguably the biggest crowd of the festival to the Voossasalen.

A minute down the road in the Gamlekinoen —an old cinema—Sidsel Endreson and live sampling innovator Jan Bang forged a bold improvisational duologue, which, while seemingly far from a jazz aesthetic, nevertheless delved into the sort of fearless improvisation that jazz typically claims as a pillar of its unique identity.

Endresen's vocalizations—syllabic and non-syllabic alike—skirted the interface between folk—melodious and lyrical—and jazz—rhythmically pronounced—and plosive utterances that bore a highly personal stamp. Bang, far from being merely electronic counterpoint to Endresen, instead engaged in exactly the same way as any improvising musician would, by bouncing ideas back and forth organically. For well over half an hour, the duo explored sonic avenues less traveled, and if at times the music seemed a little repetitive as they jammed and dug for the magic, this was the trade-off for the frequent passages of truly inspired creativity.

The rest of the evening in the Gamlekinoen promised much, with contributions from artists of the celebrated Jazzland label—celebrating its twentieth year—including Bugge Wesseltoft, Henrik Schwarz and Dan Berglund, amongst others. However, another gig back at the Park Hotel, by one of Norway's most exciting young jazz talents, was too enticing to ignore.

Hanna Paulsberg

Whilst it's difficult to label much modern Norwegian music, the Hanna Paulsberg Concept belongs unequivocally in the acoustic jazz tradition—evoking, in spirit at least, the lyricism and compositional elasticity of Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and latterly, Jeff Ballard's trio. Yet as Paulsberg demonstrated on Waltz for Lilli (Ora Fonogram, 2012) and Song for Josia (Ora Fonogram, 2014), her accomplished writing and her mazy improvisations are very much her own.

HPC —making its debut at Vossa Jazz—was showcasing material from its third CD, Eastern Smiles, (Odin, 2016), which broadly speaking follows in the vein of its previous recordings. The quartet eased through the gears on "Ayumi," with pianist Erlend Slettervol and Paulsberg stretching out, cajoled by the ever-dynamic Hans Hulbaekmo. The concept throughout the set, it seemed, was the tension between control and freedom within strong compositional frameworks. For Paulsberg, the song is the thing.

Hulbaekmo and bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske's dancing African groove dominated "Hemulen på byn," while "A Coat of Many Colors"—the only tune from the group's first two CDs—morphed from delicate impressionism to more robust interplay, driven by Hulbaekmo's increasingly animated sticks. Not content to rest on her laurels, Paulsberg introduced two as yet unreleased tracks, with her beautifully weighted playing central to both.

Powerful group dynamics were at the heart of a searching, post-Coltrane exploration, whereas a playful Afro- Caribbean vibe colored "Catalan Boy." On the latter, Hulbaekmo unleashed a swashbuckling solo before the jaunty melody returned to make a final pass. The inevitable encore swung between sotto voce balladry and more intense group exclamations before Paulsberg steered the tune quietly to its conclusion.

Paulsberg's HPC is clearly on an upward trajectory. Its sound may have remained largely unchanged over the course of more than four years but the chemistry is ever-more pronounced and the collective playing on undeniably strong material is absolutely first-rate. In short, a quartet that would grace any stage in the world.

There was time to catch the tail end of fiddler Ragnhild Furebotten's gig in the cosy, pub-like surroundings of the Café Station. Saxophonists Torben Snekkestad and Frode Nymo, trombonist/arranger Helge Sunde, trumpeters Marius Haltti and Eckhard Baur, and tuba player Lars Andreas Haug—aka Never on a Sunday—provided vibrant support to Furebotten's jazzed-up folk tunes from Norway's far North.

In the ensemble's driving rhythms there was something of the energy of Balkans music and in the leader's joyous, elegant melodies resided hints of Celtic reels alongside Norwegian hymnal roots. More of this soulful, uplifting folk music wouldn't have gone amiss.

