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Vossa Jazz 2013

Vossa Jazz 2013

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Vossa Jazz
Oslo, Norway
March 22-24, 2013
Every festival hopes to have a signature, that certain something that differentiates it from all the rest and makes it a desired destination, but few have as many things going for it as the annual Vossa Jazz Festival, now in its 40th year.

It certainly may seem like an unlikely place for such a world-class jazz festival; the tiny town of Voss, administrative center of a larger municipality that's home to fewer than 14,000 people, is so small that simply providing hotel space for the annual influx of festival attendees and musicians is an ongoing challenge. The good news is that surrounded as it is by a seemingly endless range of snowcapped mountains, lakes, forests and fast-flowing rivers, Voss has become a premier destination for extreme sports ranging from whitewater rafting to skydiving, paragliding to skiing and much more, and is host to Ekstemsportveko (Extreme Sport Week) each year during the last week of June, considered to be the world's premier extreme sporting event.

There are those who come to Voss looking to stay in a hotel, to be sure, and the massive Park Hotel—a combination of two hotels that were once separate but have since been joined together—does provide plenty of space, in addition to a number of venues where many Vossa Jazz performances take place. Still, there are many who come from nearby Bergen—the country's second largest city, located about 100 kilometers southwest on the country's west coast—who own small huts in the forests and hills surrounding Voss; and if they come to Voss other times during the year for weekends or longer vacations to partake in the region's many sporting activities, it also means they've got their accommodations covered for the three-day Vossa Jazz festival, which always takes place the weekend before Easter.

Voss' reputation for extreme sporting infiltrates many things in the community, and that includes Vossa Jazz. "The good thing about Voss—not just with Vossa Jazz, but other festivals and everything that goes on here, culturally—is that there's this kind of 'let's do these things together' philosophy,'" says Brit Aksnes, Vossa Jazz's Press Office for the past six years. "There's a word in Norwegian, dugnad, that more or less means pulling together and doing things for free. You could say it's volunteer, but it's a bigger word for getting together and getting things done. And it's still a very important word. You'd think not, because we do have a lot of money, but it's still very important in encouraging people to get together culturally."

More than just taking advantage of the town's beautiful surroundings—like Molde, further north along the west coast, or Stavanger, situated farther south, the place is so beautiful that it makes coming for Vossa Jazz appealing on a number of levels that go beyond just the music. Vossa Jazz has, for the past seven years, taken advantage of the town's extreme sporting by offering a free Ekstremjazz performance on the second day of the festival. Music equipment, a sound system and the power to run it are all flown, by helicopter, up to a point on the 660 meter Mount Hangur where the snow has been leveled off and packed down to create an outdoor stage for a performance that combines suitably intrepid music with coordinated paragliders, hang gliders, skiers and other extreme sport denizens. "We had the first Ekstremjazz in 2007, the year before I became General Manager," says Trude Storheim. "The idea really comes from [keyboardist/composer] Jon Balke; he is the brains behind it. Of course it's collaboration, but he's a paraglide pilot, so he is also one of 'them.'"

"People from the area definitely represent the main audience," says Aksnes, "and it's a big, big happening. The second largest group comes from Bergen, and there are literally thousands who have huts in and around the Voss area. "The festival's first year was in 1974, and they started it up because there was this surge of jazz interest around the country. They'd started Nattjazz in Bergen the year before, so I think they thought. 'If they can do it there, let's do it in Voss also, there's no reason Voss shouldn't be the center of the universe," Aksnes continues, smiling. "There have been several weird locations for shows. For a time they were chucked out of the hotel and then they were invited back; then they had to go to another venue. So they've been pretty much all over the town. In the six years I've been here, they've played everywhere from the Folk Museum and the living room of a famous fiddle player in Voss, to the old freight building near the train station—though this will be the last year for that venue, as they're probably tearing it down, which is pretty sad, as it's always been the place for 'jazzy' jazz."

It may be relatively small, but Vossa Jazz has also been responsible for some very notable commissioned works, many of them ultimately released as recordings (which only serves to bring even more attention to the festival), like guitarist Terje Rypdal's Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006), recorded at the 2003 Vossa Jazz festival, and accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen's Backwards into the Backwoods (Winter & Winter, 2004), which stemmed from a Voss commission in the late 1990s. "The commissioned works at Vossa Jazz are the biggest commissioned works for jazz that you can get in Norway," says Storheim. "This year we are celebrating 40 years, and among the jazz festivals we have a lot of cred. There's so much to take in. There's our 32nd commissioned work, with Stian Carsensen, but we also have other commissioned work, like [saxophonist] Tore Brunborg, who is from Voss and we had this writer, who is also from Voss. We wanted to make a piece about the Vossa Jazz festival, with posters and film clips, with normal people reading the writer's words. It's a really great show about the festival and its 40-year history."

