04/17/09

Vossa Jazz Festival

There was a discernible moment in the recent Vossa Jazz Festival when this American in Norway knew, clearly, that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore—or in Manhattan, or in Manhattan, Kansas. It came down by the lake on Saturday night. Well-known Norwegian composer-bandleader-conceptualist Jon Balke was leading his evocative group Batagraf at lakefront, and later on a platform right on the water, as choreographed dancers moved to the sounds. Less predictably, “extreme” bicyclists performed stunts on steep ramps and, late in the hour-long show, paragliders appeared on high, having skied off the high ski area above Voss and drifted down onto the water. Fireworks capped off the whole splendiferous mix of art, jazz, kitsch and gymnastic riffing.

Welcome to “Ekstremjazz,” a multi-sensory artistic-sporting circus incorporating the collaborative efforts of the now 38-year-old Vossa Jazz Festival and the annual “Extreme Sports Week,” perennial calendar highlights in this lovely, mountain-ringed fjord town, a 90-minute drive east of Bergen. Vossa Jazz, one of several strong and venerable jazz festivals in Norway, is known for appealing to a diverse range of listeners, including those with little taste for cerebral jazz, per se, as well as fans of jazz of an edgy or ethereal/Nordic sort. The non-traditional tradition carried on, in the second year with Trude Storheim as director.

On the night before his lakefront spectacle, Balke appeared in another unconventional setting in the Fleischer Hotel, interacting with the well-known Norwegian comedians Espen Beranek Holm and Are Kalvø. Balke re-dubbed his group “Pratagraf” for that occasion, and the virtuosic verbal timing and absurdist mimicry of the show dazzled even this Norwegian-challenged listener. Perhaps I enjoyed it even more, given my linguistic ignorance and the appreciation of abstract truths and textures.

Diversity is key at this festival. Officially the festival kicked off on Friday night with impressive Indian classical slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, joined by three nimble percussionists (two of whom were female, a rarity in Indian classical circles). In that same room, the great tradition of pure-toned, heart-melting Norwegian female singers alighted the stage. Solveig Slettahjell’s special commissioned work touched on American gospel and blues, while rooted in the porous soil Norwegian folk and pop music. Late in the festival, “pop” singer Silje Nergaard, whose recordings have been produced by the likes of Pat Metheny and Vince Mendoza, handily lulled us and pulled us into her sweet, melodic and slightly oblique post-Joni Mitchell style.

Much of the festival’s busy traffic takes place in the several rooms in the festival HQ of the Park Hotel, but some of the festival’s most musical and jazz-centric programming takes place on the fringes (such is jazz’s lot, inherently a fringe music, even at some jazz festivals). Across the railroad tracks, literally, sits the cozy yet cavernous Fraktgodsen.

In that room, the musical program was frequently thrilling, particularly with the French connection this year: The excellent saxophonist Emile Parisien led a dynamic quartet, mixing kinetic rhythmic energies and juicy blends of free and tautly structured sections; keyboardist-bandleader-musical traffic cop Andy Emler’s Megaoctet put on the festival’s wildest, wiliest set, with a crazed, semi-Zappa-esque convergence of little big-band energies, cathartic free-jazz outbursts and funk-bucket grooves. Special meritorious mention goes to indefatigable, inimitable trumpeter-vocal gymnast Médéric Collignon.

Also at the Fraktgodsen, the Core and More issued forth its free-minded heat and the Bergen Big Band realized an ambitious, jazz-folk-rock collaboration with the group known as Ab und Zu (featuring versatile vocalist Anne Marie Giørtz and increasingly famed, texturally inclined guitarist Eivind Aarset, heard here last year with Nils Petter Molvaer).

Ever-popular Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen showed up in an alternately cooling and abstract duet with clarinetist Carl Petter Opsahl, in the understated ambience of the 13th-century church here, the Vangskyra. By musical and atmospheric contrast, virtuosic yodeling and accordion met loose-limbed wit when the duo Polkabjørn og Kleine Heine performed an afternoon set high up in the Hanguren ski lodge, reachable by the funiculars commonly known as “Dingle” and “Dangle.” Music up on the mountain, with a panoramic view of the lake and town below, comes lined with its own special charm.

Up the hill from Voss’ downtown area is the city’s music conservatory, Ole Bull Akademiet (named after Norwegian composer Ole Bull). In the Academy’s intimate Osasalen, some of the festival’s more interesting music unfolded. (This is the room where, last year, the Christian Wallumrød Sextet, with Norwegian “it” trumpeter Arve Henriksen, performed and stole the festival show.)

In that space, Steiner Raknes Quartet offered its evocative idiomatic mix of jazz historicist references and a certain airy, Scandinavian introspection. That mix was delivered through the unusual but effective chordless instrumentation of Raknes’ bass, John Pål Inderberg’s bari sax, drummer Håkon Mjåset and the notable violinist Ola Kvernberg, who showed both a strong sense of swing and harmonic adventurism. Kvernberg is a new voice in that still under-populated field of well-assembled jazz violinists, a voice worth keeping track of.

Beijing-born and NYC-based, the guzheng player Wu Fei, who presented an impressive solo show at the Osasalen, has been making some intriguing inroads on the experimental scene of late, working with John Zorn and others. Her claim to expressive fame relates to the delicate balance she manages between respect for ancient Chinese musical tradition and postmodern experimental verve, sans pretentiousness.

Also at the Osasalen, pianist Jeff Neve’s trio made a bold, poetic impact. Neve is a notable new voice on piano, bringing technical bravura and a fount of good and interesting ideas to the well-populated supply of strong young pianists on the scene. However crowded that scene, there is always room for those with a fresh, boldly realized approach such as Neve’s.

As a ritual repast in the middle of the Saturday night festivities—following the annual commissioned work, this year’s created and performed by popular vocalist Solveig Slettahjell—various VIPs, artists and stray journalists are invited to a banquet room in the historic Fleischer Hotel. There, the Hardanger region tradition of the annual “smalahove” dinner takes place. The central action involves the ceremonial serving of a slow-cooked sheep’s head. We were instructed on the proper way to eat the eyeball. This critic’s verdict? Quite tender and delicious, and a moral victory for a carnivore forced to face the reality of what’s for dinner. Supplies of Hansa beer and akvavit helped coat the experience.

Post-sheep’s head, many of us drifted over to check out some hardanger musical cuisine, in the form of the Norwegian folk band Sver, replete with the indigenous sympathetic strings-enhanced hardanger fiddle (the hardingfele). Kansas once again seemed a world away.

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