Red Kite

There was a bit of a buzz about the quartet Red Kite's gig. With a line-up boasting guitarist Even Helte Hermansen (Bushman's Revenge), keyboardist Bernt Moen (Shining), bassist Trond Frones (Grand Central) and drummer Torstein Lofthus (Shining, Elephant9), Red Kite constitutes a modern day Norwegian super-group. Its full-on sound fused super-charged rock with a free-jazz aesthetic -a sort of gothic Mahavishnu Orchestra for the 21st century. Red Kite's energy was undeniable and Hermansen in particular impressed with one blistering solo after another. After a while, however, the compositions seemed to blend together as one.

The band wasn't helped by the venue—the Pentagon bar—where three quarters of the patrons were completely unsighted and where the noisy babble was a continuous distraction. Earlier, for the Hanna Paulsberg Concept, a smaller crowd sat on the floor in front of the stage and was very attentive throughout, but for Red Kite it was standing-room only, which meant that only those who pushed their way to the front of the cramped floor could see the band and avoid the worst of the wall of background noise. An alternative venue with more space would have served both band and audience much better. Nonetheless, Red Kite showed enough of itself to whet the appetite for another occasion.

Tony Allen

Few seventy-five-year olds take to the stage at 1.30am with a smile and leave the same way ninety minutes later. The hour was late in some respects, but the legendary Nigerian drummer and his band gave a performance high in energy and good vibes that had the standing-area portion of the crowd dancing to animated soul-funk/Afro-beat grooves.

With an extensive discography as leader—not forgetting the thirty-odd albums he cut with Fela Kuti—Allen could simply have knocked the dust covers off a few old tunes, but the master drummer has always looked forward and the set was drawn almost entirely from his most recent recording, Film of Life (Jazz Village, 2014).

The gentle opener "Tiger Skip" was little more than an introductory theme but the band was soon in full gear on "Koko Dance," propelled by Claude Debongue's mantra-like motif, Patrick Gorce's driving percussion, Just Woody's percolating bass lines, the twin-horned riffs of saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz and trumpeter Nicolas Giraud, the counter-point melody of keyboardist Jean Phil Dary, and at the centre, Allen's intoxicating hybrid of highlife, funk, traditional African roots, jazz and soul.

"Boat Journey" married infectious groove with socio-political commentary, Allen singing on the risks refugees face entrusting themselves to traffickers and crossing seas and oceans in overcrowded boats, chasing uncertain futures.

The shadow of James Brown loomed large on the funky Afrobeat of "Ire Omo," though the absence of female vocal group Adunni & Nefertiti from the recorded version was felt. Allen's cross-rhythms—dancing hi- hat/tom tom and slippery snare patterns—fired the ensemble, with Wody's booty-shaking ostinatos and Gorce's impassioned pulses adding fuel to the rhythmic fire.

If at times the music sounded a little retro, it's worth remembering that Allen has been playing such rhythms for over fifty years. "African Man," with its strutting guitar motif, riffing brass and burrowing bass raised the temperature a notch, teeing the crowd up for the stirring Afrobeat-meets-Sun Ra space trip of "Ewa."

The encore served up "Kindness," another slice of irresistibly grinding funk. It was heading for 3am when Allen and his band left to the stage to generous applause, the crowd shuffling home in the best of spirits, which is the really the essence of Allen's life-affirming music.

A Memorable, 21st Century Tableau

A beautifully crisp morning greeted day two of Vossa Jazz 2016, with the sun doing just enough to take the chill out of the air. By the frozen lake, Samere and Fikru, refugees from Eritrea living near Voss, surveyed the panorama. The pair admitted to being worried at the proposed plans by the Norwegian government to repatriate Eritrean asylum seekers, as they gazed at the kite surfers gliding up and down the frozen lake. "We have never seen anything like this," said Samere.

A short distance away, in Voss' central square, the annual jazz parade started up. The celebratory music of the members of Lokomotiv roused children with percussive instruments to make glorious racket; girls with twirling batons added spectacle to the parade. This 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.