The festival's primary emphasis is on Scandinavian artists in general and Norwegian artists in particular—one look at the 2013 program says it all. In addition to Carstensen and Brunborg's commissions, there were performances by singer/kantele player Sinikka Langeland, ECM recording artists Trio Mediaeval, keyboard power trio Elephant9 with guitarist Reine Fiske, ECM pianist Ketil Bjornstad in duo with singer Kari Bremnes, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra reprising its 2012 Molde Jazz commission with saxophonist Marius Neset, and the fearless improvising duo of singer Sidsel Endresen and guitarist Stian Westerhus, amongst many others. But the festival does bring in artists from abroad, including Scotland's impressively hilarious Brass Jaw and, from the United States, drummer Nasheet Waits' Equality and pianist Brad Mehldau's new duo with drummer Mark Guiliana, Mehliana.

"Trude [Storheim] does all the booking," explains Aksnes, "though she has a group of people with whom she discusses and collaborates. I think she heard of the Mehliana project when they were set to play in Oslo. That's something we do when it comes to big acts; we talk to people in Oslo, who may want to book them as well—not in Bergen, because that's direct competition. In the case of Mehliana, I think Trude really wanted them for the opening night; it's always great to have a big name, a more commercial name, even though this project is not, for Mehldau, particularly commercial."

Storheim has been Managing Director for six years, but her history with the festival goes much further back. "I started with the festival as a volunteer when I was 18 years old, and I've done all kinds of things for the festival," she explains. "And then, in 2008, I was hired as Managing Director, so this is my sixth festival. I'm really focused on the festival's profile, in particular the musical profile of jazz combined with folk music—both the Norwegian version of folk music and world music. We are really keen to keep that profile and also to remain innovative."

And how does Vossa Jazz work within the community? "For Voss, it's really integral," says Storheim. "When I was a volunteer, I worked with Badnajazz [Jazz for Kids] because I wanted the kids to start early—to come to the concerts and perform in concerts. And then we saw something: when you get the kids on stage, of course, you get the fathers, the mothers, the aunts and the uncles, and for a place like Voss, which is a small village, this is really great, because new people came, like grandmothers, who'd tell me, 'Oh, I'm going to the Vossa Jazz festival, I think it's a bit scary,' because the reputation of jazz is that it's weird and very strange; then people go and discover, 'Oh, it's not so dangerous,' so it's a really good thing."

2013 was a particularly big year for Vossa Jazz, in addition to celebrating its 40th year. On the Saturday, two of its artists—the Sidsel Endresen/Stian Westerhus duo and Stian Carstensen—learned that they'd won Norwegian Grammy Awards—for Endresen/Westerhus, in the Best Jazz Album category for Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012); for Carstensen, in the Open Category, for his latest release with Farmers Market, Slav to the Rhythm (Division Records, 2012). It meant an even bigger night of celebration that went well into the early hours of the morning. "It was a really big, big, big party," Storheim enthuses. "It's also cred for the festival that the music is very, very good. We always have a lot of Grammy Award winners playing at the festival."

Chapter Index
March 22: Mehliana / Emilia Mårtensson / Stian Westerhus / Alex Riel and Stefan Pasborg
March 23: Ekstremjazz: Jøkleba!
March 23: Tore Brunborg / Stian Carstensen
March 24: Sinikka Langeland Ensemble / Trio Mediaeval Ensemble
Festival Wrap-Up

March 13: March 22: Mehliana / Emilia Mårtensson / Stian Westerhus / Alex Riel and Stefan Pasborg

If the festival was meant to kick off on a high note, that was unfortunately scuttled by pianist Brad Mehldau's new project with drummer Mark Guiliana, Mehliana. After opening ceremonies for the festival, Mehldau appeared onstage with just a Fender Rhodes and a synthesizer, while Guiliana's kit was augmented by a laptop computer. And that's where the problem began. This isn't the first time Mehldau has dabbled in electric instruments; 2002's Largo (Warner Bros.) was an intriguing and engaging record that, produced by pop songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Job Brion, demonstrated that Mehldau's palette was far broader than his already successful series of Art of the Trio recordings—recently collected in a seven-disc box (Nonesuch, 2011)—with the pianist writing arrangements for brass and woodwinds, and playing, in addition to his usual grand piano, a Fender Rhodes, synthesizer, vibraphone and percussion, in a set of largely original compositions, with one Beatles tune and one Antonio Carlos Jobim tune thrown into the mix.

