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JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2018

Jakob Baekgaard By

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JazzNorway in a Nutshell
Bergen, Norway
May 23-27, 2018

If anyone should be in doubt, Norwegian jazz is thriving. Through many years, the musicians in Norway have continued to refine what might be called a particularly Norwegian approach to the jazz tradition. It is not about repeating any preconceived ideas of what jazz is, but rather a curious take on what music can be that is not bound by any genre. New forms emerge and yet there are certain characteristics of the many different sounds that make up such a broad category as contemporary jazz in Norway, among them a connection to folk and free music. One of the best ways of experiencing the state of Norwegian jazz is by going to JazzNorway in a Nutshell that takes place in and around Bergen. Here, it is possible to hear Norwegian jazz as it sounds right now.

Formally, Nutshell is hosted by Vestnorsk Jazzcenter (West Norway Jazz Centre) in cooperation with Nattjazz and Bergen International Festival, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, City of Bergen, Hordaland County and Music Norway. Practically, it is a yearly gathering of music industry people from around the world, who are invited to experience Norwegian jazz through showcases held at many different places and attend a specially curated part of the Nattjazz Festival (Night Jazz Festival) in Bergen. This year's event also included a trip to Voss, home of the acclaimed Vossa Jazz Festival.

The purpose of this admirable initiative is to find ambassadors of Norwegian jazz and create a network of professionals that Norwegian musicians can connect with and the benefit goes both ways. It all boils down to spreading the word about good music. This has been done through many years and Nutshell has succeeded in building a strong identity that is supported by a friendly atmosphere coupled with professionalism and a sense of the finer details, which means that the music is presented in a culturally and geographically diverse context.

This year, Project Manager, Brit Aksnes, Managing Director of West Norway Jazz Centre, Nina Torske, and Head of jazz, Music Norway, Aslak Oppebøen, could welcome another delegation of writers and industry professionals to attend four days packed with wonderful music, Norwegian food and culture. The artistic program director was Gard Nilssen who in cooperation with West Norway Jazz Centre had put together a program that spanned many generations of Norwegian jazz musicians and not only the new and up-coming crop.

Day 1

Arriving to the beautiful city of Bergen, surrounded by towering mountains, the scene was immediately set for something special, but the inherent sublimity of the setting is balanced by the people who inhabit the city. They are friendly and down to earth and the same thing goes for the music. It is both open and inviting and yet it often has an experimental edge. This was also the case with the showcase on the first evening, presenting a group, Øyunn, led by drummer, singer and songwriter, Siv Øyunn.

Bassist Audun Erlien opened with an electric bass ostinato that slowly developed into a spacious groove with Øyunn singing about "busting the illusions." The lyrics of the compositions were existential, dealing with the problem of finding one's way in the world, but there was also a protest song. Using a hip hop-beat, Øyunn conveyed the message that we should "speak up and let truth flow."

The music also flowed with Andreas Stensland Løwe's use of keyboards, including the sound of Fender Rhodes. He both provided layered textures and supported the mellow groove. Trumpeter Hilde Marie Holsen changed effortlessly between transparent lyrical lines on the trumpet and electronically manipulated click sounds. Øyunn was literally in the middle of it all with her drum set and a vocal that one participant suitably connected to the Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam. However, Øyunn has her own personality and her message that the search for acceptance starts inside the individual and not outside in the world was a clear statement from a promising musician and singer who is in the process of finding herself.

The concert concluded with a song that Øyunn had written for the Peer Gynt Project initiated by Music Norway. Øyunn revealed that there was a hidden reference to the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in the song. It was a subtle way of incorporating a piece of Norwegian classical music, but in a song-based form with elements of jazz, indie-rock and electronica.

Day 2

The next day started with a trip to Voss. The first showcase took place in the remarkable Finnesloftet, a very old Norwegian treehouse that is considered one of the oldest buildings in Norway, dating to the time around 1295. The fascinating craft and architecture of the building could be compared with the iconic stave churches, but this building was used for more profane purposes, hosting banquets with good food, entertainment and beer. The guide promised that the audience would get at least two of these things and he was right. The beer was not missed as delicate apple juice was served to a hot soup made from organic, local vegetables and tender meat from free-range cattle.