Not since World War Two has Europe seen anything like the influx of refugees/migrants, many like Samere and Fikru from Eritrea, but many thousands too from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, all seeking a better life free from war and oppression. It is not so much a test of European resources as it is a test of European humanity.

Gard Nilssen: Blowin' In The Wind

Kite surfers were one thing but doubtless nobody had seen anything quite like the spectacle in Voss Vind. If the Valerina Fortes Orchestra's nursing home performance earlier had been an example of how weakened bodies and dulled minds respond to the stimuli of music, then Gard Nilssen's drum improvisation in conjunction with two world-class sky divers showed the extremes to which the fittest, most able-bodied are able to push themselves in response to music.

The venue was VossVind, a sky-diving centre where a vertical tunnel fifty six feet high and with a diameter of just fourteen feet channels wind at speeds of up to 300 kph. Nilssen, one of modern jazz's most thrilling drummers, gave a dynamic performance that utilized electronic soundscapes while two skydivers, Rune Aspvik and Martin Kristensen, rode the wind in a breath-taking choreography of balletic grace and daring precision.

Unable to hear Nilssen's rhythms through the glass, the two skydivers responded to visual clues: when Nilssen's sticks were a blur the skydivers circled each other—upside down—at dizzying speeds, or shot upwards, then to plummet down to within inches of the meshed floor; when brushes, mallets or hands worked the drum heads lightly, or when a bass bow drew sighs from the cymbals, the two skydivers responded with more graceful movements, floating and pirouetting slowly. A grammatical arc could be discerned in both drumming and skydiving, with the intensity of the performance ebbing and flowing, reaching a heady climax before dissolving.

After half an hour, with the protagonists' feet firmly on the ground—while the audience was most likely still high- -Nilssen explained that the performance had been about eighty per cent improvised. It was a typically left-field and audacious piece of programming by Vossa Jazz, beautifully executed by Nilssen, Aspvik and Kristensen. Maybe the only way to top this in the future would be to have Nilssen and one of his ensembles perform on the other, slightly windier side of the glass. Just a thought.

Gabriel Fliflet

Norwegian folk music is an important element of Vossa Jazz, which might seem odd to some at first. However, given that so much contemporary Norwegian jazz is inspired by the country's traditional music, then the juxtaposition of folk and jazz at Vossa Jazz serves to illuminate the bigger picture.

The instrumentation, melodies and rhythms of Norwegian folk continue to find their way into contemporary Norwegian jazz, with Daniel Herskedal and Marius Neset's sublime Neck of the Woods (Edition Records, 2012) being just one recent and notable example.

The packed cinema hall—with people sitting on the floor all the way around the walls—attested to the popularity of accordionist Gabriel Fliflet, Norwegian Folk Musician Of The Year 2011, and a previous recipient of the Vossa Jazz prize. In a thirty year career, Fliflet has explored the music of the Baltic Sea region and delved into Scottish folk music of the Shetland Islands with fiddler Willie Hunter and guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson. This project, however, commissioned by Vossa Jazz, required Fliflet to put new music to Johannes Gjerdaker's award-winning translations of the songs of Scottish poet/lyricist Robert Burns, an important influence on, amongst others, Bob Dylan.

In the trio's delivery—Berg singing in Norwegian—there was both the tenderness and some of the humor of Burns' pen: the former was epitomized by Berg's haunting rendition of "A Red, Red Rose"—a song that still captivates and inspires over two hundred years later—with Fliflet's accordion sounding a low, bag pipe-like drone; the latter was conjured in the Burns' tune "O Gud Ale Comes and Gud Ale Goes"—a homage to the cheering properties of good beer.

Fliflet switched to piano on one gently lyrical tune, while Berg plucked a jaw harp on another, taken at a livelier clip that evoked a Scottish jig. There was genuine feeling for these old Scottish tunes although the prevailing aesthetic, in terms of instrumentation and rhythms, was assuredly Norwegian.

