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Nattjazz and Nutshell in Norway

A whirlwind tour of a land where jazz means “no boundaries”

Adam Baldych (left) with Frode Berg, Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 27, 2016
Fieh, Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 27, 2016
Frank Rolland on the Hardanger fiddle, Aksnes Farm, Øystese, Norway, May 26, 2016
Hedvig Mollestad Trio (left to right: Mollestad, Ivar Loe Björnstad, Ellen Brekken), Aksnes Farm, Øystese, Norway, May 26, 2016
Mari Kvien Brunvoll (left) and Stein Urheim, Strangestiftelsen, Bergen, Norway, May 28, 2016
Morten Qvenild, Kabuso, Øystese, Norway, May 26, 2016
Nils Bo Davidsen (left) and Jesper Zeuthen of Carsten Dahl Experience, Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 28, 2016
Sanskriti Shresta, Oddrun Lilja and Marthe Lea (left to right), of Bugge Wesseltoft: New Conception of Jazz—2016 Edition, Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 28, 2016
Spirit in the Dark (left to right: David Wallumrød, Audun Erlien, Anders Engen), Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 26, 2016
Steinar Raknes Quartet (left to right: Erlend Slettevoll, John Pål Inderberg, Håkon Mjåset Johansen, Raknes), USF Verftet, Bergen, Norway, May 25, 2016
Svein Olav Herstad, Troldhaugen, Bergen, Norway, May 27, 2016
The Firebirds (left to right: Anders Banke, Stefan Pasborg, Anders Filipsen), Nattjazz, Bergen, Norway, May 27, 2016

We’re on an operational sheep farm in the Hardanger district of western Norway, but there’s not a bleat to be heard. For their own protection, the animals have been sent off to a pasture far from where 40 jazz journalists and jazz festival presenters from around the world are now milling about, celebratory local bubbly in hand. We’ve just survived a harrowing bus ride up a narrow, twisty mountain road to Aksnes Farm, the home of the family of the trip’s organizer. It is not a place accustomed to hosting live music, and what happens next can only be called surreal.

With a breathtakingly beautiful fjord and picture-perfect snowcapped mountains as backdrop, guitarist Hedvig Mollestad’s trio featuring bassist Ellen Brekken and drummer Ivar Loe Björnstad sets up in front of a red barn filled with machinery. An instrumental band, they are dexterous, hard and loud, although not nearly as hard and loud as their ’60s and ’70s forebears-adept improvisers, but more Cream than Mahavishnu. There is dissonance and freedom in their approach, and with the arrival of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson shortly into their brief set-one of Norway’s most eminent jazzmen, known for what Wikipedia calls his “tonal belligerence”-things get even hairier. His sublimely, defiantly cacophonous yawping, juxtaposed with the trio’s plodding rockoid thump, is more than a little incongruous in this setting, wicked and surprisingly delicious. Maybe the sheep would’ve dug it; who knows?

That way-off-the-beaten-path barn gig was part of an annual event called Nutshell, formerly Jazz Norway in a Nutshell. Sponsored jointly by the West Norway Jazz Center and the Nattjazz festival, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the city of Bergen, the county of Hordaland, the Norwegian Jazz Federation, Music Norway and the Bergen International Festival, Nutshell’s sole purpose is to show off the diversity of Nordic improvisational music in this most welcoming, progressive, culture-loving country, where even marginal artistry receives public funding. For four days and nights we visitors were treated to a near-nonstop itinerary of primarily Norwegian music, most of it nominally related to jazz, some arguably not, unless one subscribes to the notion put forward by the Italian Luca Vitali, author of The Sound of the North: Norway and the European Jazz Scene, that jazz in this part of the world pays heed to “no boundaries.” During a live interview held at Nattjazz, the 10-night festival that has taken place annually since 1973 at USF Verftet, a former sardine factory in Bergen, Vitali called Norway “one of the most creative scenes in the world.”

That might explain why, from May 25-28, between Nutshell and the concurrent Nattjazz, we heard everything from traditional postbop combos to raucous free jazz, innovative electronic experimenters, adventurous acoustic troubadours and funky dance-pop. (The arrival of the Hedvig Mollestad Trio at the farm, indeed, was preceded by an unamplified, effects-free solo performance by local traditional musician Frank Rolland, on the nine-string Hardanger fiddle.) If the idea was for us to go home with an understanding that cultural open-mindedness reigns in Norway and then spread the word, the trip was a rousing success. Nattjazz-held in three different-sized venues within USF Verftet, with no more than five or six acts performing per evening-is an event at which artists are encouraged to perform new material, according to director Jon Skjerdal. “We are not looking back in history,” he said. Although a few familiar American artists-Rufus Wainwright, Sexmob and Lee Ritenour-performed during the 2016 run, folks come to Nattjazz craving the untested.