What made the record good was its blend of acoustic and electric instruments, and the existence of predetermined form around which Mehldau used a wider array of instruments than usual to color his sonic canvas. Here, in Voss, it seemed largely improvised, and while Mehldau's technical acumen and improvisational skills are irrefutable, coming to a country where the integration of acoustic and electric instrumentation is so organic, so effortlessly natural—and with a disproportionately large number of musicians—was a gutsy move which, sadly, didn't succeed particularly well. When compared to Norwegians like pianists Bugge Wesseltoft, {Splashgirl}}'s Andreas Stensland Løwe, In The Country's Morten Qvenild and Eple Trio's Andreas Ulvo, Mehldau's use of electronics seemed rather rudimentary and obvious, rather than the seamless manner in which these musicians manage to integrate electronic instrumentation into their overall approach.

Equally, Guiliana is undeniably a fine drummer—first coming to attention in Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen's group but, in the years since, working with everyone from saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Jason Lindner to guitarists Brad Shepik and Lionel Loueke—and clearly a player with an intuitive ability as similarly fine-tuned as Mehldau's. But it just didn't seem to work. Perhaps it was the evening; perhaps it was, indeed, being in a country where what the duo was striving to achieve sonically seemed a little rudimentary—certainly the duo's reviews elsewhere have ranged from positive to positively glowing. But as an opening set for Vossa Jazz, with many people leaving the large Vossasaken Hall in the Park Hotel from as early as the first couple numbers, it may have looked like a strong contender on paper but, sadly it fell a little short. As Mehldau continues to stretch his boundaries with other duos including Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile, pianist Kevin Hays and saxophonist Joshua Redman—their 2011 duo performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival being a highlight of that event's year—hopefully his work with Guiliana will continue to evolve and improve.

Elsewhere at the Park Hotel, Emilia Mårtensson was delivering a beautifully restrained set that supported the accolades the singer has been garnering since making guest appearances on Britain's Kairos 4tet's two releases—2009's self-produced debut, Kairos Moment and its Edition Records follow-up, two years later, Statement of Intent, which won the group the 2011 MOBO Award. Her own debut on the small, but important independent Babel label, And So It Goes... (2012), only further serves to explain why Britain's The Observer dubbed her "The New Face of British Jazz 2012."

That Mårtensson had to leave her native Sweden for the UK to gain attention is curious, but the new London-resident has clearly found her place. And So It Goes... is a duo recording with pianist Barry Greene, but for her Vossa Jazz performance, Mårtensson brought the quartet with whom she's been working regularly—in addition to Green, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer/percussionist Adriano Adewale. In the packed and absolutely perfect club-like environment of the intimate Huskort room, she and her group clearly felt comfortable and at home delivering material from the recording, which puts new spins on contemporary tunes like James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" and Peter Gabriel's "Washing of the Water," in addition to covering Egberto Gismonti's "Palhaço," first heard on the Brazilian pianist/guitarist's Circense (Carmo, 1980) but more recently found on ECM Records' unearthed archival 1981 live performance of his "Magico" Trio with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and bassist Charlie Haden on Carta de Amor (ECM, 2012).

Her bio makes it clear that, growing up in Sweden, the twenty-something singer was more enamored with jazz vocal legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Anita O'Day than pop icons of her generation or singer/songwriters of years past like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, making her near-Spartan delivery all the more surprising...and refreshing. With a sympathetic band and a delivery high on substance and low on flash, the only unfortunate thing was leaving the set before it was over, in order to make a bus to the next show...

...which was a surprise performance, announced only a couple days prior to the festival. With guitarist Stian Westerhus in town for a duo performance with singer Sidsel Endresen, the festival decided to add another show that married Voss' extreme sports predilections with a guitarist whose own reputation as a fearless risk-taker made it an ideal marriage.

Opened about a year ago, Voss' wind tunnel has already become an immensely popular visitor destination. And why not? In a tube-like tunnel, an artificially generated wind makes it possible to find out what it's like to actually fly—and, unlike real-deal sports like skydiving and paragliding, in a completely safe environment. But with a relatively tiny room outside the glass-enclosed wind tunnel, there was room for, perhaps, forty or so people to watch as Westerhus delivered a 30-minute free improvisation in concert with trained skydivers, who seemed to be utterly locked in with him as he ran the gamut from harsh angularity to periods of profound beauty that remained unorthodox in their approach, with Westerhus slapping and scratching the strings of his guitar as often as he flat-picked or bowed them, all fed through four amplifiers and a massive array of effects pedals on the floor.