A good tune well delivered, as Flifelt Berg and Roine demonstrated, knows no borders and is for the ages. This was music both traditional and innovative at one and the same time.

Nils Økland: Glødetrådar

Prior to Nils Okland's performance, Vossa Jazz festival director Trude Storheim presented the Vossa Jazz Award for Best Jazz Musican to Oyvind Skarbo, perhaps best known for 1982, a one-of-a-kind trio with Økland and Sigbjorn Apeland that has garnered critical acclaim for albums such as 1982 (NORCD, 2009), Pintura (Hubro Records, 2011) and 1982 + BJ Cole (Hubro Records, 2012).

Skarbø also plays in and composes for Bly de Blyant, whose label-resistant music fuses elements of jazz, folk, rock and pop, and in the wonderful opera-cum-jazz group, the Hakon Kornstad Ensemble. All three bands are well worth checking out.

The Head of Hordaland County, Anne Gine Hestetun then gave a speech, which drew enough laughter to suggest that should she ever hang up her robes of high office then a career in comedy beckons.

It was serious business, however, when Økland and his group embarked on a suite whose title translates roughly as "The Glimmering Light." The piece began with Økland, saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrom, and bassist Mats Eilertsen on bow, stirring gentle eddies. The calm was dispelled by Hakon Morch Stene's urgent vibraphone pulse, which sounded a launching pad for more clearly defined melodic lines. Bass joined the vibraphone mantra, while Per Steinar Lie's electric guitar added dark sonic textures.

The music diminished in intensity, with instruments dropping out one by one to leave fiddle and bowed bass in sombre embrace. Harmonium and Torbjørn Økland on trumpet steered the music in a more abstract direction, with bass and Orjan Haaland's subtle cymbals briefly reigniting a groove. Rumbling drums sparked a heady ensemble passage akin to a psychedelic Fairport Convention in full cry.

The storm gave way to a softly voiced lyrical segment led first by fiddle and bass, then trumpet, over a carpet of harmonium and quietly rumbling mallets. Baritone saxophone, in unison with violin and bowed bass carved a gravely melodious course. The baritone dropping out was like a dark cloud passing to reveal the sunlight, as Økland and Eilertsen jointly engineered a slow, processional melody of simple design and stark beauty.

The spell was broken by a pulsating bass and guitar motif, soon joined by riffing fiddle, saxophone and trumpet as the sound swelled impressively. Crunching guitar and thundering drums paved the way for Nystrom's dual saxophone theatrics, with the ensemble surging towards a heady climax.

After an almost necessary pause, harmonium drone accompanied a haunting Økland melody that was as aching as an Irish lament. Poignant, meditative trumpet followed suit before a slow-chugging bass pulse ignited another stonking, and fierce ensemble charge of controlled abandon. Winding down, the rhythmic pulse continued to beat as fiddle, harmonium and trumpet dovetailed until the end, as softly as falling feathers.

There have been numerous notable commissions at Vossa Jazz since the very first in 1983, but it's hard to imagine there have been many quite as compelling as Nils Økland's "Glødetrådar."

Kare Kolve

Back in Voss' old cinema, veteran saxophonist Kare Kolve led a striking program of acoustic jazz. With bassist Anders Jormin, Mathias Eick, Ivar Kolve, Espen Berg and Per Oddvar Johansen, this was certainly an all-star sextet to get excited about. The music, it has to be said, lived up to the billing.

On the appropriately titled "Beginning" each musician got to stretch out, with Berg's classically tinged, elegant unaccompanied solo at the start, and his jazzier flight towards the song's end the pick of the bunch. Jormin's soulful arco intro stood out on "Sir K.W," an atmospheric tribute to the late, great Kenny Wheeler, with Ira Kolve delivering a wonderfully light yet coursing solo.

