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Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013

Vossa Jazz XL: Voss, Norway, March 22-24, 2013
John Kelman By

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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


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