The Sound of Young Norway

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Bassist Per Zanussi, a horse and Wibutee saxophonist Hakon Kornstad
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Manfred Eicher
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In the Country: drummer Pal Hausken, bassist Roger Arntzen, pianist Morten Qvenild
By Colin Eick

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Tord Gustavsen is one of the latest in a long line of stunning Norwegian jazz artists that ECM has introduced to the world. "We've always had a good tradition for modern jazz in Norway," says Rune Kristoffersen, head of the Rune Grammofon label and formerly ECM's sales rep in the country. "I think that is due to the fact that ECM picked up early on to Norwegian musicians like Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christiansen. They were on some of the first ECM albums, and a lot of the albums have been recorded in Norway."

The ECM sound-moody and spacious-fits into the "idea of North" that goes something like this: Norway's stunning landscape, from fjords and mountains to glaciers and streams, must have provided the artistic inspiration for these early ECM musicians, who mixed bebop chops with folk-music hearts, creating melancholic music that reflects the land of the midnight sun. Norway's young musicians have a pet name for that sound: mountain jazz.

"Now we have a new generation," Kristoffersen says, "who know that tradition but still wants to do their own stuff. Maybe even a bit in opposition to ECM."

These young artists know and value jazz history, in Norway and abroad, citing the likes of composer-theorist George Russell (who worked in Norway and Sweden in the mid-to-late-'60s) and John Coltrane alongside Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal. But you're just as likely to hear the names Aphex Twin, Tricky and Massive Attack mentioned as influences.

The sound of young Norway, which mostly emanates from the cosmopolitan capital of Oslo, captures the music of today-the postmodern blending of genres, from free jazz, swing, bop and fusion to electronica, folk, prog and pop-as personified by Jaga Jazzist, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Wibutee, Supersilent, In the Country, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra and more. While you can definitely sense the mountains in the background, this generation's music takes many of its cues from urban sources.

Rune Grammofon, Smalltown Supersound and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft's Jazzland are the three labels at the forefront of this blend trend. But these aren't the only record labels in Norway releasing good music. There's the similarly eclectic Curling Legs, Bajkal, NOR and 2L, the free-improv Sofa, the mostly acoustic but still progressive Jazzaway, Aim and Resonant and the traditional Hot Club, Hidi, Normann, Sonor, Acoustic and Gemini. But it's the CDs released by Rune Grammofon, Jazzland and Smalltown Supersound that are finding an international audience because they have tapped into markets such as Europe and Japan that don't have hard-and-fast definitions about what jazz is or isn't. Their discs are just as likely to be sold in electronica, rock or avant-garde bins as they are jazz, and their bands play jazz festivals as frequently as they do indie-rock dives or techno clubs.

Kristoffersen cites the Trondheim Music Conservatory, located in central Norway, as one reason for the current wave of forward-thinking jazz musicians. "Many of the young musicians have gone there. In Oslo the music academy is a bit more traditional; in Trondheim, with the jazz faculty, they have teachers who encourage students to be open to other types of music."

Saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, the leader of his own acoustic trio as well as the excellent jazztronica band Wibutee, is a graduate of Trondheim. "This school is like being self-taught," he says, "but always being able to consult the teacher along the way if you're stuck with something."

Bassist Per Zanussi, formerly of Wibutee and a fellow Trondheim grad, says, "The teachers up there can play American jazz, but they're pretty open-minded. Anyway, you are 20 years old, you don't want to play like your teachers-hopefully."

Kristoffersen says, "It's amazing to see how many of the musicians who have been building since the '90s have gone there. I think that's been really important."

But a good education and solid skills aren't always enough to get a talented musician noticed-just swing a stick in New York City for proof. Sometimes it takes money.

Walk the length of Oslo's main street, Karl Johans Gate, which stretches from the train station to the royal palace, and you'll understand why the city is one of the most expensive on Earth. On the main drag, and on nearly every side street, fashionable people and grand architecture provide the rich scenery as numerous restaurants, bars and clubs vie for the contents of your wallet with offers of fresh seafood, $10 beers or throbbing dance beats.

But the copious taxes, and abundant offshore oil, mean this country of just over 4.6 million people has one of the highest standards of living anywhere. Universal healthcare is but one benefit of a social democracy; funding for the arts is another. Unlike America, where music-education programs are among the first cuts in school budgets, each county in Norway is required to offer a music program in at least one upper secondary school.

Meanwhile, organizations such as Norwegian Jazz Federation, Jazz in Oslo and Music Information Centre as well as Norway's ministry of culture and ministry of foreign affairs help support and promote music within the country and abroad through concerts, Web sites, advertising, press releases and sometimes money.

Though it's not always easy to receive one, Kornstad says Norway has "a very good system for grants. It's draining out, but it's still very good. It helps us so that we can focus on our projects." Zanussi says, "We get money from the state department to travel. You can get it for making records, too, production costs."

That's the case with Rune Grammofon's Money Will Ruin Everything, a gorgeous 96-page hardback book and double-CD comp designed and edited by the prolific and talented artist/musician Kim Hiorthoy, who also does sleeves for Smalltown Supersound. "It got incredible reviews in the U.K.," Kristoffersen says. "All the rock magazines wrote about it, and all the heavy daily papers. It did what it set out to do-to really present what is going on in Norway."