Korve's writing maximized the individual talent, with plenty of solos that engaged without ever overstaying their welcome. Yet the arc of the songs, indeed of the concert as a whole, balanced individualism and collective harmony. Hypnotic vibraphone announced "The Odyssey," a tune laden with interlocking motifs both urgent and languid, memorable too for Eick's strongly contoured solo and, by way of contrast, Berg's dizzying freewheeling.

"Melancholia" did what it said on the tin's label, though there was greater warmth in Eick's persuasive solo here than in the puffs-of-air lyricism that colors a lot of his own, highly recommended solo work. Likewise, Eick was in ebullient form on the buoyant "The Beauty of Being," his outstanding chops pushing Berg to a spirited response. A drum solo executed with hands, as surprising for its length as for its subtlety, completely recalibrated the ambiance, putting in striking relief the lively saxophone and piano-dominated passage that followed.

The encore took things down a notch or two, the leader's emotive, weaving solo and his brother Ivar's sympathetic response at the heart of another soulful tune. An accomplished, sensitive composer and a natural leader who brings the best out of those around him, Kolve's impressive set begged the question as to why he hasn't recorded more frequently as a leader.

Hedvig Mollestad Trio

Following the memorable Ragnhild Furebotten concert the Café Station bar was once again packed to the hilt, this time for the Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen Trio. The guitarist's incendiary trio set out its jazz-metal stall with its uncompromising debut, Shoot! (2011), and since then its reputation has only grown at home and abroad with the subsequent releases All Them Witches (2013) and Enfant Terrible (2014)—all on the Rune Grammofon label.

A tour of North America and a support slot for John McLaughlin's Fourth Dimension at the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014 further raised Mollestad's international reputation. At the McLaughlin gig, in the formal setting of the Royal Festival Hall, Mollestad asked jokingly if the audience had its seatbelts buckled. The trio, sure enough, takes no prisoners.

With a new studio CD and a live recording due for release in May, this gig was something of a farewell to some of the material upon which Mollestad's trio has built its name these past five years. And with bassist Ellen Brekken unavailable, drummer Ivar Loe Bjornstad had a new rhythmic partner in Red Kite's Trond Frones, who did a wonderful job. "Laughing John" made a powerful opening statement, with fast bass lines, pounding drums and Mollestad's industrial riffing paving the way for the guitarist's searing improvisation.

Mollestad's crying, sometimes ecstasy-driven guitar lines certainly contained the blues -Jimi Hendrix-hued on blistering tunes like the foot-to-the-floor metal of "The New Judas," Black Sabbath-esque on the doomy rock of "For The Air"; on the latter, Mollestad drew a violin bow across her strings before launching the trio into alternatively fast-paced and then slow-grunge passages.

Occasionally, Mollestad stepped off the stage to rock out with the crowd; blasts of wah-wah and feedback punctuated her breathless runs, but there was space too for more overt lyricism on "Pity the Children"—in between the grungier segments.

There are few more thrilling guitarists regardless of genre than Mollestad, and few more raucously exciting trios in the amorphous territory where instrumental rock, metal and improvised music co-exist. Destined for bigger stages? Without a doubt.

Cortex

Norway boasts plenty of bands every bit as uncompromising as the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, yet whose roots are more overtly jazz-based. The quartet Cortex is one such group. Formed in 2007, albums such as Resection (Bolage, 2011), Göteborg (Gigafon, 2012) and Cortex: Live (Clean Feed Records, 2014) have established Cortex as one of the most technically proficient and visceral of contemporary jazz ensembles.

It wasn't accidental that cornet player Thomas Johansson evoked Don Cherry to saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts' Ornette Coleman, for the quartet's free-spirited avant- garde music owed much to that historic pair. Bassist Ola Hoyer and drummer Gard Nilssen's elastic polyrhythms were intense and thrilling to behold.

Grooving bass ostinatos, melodious unison lines, dissonant skronk and tumultuous drumming made for a potent cocktail, with little let-up in the intensity during the seventy-minute set. A Spanish tinge and the more codified language of bebop occasionally filtered through the prevailing free-jazz storm, creating a tension in the music between the chaotic and the controlled. For the audience, like as not for the musicians, it was an enthralling yet draining experience.