Westerhus' most recent recording, the superb but enigmatically titled The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012), took advantage of the 20 second-plus delay of the Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo. Here, set up outside the wind tunnel, he was back to a more normal acoustic environment but was, as always, focused so deeply, so intently on his in-the-moment creations that by the time the short set was over, he was drenched in sweat and clearly exhausted but, just as clearly, thoroughly invigorated.

As many as four skydivers were in the wind tunnel at the same time, doing everything from coordinated spinning movements to unfettered improvisational choreography that, in its seemingly joined-at-the-hip responses to Westerhus' music, was all the more remarkable when it became clear that, between the loud noise generated by the wind tunnel (but kept separate from the audience by some remarkable soundproofing) and the ear plugs and helmets meant to protect the skydivers' hearing, they couldn't hear the guitarist at all. Instead, a man situated by the entry door to the wind tunnel gave the skydivers hand signals to help them coordinate with the music.

Any chance to hear Westerhus play solo is worthy of attention; but with Vossa Jazz's commitment to bringing extreme sports together with its sometimes equally extreme music, it was a show that the small but enthusiastic audience—bussed, conveniently, from the Park Hotel and back again when the show was over—will not soon forget. Nor will Westerhus, who later took advantage of a chance to try the wind tunnel himself, about which he enthused, the following evening, "It was the experience of a lifetime; the most incredible thing I've ever done." Strong words, indeed, coming from such an intrepid musician whose own risk-taking aesthetic is hard to match.

Vossa Jazz, for those with strong dispositions, runs well into the wee hours of the morning; many festivals sport midnight shows, but Vossa Jazz goes further, with its last shows starting at 2:00am. A midnight show at Fraktgodsen, a converted freight building behind the train station, brought together two drummers—renowned Dane Alex Riel and his godson, Stefan Pasborg—for a Scandinavian project called Another Universe, which teamed them with Norwegian saxophonist Petter Wettre, rising star Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and Danish organist Jeppe Tuxen. Well known Danish pianist Carsten Dahl was also meant to appear, but had to pull out at the last minute, due to illness.

It was a largely mainstream set, with plenty of blowing space for everyone, including the two drummers. Approaching 73, Riel, over the course of a career now in its sixth decade, has played with everyone from saxophonist Archie Shepp to singer Karin Krog, and was part of a one-time performance at the 2010 Molde Jazz Festival that brought him together with vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Tommy Smith and bassist Arild Andersen. Pasborg has no shortage of jazz cred, either, as founder of the independent ILK Music label and member of bands like Free Moby Dick (scheduled to perform Saturday night at Vossa Jazz); still, his playing demonstrated there are other sources in his pedigree, especially clear each time the two drummers entered into a cappella trade-offs with one another.

Without Dahl, Tuxen was left to carry a lot of additional weight in the band, from chordal accompaniment to bass pedal support. Perhaps a reflection of this unexpected additional responsibility, he proved himself capable but not particularly memorable, especially in light of having heard organist Larry Goldings with guitarist John Scofield's Organic Trio in Burghausen, Germany a couple weeks back. Pohjola, while blessed with a lovely tone and as good set of ears, seemed equally out of his depth, his own projects considerably distanced from the American tradition. Beyond Riel and Pasborg, the only player who really appeared comfortable in this context was Wettre who, beyond studies with saxophonist Dave Liebman (a perfect match, considering Liebman's Brooklyn background and Wettre's admirably outspoken character), gained some international attention a couple years back, replacing saxophonist Tore Brunborg on tour with drummer Manu Katche when the group regular was unable to make it. Wettre's understanding of the American tradition runs deep, and it was only when he soloed that the music really began to take off.

It was a fine set of straight-ahead jazz to round out a first day at Vossa Jazz that may have started out on shaky ground, but gradually found its legs as the evening progressed, and bode extremely well for the following day when both the Ekstremjazz performance by Jøkleba! and a new commissioned work from Stian Carstensen promised to be festival highlights.

March 23: Ekstremjazz: Jøkleba!

Vossa Jazz's Ekstremjazz afternoon is one of its touchstones, one of its unmistakable differentiators. On an afternoon where a musical performance is combined with extreme sports to create a stunning audiovisual experience high up on Mount Hangur, with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and the town of Voss, what they don't tell you is it's something of an extreme experience for the audience as well.