The musicians, promoters and record labels who have benefited from the arts safety net-combined with their own hard work and money-are making good on the faith their government had in supporting their efforts. In return, the foreign ministry has actively exported this explosion of creativity to Europe-where Norwegian jazz is considered at the forefront of experimentation-through touring grants and live events such as the Norwegian Jazz Launch Europe program, which focuses on contemporary music and younger musicians.

Many of these artists have yet to make it to the U.S., however, because of work-visa difficulties and spotty CD distribution. For instance, Rune Grammofon is available for distribution and mailorder from ForcedExposure.com, which means the CDs are getting into speciality shops. But good luck trying to find Jazzland discs, which are distributed by Universal everywhere else and were supposed to be handled by Verve in the U.S. before cutbacks killed the deal. Your best bet is DustyGroove.com or downloading from iTunes.com. Smalltown Supersound CDs can be ordered by stores via TriageMusic.com or by consumers at OtherMusic.com, and Jazzaway is handled by CadenceBuilding.com, but for other releases your best bet is to contact the labels or artists directly. (See sidebar for details.)

Unlike in Europe, Norwegian jazz concerts are few and far between in the U.S. ECM artists can sometimes make their way over, and the Norwegian embassy and cultural groups will stage some shows, such as the Northwest Passage Festival, held in conjunction with the San Francisco Jazz Festival last November, featuring Supersilent, Arve Hendriksen, Jaga Jazzist, DJ Strangefruit (a collaborater with Nils Petter Molvar) and Maja Ratkje. Jaga, which records for the international label Ninja Tune, does tour here playing rock clubs, and Chicago frequently hosts Scandinavian free-jazzers. But if these musicians could get to the U.S. more regularly, the press they'd likely receive would go toward getting better CD distribution-and it would go over big with the Norwegian government.

"They get really excited when they see us get all this feedback from abroad," Kristoffersen says. "It's a really typical Norwegian thing. They have been seeing that this stuff that I've been working with-this jazz, electronica, all this mixed stuff-is actually getting noticed and is being written about in other places."

But within the country there are also a fair number of performance opportunities, including several large jazz festivals such as Oslo, Kongsberg, Molde, Vassa and Nattjazz, and clubs such as Oslo's Bla, which opened in 1999 and could be considered the spiritual home of Norway's younger musicians. It too has received government support.

Smalltown Supersound owner Joakim Haugland says, "Out of the blue, Bla became like a center for all these things that people were doing-everything was crashing together. They do everything from crazy free jazz to dance music. There was an openness to do different types of music under one roof."
Finally, the rest of the world is starting to catch up with the country's musical openness.

"Norway went from being totally boring and unknown to, whoa, there's something happening here." Haugland says. "It's been a really good thing for us to be from Norway. It's kind of exotic in a way, a little bit special."

Selected Interview: Manfred Eicher

Manfred Eicher is the hands-on head of ECM, doing everything from shaping the label's austere aesthetic to producing hundreds of recordings in its catalog, which is approaching 800 titles (including classical and New Series releases). ECM is in its 36th-year, and Eicher is still discovering remarkable new talents up in fjord country. We asked him to comment on what attracted him to Norway's jazz scene-and to Scandinavia in general.

"It was originally a chance encounter with Jan Garbarek-in Bologna, Italy, in 1969-that took me to Norway, rather than any deeper feeling for the country. Jan, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christensen and Arild Andersen were all playing with George Russell's band, and it was clear that they were special musicians, and I wanted to work with them-especially with Jan. That inspired the first Oslo recording trips where, with Jan Erik Kongshaug as engineer, we taped the now-famous Afric Pepperbird [the seventh recording in ECM's catalog, and the first featuring a Norwegian musician]. Soon there were meetings with other northern musicians who were collaborating with the Norwegians, including Bobo Stenson and Palle Danielsson from Sweden, and Edward Vesala from Finland, and they in turn became part of the early ECM recordings. And I started bringing musicians from around the world to Oslo, including Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Art Lande, Egberto Gismonti, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Ralph Towner, Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler, Palle Mikkelborg, Barre Phillips, John Surman and more, by which time I was enjoying Norway and especially its distance from everywhere. It provided an opportunity to focus on the work without too many distractions. And Glenn Gould's ideas about solitude in [his CBC Radio documentary] The Idea of North reinforced my feeling for the benefits of creative isolation.

As time went on, a new generation of Norwegian players grew up, influenced by the ECM recordings of the '70s and the '80s, and so now we find ourselves working with young musicians including Trygve Seim, Arve Henriksen, Christian Wallumrod, Tord Gustavsen, Frode Haltli, the Cikada Quartet and others.

Of course it's pleasing to see this chain of influence unfolding. However, before starting to make a mythic artistic wonderland out of Norway, or the Talent or Rainbow Studios [where many ECM albums have been made], it should be remembered that Oslo was only one of the locations at which ECM recorded music. Equally valuable to me, in the '70s and '80s, were the Stuttgart sessions with engineer Martin Wieland, or the New York City sessions with Tony May and, later, James Farber. It has always been important for me to assess each project on its own merits and think carefully about the best place to record, and to retain objectivity and perspective by using a variety of locations."

Originally published in May 2005

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