Jazz Mass

Sunday morning brought the faithful to Vangskyrkja, a thirteenth century church in the centre of Voss, for a jazz mass. The great stone cross on the south side of the church is said to have been raised in 1023 by King Olav Haraldson, in an effort to convert the pagans to Christianity. This morning, a thousand years later, the idea was to convert the Christians to jazz.

A striking edifice both inside and out, the unusual, wooden octagonal steeple rises above the stonework in a curious meeting of materials and periods. Inside, a quasi-leopard-print pattern adorns the wooden beams of the ceiling. The stone alter dates to medieval times and baroque and Renaissance styles co-exist in the church's details.

As bells rang out, the twenty-two piece choir rose to its feet and stood impassively as the peels sounded for a full minute. The cessation of the bells signalled the commencement of Duke Ellington's "Heaven," from the jazz great's Second Sacred Concert (Prestige, 1969), with vocalist Kor splendidly reprising the role of Alice Babs; empathetic support came from guitarist Kare Nytun, double bassist Arne Toivo Fjose and pianist Magnus Kloften.

Quartet and choir joined on a series of familiar psalms, rising to a celebratory rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In"—a gospel song shared by the churches of Christianity and jazz alike—and concluding the service with the traditional spiritual "Let My People Go," which, with its themes of oppression, bondage and exodus, struck a contemporary chord in these turbulent times.

Morten Qvenild

Arguably best known for his role in the internationally renowned group In The County, pianist and keyboardist Morten Qvenild has played in numerous, quite diverse settings over the past fifteen years, from Jaga Jassist and Shining to the duo sPacemoNkey with Gard Nilssen. In recent years Qvenild has been experimenting with the integration of electronics with piano, and the fruit of his labour is his impressive, debut solo recording, Personal Piano (Hubro, 2016).

This recording, these years of experimentation, were the inspiration for this midday concert in the Ole Bull Academy.

With the lights turned off in the packed room, Qvenild approached the piano and a bank of instruments wearing a head-lamp. For the next hour or so, he proceeded to mine an array of sounds both organic and electronically filtered. Qvenild's processed vocal on the ballad "Turning, Returning," interspersed by searching piano lines and ambient textures, set the tone for the performance.

In turn, melodic, meditative and emotionally charged, Qvenild orchestrated a hypnotic performance of suite-like continuity. On Calvin Harris' "We Found Love" —a hit for Riahnaa—Qvenild rode a sparse piano groove, though the minimalist electronic pop gave way to a tumbling piano improvisation, which led in turn to a plucked piano strings coda.

Sombre yet elegant hymnal melodies bled into slow, reverb-heavy pulses over sampled rhythms. Slow motion, fugue-like minimalism was juxtaposed against precisely sculpted electronic soundscapes. Qvenild's acoustic/electronic chemistry was lulling yet uplifting and utterly seductive, and provided a highlight of Vossa Jazz 2016.

Stein Urheim: Traveling With the Natural Cosmolodic Orchestra

A pervious recipient of the Vossa Jazz Award (2010), guitarist Stein Urheim has worked in an eclectic range of musical settings, in a duo with Mari Kvien Brunvoll, with Gabriel Fliflet's Aresong band and from rock band Steady Steele to HP Gundersen's drone band The Last Hurrah! His own recordings as leader have been widely praised in the music press, with The Quietus' John Doran describing Stein Urheim (Hubro Records, 2014)—the guitarist's third release as leader—as "kind of mind blowing."

Given the range of his collaborations, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that this commissioned work for Vossa Jazz 2016 combined multiple musical elements The episodic narrative switched between composed form and free improvisation, with Per Jorgensen, Kjetil Moster, Mari Kvien Brunvoll, Ole Morten Vagan and Kare Opheim flitting in and out of collective passages and more intimate dialogs with controlled passion.