The first band we saw in Bergen, ironically, was one of the most conventional, although the Steinar Raknes Quartet, its leader a formidable double bassist, certainly displayed chops to spare. Roaming seamlessly from dynamic, Latin-informed rhythms and melodies to a soulful dance groove, they were impressive but somewhat short on originality. It was OK, though: We got plenty of that the following afternoon on the way to the sheep farm, stopping first at a newish arts center called Kabuso, in the picturesque town of Øystese. The afternoon’s first Nutshell showcase featured Morten Qvenild, who performed in the dark, sending what he called his “Personal Piano” through a bank of electronic gizmos; a sheet of light, located off to the side of his rig, changed colors in response to the sounds he generated. Achieving an orchestral depth sans accompaniment, his songs ranged from pastoral, English-language singer-songwritery musings to a spacey, synth-heavy ode that, at its crescendo, found a sweet spot where early Pink Floyd met Cecil Taylor. With its multitracked vocals and rudimentary beats, it bordered on tacky, but the good bits-mostly in the piano work itself-were rich and engrossing.

Among the other Nutshell showcases, there were a couple of gems and one nice try. For each, the visitors were shuttled to a local landmark well worth experiencing even without the enticement of entertainment. At Troldhaugen, the former home of revered classical composer Edvard Grieg, we heard the Svein Olav Herstad Trio, a fairly standard but enjoyable piano combo, before moving on to the top of Fløyen, a mountain within Bergen, reached via a short ride on the funicular, a cable railway. Offering gasp-inducing views of the city and harbor below, it’s a tourist mecca ringed by trails. But we were there to see Hilde Marie Holsen, a solo performer whose art is to blow air into a trumpet-not so much playing notes as feigning the inflation of a balloon-and electronically manipulate the resultant sound. Although she offered up a few minutes’ worth of more traditional trumpet toward the end of her set, it was anticlimactic; the preceding gimmick had gotten old quickly.

Finally, on our last full day in Norway, we walked seven minutes from our hotel to Strangestiftelsen, a onetime poorhouse dating from the early 1800s; it still looked like it belonged to that era (in a good way), decorated with period artwork. There Mari & Stein (vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll and guitarist Stein Urheim) found an engaging mix that encompassed bottleneck blues, deft fingerpicking, Western-style folksong and electronics, shifting from airy and floating to something grittier. We’d already heard the pair as one third of Voice & String & Timpani, the first band to perform at Nattjazz proper a couple of nights earlier. There, they and their colleagues (not a timpanist in sight) expanded the concept, utilizing drums and hand percussion, ambient sound and more. But the overall effect was equally gratifying with two pieces or six.

As is the case with any festival, the Nattjazz sets over the fest’s first three nights-and, by extension, the Nutshell showcases-were hit and miss. And, of course, there were choices to be made, skipping one band in favor of another when set times collided, or perhaps going halfsies. Performing on the 27th, violinist Adam Baldych, working with the Helge Lien Trio (Lien, piano; Frode Berg, double bass; Per Oddvar Johansen, drums) was sensational out of the gate. Baldych is a true trickster on his instrument, coaxing startlingly fresh sounds from it that have evaded previous jazz violin maestros, and Lien and his rhythm section are exceedingly adept at intuiting his directions or forging their own. On the other hand, Fieh, a neo-soul/lite-funk collective fronted by the same-nicknamed, Taylor Swift-looking teenaged vocalist (full name: Sofie Tollefsbøl), with two other young women serving as sidekicks, was mostly style over substance.

Other Nattjazz highlights included Spirit in the Dark, an old-school soul-jazz organ trio that updates the classic Jimmy Smith-associated genre without losing sight of its original vibe, and the Danish trio the Firebirds, whose prog approach-via keyboards, sax and drums-nods unabashedly to the 20th-century classical legacy of Igor Stravinsky and the like (hence the name). The Carsten Dahl Experience, another Danish import, exemplifies the aforementioned anything-goes philosophy. Launching into its set with a fusillade of melody-free abandonment that the saxophonist sat out, the quartet (Dahl, piano; Jesper Zeuthen, saxophone; Nils Bo Davidsen, bass; Stefan Pasborg, drums) tempered its mood by its second number. During that vaguely Middle Eastern melody, which Dahl infused with blues licks, Zeuthen alternated brief flurries of notes with more considered lines, and the rhythm section kept everything grounded.

Their set was among the liveliest and most exhilarating of Nattjazz’s first few nights, but this attendee bailed midway to catch what was left of the Solborg/Banke Duo, featuring Danes (again) Anders Banke (of the Firebirds) on tenor sax and Mark Solborg on guitar. A classic case of less is more, the pair’s synced harmonies and unambiguous melodic lines provided a breather before checking out Bugge Wesseltoft: New Conception of Jazz-2016 Edition. Now completing its second decade, the Norwegian quintet, with keyboardist and leader Wesseltoft and four young female bandmates-Marthe Lea (tenor saxophone), Oddrun Lilja (guitar), Sanskriti Shresta (tablas) and Siv Øyunn Kjenstad (drums)-cooked up a beguiling if at times meandering mix of funk, fusion, world and dance music that attracted one of the largest Nattjazz crowds.

But never too large. Nattjazz is a low-key festival that has no dreams of going gargantuan. It’s satisfied with its lot, presenting contemporary Scandinavian improvisational music in a smallish but smartly curated package. As festival director Skjerdal proclaimed one night, “Jazz is not dead. It just moved to Norway!” It could find worse homes for sure.

Originally Published