Food aside, the main course was the concert by a group led by local musicians, saxophonist Elizabeth Lid Trøen and flutist and pianist Ingrid Øygard Steinkopf. They met the rest of the musicians in the group, alto saxophonist Christian Cuadra, trumpeter Sturla Hauge Nilsen, bassist Morten Berger Stai and drummer Rino Sivathas, in the jazz program at University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and took the name Bounce Alarm.

The music was indeed bouncing as the concert started with the composition "Inspiration." A straightforward melodic theme was used on a tune that used the contrasts between Øygard Steinkopf's flute and the brass section of trumpet, tenor saxophone and alto saxophone as an interesting template for the exploration of textures. However, this template was more fully realized on "Expectations," another tune penned by Øygard Steinkopf, who also played piano convincingly. She used spare, skeletal, single notes and compressed chord patterns, but also had occasional bursts of romanticism. Her playing recalled the late German pianist, Jutta Hipp.

Many jazz genres could be namechecked as the group changed between whiplash bop breaks, detailed and restrained cool jazz, cooking hard bop and rock energy. The passion was there, but the drumming of Sivathas, whose elegant and light playing at times recalled Vernell Fournier, gave the music balance between cool and hot. The rest of the compositions: "Hans Tanks Gate," "Swing and Sweat" and "Bouncing Through Some Bankin Puppies" all showed the potential of a group whose musicianship was impeccable, but it still seemed like a group sound that was in the making and could be perfected even more. While the melodies and arrangements were tight, and the solos focused, it could have been interesting to hear the group take greater advantage of the light contrast that the flute provided and there was also the unanswered question of how the group would tackle a pure ballad and the type of fragile, emotional storytelling that it represents.

The concert at Finnesloftet provided youthful energy in the profane surroundings of a very old house, but the next showcase changed to a more spiritual setting and an experienced musician, who has arrived at a sound that is all his own. The drummer Erland Dahlen played a solo concert in Vangskyrkja and the church was the perfect place for the music where the sounds of various drums and bells could resonate in the room as Dahlen played against a background that changed between the static noise of a drone and what sounded like a loop of monumental guitar chords. He played with and against the background as he developed rhythmic motifs and variations that borrowed from different drum traditions around the world, but in the end, Dahlen created his very own universe of percussion, bells and electronics.

The many instruments listed on his album Clocks, reflected by the battery of bells and percussion in the church, underlined that Dahlen takes it very seriously to find the right source of sound. However, the great thing about the concert was really that he understood how to create a musical narrative. One movement gave way to another in a landscape where rhythms could be used melodically, meditatively and in a propulsive way.

The evening ended with a showcase in the wonderful garden of Trude Storheim, the leader of Vossa Jazz. Among the trees with white flowers, a strange species emerged with the name Rune Your Day, it could also be pronounced as "ruin your day."

They did anything but ruin the day. In fact, the band with electric bassist Rune Nergaard concluded a lovely day in Voss. They had an empathic approach to free jazz where the quiet brushes of drummer Axel Skalstad gave way to the honking sounds of a baritone saxophone, but the horn could also be the silky lines of a clarinet or dry saxophone tones entering a music that changed in nature as free form and melodic playing supplemented each other. The foundation with the electric bass added an extra touch and Rune Nergaard played somewhere between knotty, abstract playing and a rock approach with riff and figures.

Day 3

The next day the showcase took place at famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's villa, Troldhaugen (the garden of trolls). Grieg referred to the villa as his "best opus so far" and indeed the place is an attraction, now housing a museum and not least a concert hall, Troldsalen, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spectacular view of Lake Nordås.