The first part seemed easy enough: a cable car to a point about halfway up the mountain where, in the preceding days, helicopters flew up generators, gear and equipment to clear a flat surface in the snow to use as a stage. But that wasn't the end of it; a 350 meter walk might not seem like much, but when it's going down a snow-covered mountain where it's so steep, at times, that ropes were provided for assistance, the only thought going on during the trek down the mountain was: "After the show I have to climb back up?" Best not to worry about that until later.

After about a 20-25 minute climb down the mountain, a few intrepid journalists, traveling together, made it just in time for the performance by Jøkleba!, the super group of keyboardist Jon Balke, drummer Audun Kleive and trumpeter/percussionist/vocalist Per Jorgensen. Jøkleba! performed for the first time in over a decade at the 2011 Vossa Jazz festival, a show that went down as the best of the year for many of those in attendance. It dovetailed nicely with the reissue of the group's self-titled 1992 debut, along with an additional disc of unreleased material, Jøkleba!/nu jøk? (Universal Norway, 2011), even as it only happened when bassist Dave Holland was forced to pull out at the last minute due to family illness and Balke, Kleive and Jørgensen agreed to fill in at the last moment.

As exciting as that show must have been, it took place in the town; high up on Mount Hangur two years later, Jøkleba! delivered an hour-long performance that would have been stunning on its own, but became even more spectacular for the coordinated paragliders, skiers, dancers and other sports people who would appear, at times, high in the sky—barely a pinpoint against the bright blue sky and bright, thankfully warm midday sunlight—only to slowly circle their way around the vast space between the mountains, to finally land nearby the white expanse of snow that served as Jøkleba!'s stage.

It may have been the first official day of spring, but up on Mount Hangur, sitting on the snow and even with the sun, it was cold; all the more amazing, then, that Balke, Kleive and Jørgensen were able to play with such dexterity, let alone such profound musicality. Kleive—who came to international attention as a member of Terje Rypdal's Chasers but has since become a much in-demand player, in addition to a leader in his own right, with two new releases on the go: Attack (POL, 2012), with his Generator X band, and Release (POL, 2012), a collaboration with Punkt Festival co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré—used only an electronic kit, similar to that used in his 2011 Nattjazz performance with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and percussionist Helge Norbakken, creating sounds that ranged from otherworldly electronic pulses to more recognizable percussion textures.

Balke, whose Magnetic North Orchestra—recently heard on the two-disc collection Magnetic Works: 1993-2001 (ECM, 2012)—has garnered world acclaim and positioned him as one of Norway's most important composers. Like Kleive, he also had only a single electric keyboard and laptop. But he had an instantly recognizable sound palette, especially on the low end; assuming a more orchestral role with the trio, he built harmonic motion that sounded preconceived in its sometimes songlike construction but was, in fact, created in the moment. Few free improvising units sound as focused and form-based as Jøkleba!, even as the trio moved seamlessly from abstract impressionism to funk and even gospel-tinged balladry.

Jørgensen has been one of Norway's best kept secrets for the longest time, though that's slowly changing, both through his participation in Magnetic North Orchestra and on internationally available recordings like Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs (ECM, 2010), a deeply beautiful trio recording of religious music linked to pagan culture combined with psalms stemming from Russian Orthodoxy that also featured Finnish pianist Samuli Mikkonen and drummer Markku Ounaskari (who was in town for a performance with singer/kantele player Sinikka Langeland the following afternoon).

A trumpeter clearly rooted, at least in part, in the Miles Davis tradition—especially when the trio moved into a kind of spare jungle funk reminiscent of Davis' early '70s electric groups, but with far less density—he's also a singer as capable of visceral yelps and ululations as a more fragile lyricism. He's always been a tremendously charismatic performer and here, situated a good five meters from Balke and Kleive, who were set up side-by-side near a small hut, he may have looked distanced from his trio mates, but musically it was as if he was connected at the hip—pushing and pulling, in concert with Balke and Kleive, to create a continuous performance that traversed broad musical territory, with change often instigated by the slightest of musical suggestions from any one of Jøkleba!'s members.

It was an exceptional performance made all the more so by the beauty of the day and the visuals both natural and constructed by the extreme sports folks. And while it may have been a long, hard walk back up to the cable car for the trip back down the mountain—some intrepid folks actually deciding to try the dangerous walk down the mountain from the performance space—but it was a trip well worth taking, and a show that will resonate for a long, long time to come.

