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Vossa Jazz 2016

Ian Patterson By

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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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