Here, the pianist, Dag Arnesen, played with his trio. Arnesen is an elder statesman known for his trio albums with focus on Norwegian songs that have brought him wide acclaim in his home country, but unlike Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, whose Jazz På Svenska (1964) gave him a breakthrough in Scandinavia, Arnesen is still waiting for international attention and has remained a national secret in spite of his success at home. His showcase at Nutshell was the first step to change this. Arnesen brought his trio with bassist Ole Marius Sandberg and drummer Ivar Thormodsæter and especially Sandberg seemed to enjoy himself as he smiled while anchoring Arnesen's sparkling melodies.

Fittingly, there was a piece by Grieg, "I balladetone / Ballad" from Norwegian Songs Vol. 3, but Arnesen also played his own compositions like "Yellow Feather" and "Grynta" from The Pentagon Tapes (2017). He described a tune as a song a child would like and indeed there was something playful and childlike about the simple, clear melodies combined with a grown-up sophistication where his runs across the tangents were soaked in a dwelling sense of detail. Essentially, these songs were made for early mornings and sweet summer nights, with emphasis on the bright tones on the keyboard. They were songs in the key of minor without any interference from threating night trolls.

In the evening, before Nattjazz kicked off, it was time for another showcase, but the program was extra special because JazzNorway in a Nutshell had joined forces with Festspillene (Bergen International Festival) to present a double bill of new classical music and jazz. Cellist Amalie Stalheim and Alon Ilser played a piece that showed a cutting-edge approach to classical music with Ilser acting as a magician with his air sticks coaxing electronic sounds out of pure air.

When Andre Roligheten took the scene, he connected threads between modern composition, folk music and the free jazz pioneered by saxophonist Ornette Coleman. His group with violinist Adrian Løseth Waade, bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Erik Nylander was capable of going in any musical direction, whether exploring hushed minimalism, folk-motifs, classically infused cool jazz or burning bop. The music developed in organic movements. Bass strings were plucked and brass overtones and click sounds explored, but there were also basic call and response patterns between saxophone and violin and expressive moments like the cry of Coleman's "Lonely Woman."

The showcases were just the preparation for the bounty of music that is Nattjazz. As with any festival, the problem was what to hear and for how long. The acts presented on the first nights included Charlotte Dos Santos, Ola Kvernberg Steamdome, Skydive Trio, Trøen/Arnesen Kvartett, Frode Haltli Avant Folk and Woody Black. Dos Santos showed promise as an elegant urban soul singer while Ola Kvernberg Steamdome and Frode Haltli worked with large ensembles and epic forms, but with very different results.

The name of Haltli's ensemble, Avant Folk, could also be the name of a genre in Norwegian jazz music where the field between free jazz and folk is explored in lyrical compositions that are played without sheet music, but rehearsed to achieve a telepathic way of playing, which allows forms to develop slowly and with great complexity. Traditional instruments like accordeon, organ, violin and goat horn (played be trumpeter Hildegunn Oiseth) mixed with instruments often associated with jazz: guitar, saxophone, drums and bass. The interesting thing was how all these instruments came together in a natural language that left plenty of room for individuality from the different instruments, whether it was saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm having a Rahsaan Roland Kirk moment on two horns played simultaneously or Øiseth exploring strange overtones and babbling language on the goat horn. Through it all there was a slowness, a lyrical tenderness, and not least the will to form a narrative with individual voices.

On the other hand, the voices of the individuals tended to blend into one organism in the impeccable rhythmic machine that was Ola Kvernberg's Steamdome. The ensemble played with three drummers, but it was mostly about creating an intense rhythmic ritual and the machine-like trance of the band, aptly compared in the program to "a train that never stops," was further supported by bassist Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen's repetitive bass figures that recalled the locked funk patterns that Miles Davis wanted Michael Henderson to play.

Kvernberg's violin added electric, ethereal textures, but he also played organ and engaged in a Bach-inspired duel with the other organist in the group, Daniel Formo. While there were other nice details, like an arabesque surf guitar pattern, the primary goal for the group in concert seemed to be a blissful rhythmic oblivion that required a bodily surrender to the monotone groove of the night machine that was Steamdome.