March 23: Tore Brunborg / Stian Carstensen

Back in town, still cold from the experience up on Mount Hangur, there was a good opportunity to rest up and warm up at Gamelkinoen, a venue just up the street from the Park Hotel, where saxophonist Tore Brunborg was unveiling his commission for the festival, YM (a local expression meaning "sound that comes from afar")—a multimedia piece intended as a celebration of the festival's 40th anniversary. With a group that included guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Steiner Raknes and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, Brunborg's show was heavy on atmosphere as it combined compelling visuals, spoken word delivered both by the authors and, in film clips, Voss residents; it wasn't necessary to know Norwegian to feel the love of the piece, both for the festival and its location.

Aarset—beyond the atmospherics that have been a signature since he first emerged, both as the guitarist in trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's band and for his own series of recordings, beginning with 1998's much-lauded Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998) through to his recent leader debut for ECM Records, Dream Logic (2012)—played considerably more "guitaristically" than usual, with clear, chiming chords and gentle melodies that dovetailed with Brunborg's spare melodism.

The pair were driven gently by Raknes (brother of singer Eldbjørg and a member of violinist Ola Kvernberg's Folk (Jazzland, 2009) trio and post-Coltrane quartet the Core, heard on recordings like Office Essentials (Jazzland, 2008)) and Johansen, a member of The Source, last encountered on its eponymous 2009 ECM recording, singer Solveig Slettahjell's Slow Motion project, heard last on Tarpan Seasons (Universal Norway, 2010), and pianist Christian Wallumrod's ensemble's recordings, including Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM, 2010).

Programming music at the right time is sometimes as much a challenge as programming it in the right sequence, and beyond the soft, warm lyricism of this special and heartfelt project for Vossa Jazz's 40th anniversary, it couldn't have been performed at a better time—a perfect mid-afternoon concert that, in its relaxed ambience and occasional humor, provided a comfortable respite and preparation for the long evening of music ahead.

With more music from which to choose, a commitment to attend a special dinner for commissioned artists and guests in order to experience the local, um, delicacy of sheep's head, and only so much time, there was really only one choice: Tingingsverk 2013, the festival's main commission which, this year, was awarded to multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen.

The word "genius" gets bantered about a lot in music writing, but few artists truly fit the definition. Carstensen is one of them, however; a musician who was already garnering attention in Norway at the age of eight, when he appeared on NRK (the country's public television station), performing a piece called "Dizzy Fingers" on accordion:

Since then a lot has happened. Aside from making his accordion MIDI-capable and picking up a variety of other instruments, including banjo, guitar, pedal steel guitar and kaval (a Baltic end-blown flute)—and spending time around the world learning various cultural ornamentation approaches to these instruments—Carstensen has also revealed himself to be a remarkable composer, most of the time for his group Farmers Market, whose 2012 release, Slav to the Rhythm (Division Records) is hands-down its best recording to date—a staggering pan-cultural blend of folks traditions, progressive rock leanings and muscular fusion tendencies. That Slav was announced as winner of the 2012 Norwegian Grammy Awards, in the Open Category, the same evening as Carstensen's Vossa Jazz performance, only served to further highlight this remarkable instrumentalist/composer's work and the growing (and well-deserved) acclaim he's been garnering.

Carstensen took advantage of his Vossa Jazz commission to put together a much larger band centered around the core rhythm trio of Farmers Market—Carstensen, bassist Finn Guttormsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad—but with the inclusion of violinists Ola Kvernberg and Atle Sponberg, cellist Mats Rondin, harpist Sidsel Walstad and keyboardist/singer Torbjorn Dyrud, Carstensen had a much larger sonic palette from which to shape his characteristically episodic, complex yet irrefutably fun compositions.

And fun was a big part of the performance. He may have been playing in mixed meters, whistling staggering melodies as he played them in unison on accordion, or engaging with Vespestad and Guttormsen in a knotty percussion trio on three large marching band drums, but from the moment he took to the stage it was clear just how much joy was involved for Carstensen, as he encouraged everyone in his group and, when taking his own solos, played with facial expressions that ranged from puckish mischief to unfettered joy.

The music ran a broad gamut of styles, incorporating the Baltic music that has so clearly enthralled Carstensen for years, along with unexpected (or, with Carstensen at the helm, perhaps not) moments of contemporary classicism as suddenly, the music stopped, leaving a string trio and harp to deliver moments of delicate, elegant beauty. From Bach to rock, from Baroque to Bond (that's James Bond), Carstensen's octet navigated a complex route, where some whammy bar-driven surf guitar on a baritone electric was juxtaposed with strange but beautiful instrumental combinations, plus a very brief passage of just harp and pedal steel guitar, suggesting a pairing that should perhaps be explored further.

