06/18/08

Nordic Jazz '08

The Nordic Jazz series in the nation’s capitol has undergone a number of changes over the past three years. It began in January 2006 as a way to capitalize on appearances by various musicians at the IAJE Conference in New York. In that first year, embassies in Washington pooled their resources and booked Blues Alley for five nights. Then last year, the series was moved to June in order to piggyback on appearances by Nordic musicians at a select group of North American jazz festivals. It also moved from Blues Alley to the recently opened House of Sweden in Georgetown, where they presented four Nordic jazz groups in a marathon concert on the roof.

This year, Nordic Jazz ‘08 was spread over two nights, presenting groups from Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Faroe Islands. In terms of audience turnout, it was a great success, drawing about 200 people each night. The only real drawback was there were fewer than 60 chairs on the rooftop, so many in the audience invariably stood around drinking and talking during the performance.

Of course, the best thing about this series is the opportunity to present artists who rarely, if ever, get to play Washington.

The first night held more than a few musical surprises. First up was the Swedish duo (and married couple) Wildbirds & Peacedrums, with vocalist Mariam Wallentin and drummer Andreas Werlin performing a set of quirky original songs underscored by kalimba, bells, dulcimer and trap set. Wallentin’s haunting voice has an elastic, surreal quality that makes use of extended vocal techniques. Her a cappella introduction to “The Window” began pianissimo and built to a climax as Werlin laid down tom-tom-driven tribal beats. They were obviously on the same wavelength; even during her out-on-a-limb improvisations, Werlin caught all of Wallentin’s off-kilter accents, especially when she’d flip into her upper register. While it was not always easy to hear the lyrics, especially with planes flying overhead, you could feel the urgency in their performance, especially in the closing “Today/Tomorrow” as Wallentin moaned and wailed, “Heaven is falling down on me.” Is it jazz? Not by some definitions. But it’s fun and fascinating and it swings in its own way.

Pianist, composer Kristian Blak closed the first night’s show with his Faroe Islands band Yggdrasil, performing a curiously dated performance of a 1982 progressive folk-rock suite. Blak began with a long introduction, explaining that his eight-movement suite is inspired by Norse mythology, ravens and a tree that stretches above heaven and below hell. They followed with lots of noodling, filigreed melodies, atmospheric drones and plodding rhythms. It might have made an effective soundtrack to a talking book of Tolkien tales, but the connection to jazz was tenuous at best.

The second night was a bit more jazz-centric. Norwegian violinist Ola Kvernberg kicked things off with an vigorous performance, joined by Norwegian bassist Steinar Raknes and Swedish drummer Erik Nylander. Much of their original repertoire was based on odd meters, vamps and ostinatos. Kvernberg and colleagues also drew from aspects of Indian, bluegrass and folkloric traditions, but their phrasing and improvisations came straight out of bebop. Kvernberg also employed Joe Venuti’s technique of unfastening the hairs of his bow and wrapping them around the top of his instrument with the bow stick underneath, allowing him to play drones across all strings.

For serious jazz fans the highlight of this year’s festival was the American debut of the creative Finnish pianist, composer and bandleader Iro Haarla. She opened her set with spare, rumbling rhythms over which trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and tenor saxophonist Kari “Sonny” Heinilä played soaring, chorale-like unison lines. Haarla’s original compositions, most of which came from her latest ECM recording Northbound, made use of implied pulse, legato lines and overlapping textures. There were also effective contrasts between melancholic meditations and stormy bursts of energy, as when Heinilä stacked chords like Coltrane, spurred by bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Reino Laine. She claimed that these pieces “maybe describe the character of the Finns.” They concluded with “Adieu,” a new work performed for the first time. Its sweeping, attractive melody was evocative and cinematic. The hour-long set ended much too soon.

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