Day 4

Night turned into day and another showcase was presented at Café Greco located in OPUS XVI, a former bank. The stately setting with grand pillars was a contrast to Håvard Wilk's iconoclastic piano trio with bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Håkon Mjaset Johansen. Wilk is an acclaimed pianist known for his work with the avant-garde supergroup Atomic and, among other constellations, he also plays in Side A with saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Chad Taylor.

The music Wilk presented with his own trio was tight and powerful with Vågan plucking and slapping the strings and Mjåset Johansen swinging and providing precise colorations on the cymbals and giving a humorous musical comment to the creaking old door of the café. Wilk showed himself as a worthy heir to piano players like Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, using the whole aspect of the keyboard to create dense clusters of chords and angular melodies painted with percussive poignancy.

The second showcase at Café Greco turned out to be just as original in sound as well as presentation. In spite of the sunny weather putting the rumour to rest that it is always raining in Bergen, the duo of Terje Isungset and Maria Skranes entered the scene wearing knitted sweaters. However, there was a reason for their wintry appearance since the duo specializes in a rare genre: ice music. Isungset played his own homemade ice instruments that projected a fairytale world of crackling snow and the sound of a marimba frozen in ice. Skranes' hovering wordless voice helped to enhance the ambient mood of the music and the spare percussive patterns on "Glimpse of Light" combined with her sculptural approach was effective in creating a transient piece of sound poetry.

After the showcase, Isungset explained how the music also had a scientific and ethical aspect. He is researching the sounds of the different ages of ice and trying to make a young audience aware of the consequences of climate change. Literally, this was music that could melt away and never be played again.

The last official showcase at Nutshell, also held at Café Greco, was less spectacular visually and musically than the ice music duo of Terje Isungset and Maria Skranes, but it proved to be just as good, if not better. The reason was simple: saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg's group, Hanna Paulsberg Concept with Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo, played a set of original music that was characterized by strong writing. Paulsberg has been influenced by one of the great saxophonist-writers in jazz, Wayne Shorter, and her ability to create lasting compositions and memorable themes was on full display at the concert that also used the brassy fire of Broo to full effect. Another influence on Paulsberg, Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, was introduced as a hero and received a homage on "Little Big Saxophone." Playing mostly with closed eyes and full concentration, Paulsberg swung organically with the rest of the group and moved with elastic elegance between the different tides of the music that combined avantgarde-elements with melodic modern jazz.

The concert ended perfectly with a tune that was bookended by a wordless a cappella theme hummed in unison by the full group. After the concert was over, the theme still lingered like a good pop melody.

With the program of showcases at an end, Nutshell was wrapped up with a final night of concerts at Nattjazz. Once again, choosing what to hear was difficult. This evening, the music program included Zap Mama, Nils Økland Band, Angles 9, Hearth, 9 Grader Nord and Erlend Apneseth Trio.

In the end, the possibility of hearing an established master, Nils Økland, and an upcoming talent, Erlend Apneseth, playing one of Norway's signature instruments, the Hardanger fiddle, was irresistible. The instrument with its recognizable carvings and ornaments goes as far back as 1651 and resembles a violin, but with eight or nine strings instead of the four on a standard violin. The extra strings, the understrings, are used in addition to the four strings to give the instrument a fuller sound as they resonate with the others.

Nils Økland is a master violinist and scholar of the Hardanger fiddle, who played at Nattjazz with his group that released an album in 2017 on Norway's acclaimed Hubro label. This album, Lysning, formed the core of the concert. Økland's group weaved a rich tapestry of sound with a sense of space and meditation. The slow breathing of Sigbjorn Apeland's pump organ was sometimes like a wheezing human voice whispering in silence among the pines while Mats Eilertsen's bass drifted in and out, playing patterns and figures with the dark hues of the cello. Percussionist and vibraphonist Håkon Mørch Stene, on the other hand, added drops of percussion, occasionally with the dramatic effect of a tribal drum.

Saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm was the one who was leaning most in a specific jazz direction as he broke out into a rare solo, but the voice carrying it all was undeniably Økland. His playing is so heartbreakingly beautiful that it should contain a warning that it might make grown-up men with big beards cry. The sweeping elegiac voice of his violin echoed into the distance on "Lysning," a more poignant example of the high lonesome sound of Norway is hard to imagine.

Økland's influence on a future generation of Norwegian musicians is most evident in the Erlend Apneseth Trio, whose two albums are also released on Hubro, the most recent being Åra from 2017. If anyone should be worried that the young people today are zappers, who are not capable of immersion or concentration for a longer period of time, it would be a good idea to listen to the Erland Apneseth Trio to rest assured that this is not the case. Throughout their concert, the trio resisted the temptation to change quickly between different movements with bombastic breaks. Instead, they unfolded the music with a slowness and complexity that is just what the world needs today.

The Norwegian folk pop duo Kings of Convenience said it best in the title of their debut: Quiet is the New Loud. Apneseth and the trio worked in the silence between spaces and were interested in developing fragile melodies and celestial, acoustic soundscapes. The difference between Økland and Apneseth was also clear. Whereas Økland still focuses on the pure sound of the instrument, all members of the Apneseth trio occasionally transgress the "natural" sound of their instruments and incorporate elements of traditional music as well as jazz, world music and electronica in a way that both feels organic and eclectic.

The muffled strings of Stephan Meidall's guitar could vibrate like a piece of steel wire and Apneseth would at times play percussively on the fiddle, tapping the wood. The reference to the instruments simply changed at will, and in that way, it was a true example of a type of interplay where the instruments started to blend into each other and the boundary between oud, violin and guitar began to disappear. Still, there should be no doubt that Apneseth considers himself a fiddler. He could play in the style of Økland, but he could also do much more. This was explorative music that felt ripe with possibility.

Possibility and exploration are also keywords when it comes to summing up this year's JazzNorway in a Nutshell. It seems that Norway is simply bursting with great music carried by a will to find a personal expression. The quality of Norwegian jazz was underlined by the showcases and concerts at Nattjazz, but it is also shown on a promotional sampler, JAZZCD.NO (2018), an ambitious 3CD box set that covers the many paths that Norwegian jazz has taken.

At the end of the day, what is most important is that Norwegian jazz is listened to and written about. Based on this year's JazzNorway in a Nutshell, and the strength of the Norwegian jazz scene in general, this will be the case for many years to come. In every way, Nutshell 2018 was a success, not only because it showed the richness of the Norwegian musical scene, but also because it made it clear that there is a dedicated team of activists behind Norwegian jazz, covering all institutions from the local municipality to the state and independent industry professionals. These are people who genuinely believe in Norwegian art and culture and their message is clear and should apply to every country: music matters.

Selected Discography from JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2018

Frode Haltli, Avant Folk (Hubro, 2018)
Morten Stai, People and Places (Curling Legs, 2018)
Terje Isungset, Beauty of Winter: Ice Music Live (All Ice Records, 2018)
Various Artists, JAZZCD.NO. Jazz From Norway 2018 8th set (Norsk JAZZFORUM, 2018, promotion, not for sale)
Bergen Big Band & Dag Arnesen, Norwegian Song IV (Odin, 2017)
Erlend Apneseth, Åra (Hubro, 2017)
Erland Dahlen, Clocks (Hubro, 2017)
Hanna Paulsberg Concept, Eastern Smiles (Odin, 2017)
Håvard Wilk Trio, This Is Not A Waltz (Moserobie, 2017)
Nils Økland Band, Lysning (Hubro, 2017)
Ola Kvernberg, Steamdome (Grappa, 2017)
Roligheten, Homegrown (Clean Feed, 2017)
Rune Your Day, Rune Your Day (Clean Feed, 2017)

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