Carstensen's effortless mastery was mirrored by every one of his band mates—that many of the musicians onstage were playing this challenging music without the help of charts was just one more surprise in a show filled with them—but special mention needs to go to Kvernberg, a young violinist who, beyond his own recordings like Folk and the even more ambitious Liarbird (Jazzland, 2011), has quickly become one of the country's most in-demand violinists, putting in a terrific appearance on psychedelic rock group Motorpsycho's collaboration with Elephant9 keyboardist Ståle Storløkken on The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon, 2012). Like Carstensen, Kvernberg seems capable of fitting into any context, whether it's the Manouche of his early days on the Hot Club of Norway label, or the pedal-to-the-floor progressive fusion of Grand General, a young supergroup with members of Motorpsycho, the Core and Bushman's Revenge, and whose eponymous 2013 Rune Grammofon debut is an early contender for the year's "best of" list. Paired with Carstensen, and especially during passages where they were playing off one another, it was clear that Carstensen had found a likeminded virtuoso.

Walstad was equally impressive; a classical player who clearly had no problem stretching herself beyond the usual confines of her gig with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Like Walstad, Dyrud's background is in classical music, having worked as a church organist, conductor of the vocal group Ginnunhagap and the Oslo Chamber Choir, and a composer of a cappella vocal pieces including "Love Song In," which won the 2004 TONO Edvard award. But his reach is clearly even further; whether he was adding organ and piano parts to the rockier passages of Carstensen's cross-cultural musical mesh, making sudden switches to harpsichord for periodic moments of soft classicism, or singing the suitably satirical and Carstensen-esque encore about the inevitable progression (?) of marriage, Dyrud established himself, over the course of the performance, as a musician whose career needs to be checked out further.

As for Carstensen? His effortless virtuosity has been a given for years, whether it's in the context of Farmers Market or the more intimate confines of his Little Radio duo with British saxophonist Iain Ballamy, heard recently opening for pianist Michel Legrand at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, England. As much as Farmers Market affords him complete freedom to do what he will, this commission went further; by giving him the opportunity to work with a larger ensemble and take advantage of its richer orchestral possibilities, it raised his game even further. Hopefully this won't be the only performance of this music. More importantly, hopefully it will find its way onto a recording sometime soon, so that folks unable to catch him in his native Norway will be able to hear what all the buzz is about.

March 24: Sinikka Langeland Ensemble / Trio Mediaeval Ensemble

Vossa Jazz's final day started early (11:30am) and ended early (10:30pm, leaving plenty of time to hit the overnight train to Oslo, the first leg of a long trip back home to Canada), but amongst a number of these fine shows, two must-sees stood out.

Sinikka Langeland has been on the Norwegian scene for many years, releasing a number of fine recordings in Norway, based on either folk or classical traditions; but it was with the release of the sublime Starflowers (ECM, 2007) that she finally showed up on the international radar. The singer and kantele player—a plucked member of the dulcimer/zither family—has been exploring the music of Norway dating back to mediaeval times through to Norwegian folk hymns and Bach chorales since Langt Innpå Skoga (Grappa, 1994),but it was with Runoja (Heilo/Grappa, 2002) that, with the recruitment of trumpeter Arve Henriksen, she began to form the group that would eventually coalesce with Starflowers and continue with The Land That Is Not (ECM, 2011), an ensemble also featuring saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Markky Ounaskari.

Henriksen was not available for Langeland's Sunday afternoon performance at Osasalen, another venue situated a short five-minute walk from the Park Hotel, but while it would be difficult to ever say the trumpeter's presence wasn't missed, the remaining quartet certainly sounded no less complete without him; the only thing the group missed, during its early afternoon show, was the inevitable interaction between Henriksen and Seim, but in a show that drew heavily from her two ECM group recordings, the saxophonist simply assumed a more central role. Still, as a player whose interest in improvisation is one that eschews meaningless demonstrations of virtuosity—and as one of Norway's most important composers to emerge post-Balke on albums like Different Rivers (ECM, 2001) and Sangam (ECM, 2005)—Seim played with characteristic restraint, his tone on tenor and curved soprano as inimitable as ever, his curious ability to bend notes and play microtonally the result of significant time spent studying in the Middle East, and his strength in evoking melodies redolent of his country's tradition as unmistakable as always.