Urheim used graphic notation—images drawn from the disparate worlds of architect Buckminster Fuller, experimental musician Harry Partch, composer Eivind Groven and writer Aldous Huxley—to inspire the musicians, and there was certainly a very personal response to the more obviously free passages of music. Jazz and Norwegian folk roots dominated melodically, but Carnatic rhythms, African grooves, Stein's ethereal sound sculpting, subtle electronics, sampled voice and quite abstract interludes were all woven into the sweeping tapestry.

There was a little of Joe Zawinul's maxim "everybody solos and nobody solos," though there were standout individual moments, notably from Stein, Jorgensen and Moster. The cacophony of collective free improvisation contrasted with more melodious discourse and vocal harmonies as the music rose and fell in waves.

Stein and the musicians were greeted with a rousing ovation from the audience in the old cinema—a fitting response to a successful musical adventure, bold in scope and wonderfully executed.

Tord Gustavsen, Simin Tander, Jarle Vespestad

The birth of a new trio featuring Tord Gustavsen, Jarle Vespestad and Simin Tander was a mouth-watering live prospect to be sure.

Gustavsen is, without a doubt, one of Norway's most internationally renowned musical exports, with a string of successful albums on ECM under his belt. German/Afghan singer Simin Tander is, by comparison, perhaps not so well known, though her two solo recordings to date, Wagma (Neuklang Records, 2011) and When Water Travels Home (Jazzhaus Records, 2014) have established her credentials as a deeply personal, fearless and original modernist.

On the latter recording Tander interpreted several Afghan poems in Pashto and it was these heartfelt, lyrical songs that caught the attention of Gustavsen who proposed a collaboration. Norwegian hymns sung in Pashto, and Persian poet Rumi's poems sung in English found their way onto the quietly stunning work What Was Said (ECM, 2016), which provided the heart of this concert.

Feathery rubato piano and softly sighing cymbals provided sympathetic accompaniment to Tander's aching delivery on "Sweet Melting." That this was one of the latter tracks on the CD suggested that some thought went into how best to present this music sequentially in the live arena. The implied rhythms of the hushed opener were followed by the probing beat of drum and damped piano pulses on the hypnotic "Journey of Life," where Tander switched between Pashto and wordless improvisation.

On her solo recordings Tamin has sung in multiple languages and her own improvisations constitute a language all her own. "Your Grief" and "What Was Said to The Rose" were sung in English, the former a sotto voce lament, while the latter burned with poetic intensity, framed by Gustavsen's rumbling gravitas and Vespestad's restless stirrings.

To the slow-funk groove of the instrumental "The Way You Play My Heart" and on more gently swaying rhythms Tander danced the music, subtly and sensuously, in perfect harmony with her nuanced, arresting balladry. On the atmospheric "Castle in Heaven" the singer's ethereal vocals gave way to a powerful tenor cry, with Vespestad and Gustavsen ratcheting up the intensity. A standing ovation brought the trio back for a merited encore of "The Source of Now" -another haunting ballad, sung in English.

Pleasingly, the set included two new songs, one of them birthed at the rehearsal earlier in the day, which suggests that this project may go beyond a single album. This was a captivating performance from a special trio, whose empathy for one another, and for this lyrical poetry, resulted in music that will remain indelibly imprinted on the memory.

Tenor Battle

Opera and jazz might sound a little kitsch, an excuse perhaps for a light-hearted fusion ideal for smooth jazz radio, but Hakon Kornstad's performance in Voss' thirteenth century church was an outstanding marriage of two distinct idioms. Kornstad's pedigree as a first-rate saxophonist and genre-bender has been well documented on the Jazzland Recordings releases Single Engine (2007), Dwell Time (2009) and Symphonies In My Head (2011) but few could have predicted his venture into opera. Yet as the Kornstad CD Tenor Battle (2015) revealed, Kornstad, remarkably enough, possess a tenor voice every bit as impressive as his saxophone playing.

