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).