Jormin—perhaps better known for past tenures with American saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, and his ongoing partnership in pianist Bobo Stenson's trio—may have been at a disadvantage, with his bass lost in transit and performing on a borrowed instrument, but if he was working any harder to achieve his characteristic singing tone, nobody could have noticed. Ounasakari—who has certainly been getting around since he recorded > Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs, also appearing in the Fugara (DNL, 2012) quartet, with pianist Stevko Busch, trumpeter Markus Stockhausen and saxophonist Paul Van Kemenade and, earlier in the naughties, Brutto Gusto (Challenge, 2003), with Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans—was his characteristically sensitive self; capable of delicately moving the pulse forward with the gentlest of cymbal work but equally able to imbue the music with more power and drive when required.

But as superb as the entire group was, it was hard pull attention away from Langeland. Her playing on the kantele was a revelation; her singing a perfect combination of vulnerability and effortless power. The kantele is a much broader instrument, when it comes to range, than it might appear in photos, and Langeland's mastery of the instrument was even more impressive live than her recorded performances suggest. Combined with Jormin's soaring tone, Ounaskari's textural intuition and Seim's unfailingly perfect choices, it made for an afternoon performance evocative of sweeping images of barren landscapes and almost painful beauty—one that will not soon be forgotten.

The same can be said for the late afternoon performance by Trio Mediaeval, billed as the Trio Mediaeval Ensemble because, in addition to its three singers, the group was augmented by violinist/viola d'amore and Hardanger fiddler Nils Okland—heard just a few evenings back in Oslo with drummer Thomas Strønen—and percussionist Birger Mistereggen, who accompanied the trio on Folk Songs (ECM, 2007), an album that broke the mold with the rest of the trio's ECM discography by focusing on a repertoire of traditional Norwegian folk music, rather than the early and contemporary classical music of albums like Stella Maris (ECM, 2005) and A Worcester Ladymass (ECM, 2011).

But in addition to Økland and Mistereggen, there were other changes to be found. Singer Berit Opheim Versto, who replaced Trio Mediaeval regular Anna Maria Friman during the 2011 North American tour that took them, amongst other places, to Toronto, Canada on a cold, snowy winter's eve, was back, this time replacing Torunn Østrem Ossum. Versto, with her strong folk music background, was the ideal choice for Folk Songs II, the new book of music unveiled in Voss that, arranged by Friman and fellow Trio Mediaeval regular Linn Andrea Fuglseth, returned to the Norwegian traditional music of Folk Songs.

The addition of Økland allowed for even greater musical breadth and depth, as the trio once again demonstrated its remarkable ability to pass melodies around like a tag-team baton, each singer moving from lead to supporting vocalist in a seamless fashion that, were it not possible to identify each singer's distinctive timbre and style, it would have seemed to have been sung by one singer alone, accompanied by two others. With Mistereggen's generally soft hand percussion and remarkable use of a Jew's harp (later demonstrating how it's possible to achieve overtones to actually make the small metal instrument capable of melody), and both men occasionally adding their voices to Trio Mediaeval's soaring sopranos, it created a much broader soundscape and allowed for more expansive and ambitious arrangements.

Even bigger surprises were in store, however, as Friman went to the back of the stage, returning with Hardanger fiddle to play both alone and in duet with Økland; it was her first time performing live, she said after the show, but rather than it being at all obvious, it felt more like a hidden secret that she had chosen to unveil, like a gift, here at her Vossa Jazz performance. Fuglseth, too, revealed another instrument to be added to the overall audioscape as she brought out a harmonium halfway through the performance and, like Friman, performed with the kind of effortless fluency that suggested this was something she's had up her sleeve all along, just waiting for the right moment to bring it out.

The trio also used handchimes to create soft harmonic settings around which their vocals swirled with grace, elegance and, at times, unexpected power. If Versto was a fine singer but clearly a replacement in the Toronto show, here she seemed more fully integrated into the trio's sound. Ossum is still listed as a member at the group's website, so it would appear that Versto is, once again, a temporary member; as part of the Trio Mediaeval Ensemble, however, she was—like Økland and Mistereggen—a perfect addition and important evidence that, together now for more than a decade, Trio Mediaeval is entirely not content to rest on the considerable laurels it has achieved since the release of the aptly titled Words of the Angels (ECM, 2001). Instead, with projects like Folk Songs II, it's clear that Trio Mediaeval is always on the lookout for new means, new ways and new contexts in which to use its truly heavenly voices. With a performance as superb as the Vossa Jazz show, here's hoping it won't be long before Folk Songs II is recorded and released.

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