Backed by his band of five years standing -Sigbjorn Apeland on harmonium, Lars Henrik Johansen on harpsichord and cimbalom, Per Zanusi on double bass and Øyvind Skarbø on drums/percussion—Kornstad enthralled the packed church with a moving performance that was in the main pleasingly devoid of baroque-meets-jazz predictability. On Jules Massenet's "En Fermant les Yeux" Kornstad moved from lyrical operatic tenor to questing jazz improviser, the ensemble evoking a Charles Lloyd-esque exploration.

Italian arias by Francesco Paolo Tosi included the buoyant "Marechiare" and "L'ultima Canzone," with its air of Neapolitan romance. Kornstad's tender delivery of George Bizet's "Je Crois Entendre Encore" on a delicate bed of harmonium and cimbalom provided one of many highlights. Instrumentals peppered the set, with harpsichord and saxophone dovetailing on a spare rendition of Clauido Monteverde's "Lasciatemi Morire," while harmonium coupled dreamily with tenor on Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov's "Song Of India." A spellbinding and uplifting performance concluded with the quintet's lyrical reading of the standard "Dear Old Stockholm."

With no shortage of opera material for Kornstad and his band to mine, they could yet bring opera to the jazz public and vice versa. Of all the fusions that jazz has embraced over the past century, Kornstad's must rank as one of the most unlikely and as one of the most adventurous. And, based on this beautiful performance, one of the most successful.

Bernhoft and the Fashion Bruises

The final act of Vossa Jazz 2016 was not jazz, or any derivative thereof, but the pop as sung and played by Jarle Bernhoft-Sjodin. During an energetic, perfectly choreographed show it was easy to see why the singer-songwriter and guitarist is so popular in Norway. He might look a little like a young Elvis Costello but he moves and sings—no disrespect to Mr. Costello—like Prince.

His infectious mixture of rock-edged soul and bluesy pop, matched with the flare of a natural showman, made for a vibrant, highly enjoyable closing concert. Drummer Fredrick Wallumrod and bassist Vernund Stavenes kept it in the pocket, while keyboardist David Wallumrod and guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen took the lion's share of the solos, in addition to rhythmic duties. Yet the star of the show was the tireless Bernhoft-Sjodin, who it seems is incapable of writing a bad song. Melodious tunes with memorable hooks, singalong choruses, great riffs and wiggle room for solos was the staple of tunes that connected immediately with the listener.

Throwaway pop? Not a bit of it. These were all keepers. Great fun, and a great way to draw a line under three days of outstanding music.

Wrap-up

Vossa Jazz may be an international festival—and the presence of marquee names in Dave Holland and Tony Allen certainly added lustre to the line-up—but in essence, the three-day festival is a celebration of all that is great in Norwegian music. The music was as brilliant as it was diverse and frequently exceeded all expectations. For such imaginative programing, festival director Trude Storheim deserves all the plaudits, though her excellent team of trusted aides and the volunteers all contributed hugely to the smooth running and friendly atmosphere of the festival.

More than just a celebration of music, Vossa Jazz 2016 was a celebration of community, with the concerts for young, old and the disadvantaged making for a very significant part of the program, indeed of the festival's identity. More festivals could perhaps take a leaf out of Voss Jazz' book in this regard.

One nagging doubt, however, still remained; what had the children's opera been about? Happily, a chance encounter with the opera's Director, Ingrid Langen Fjose explained everything: "In a small town where nothing happens, every day is the same. Suddenly, a famous singer arrives with a dancer. All the men in the town fall in love with her and the press comes from outside the town to report the goings on. In the end, the famous artist leaves and the town returns to quiet as before. It says that a quiet life is better."

It's a tale that in some ways reflects the glorious musical hijacking of Voss that has taken place over one weekend, annually, since 1974. Except, that after three extraordinary days of music you rather feel that the inhabitants might just be sorry to see the jazz circus leave town.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Vossa Jazz/Runhild Heggem

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