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Review: Vossa Jazz Festival, Norway, March 22-24

Scandinavian jazz culture showcased in a small-town atmosphere

Nasheet Waits

It’s true that the Vossa Jazz Festival-the early springtime kickoff to the hearty Norwegian jazz festival season-which celebrated its 40th anniversary in March, has settled into a groove, and has thankfully heeded forces of habit that have held it in good stead. But one could hardly say that things are complacent in the festival in this idyllic lakeside town in western Norway, two hours outside of Bergen. Surprises and reassuring musical verities are to be found here, year after year.

In Voss, the usual framework was in place this year, but with fresh fodder and ideas abuzz. As usual, we could expect an “extreme jazz” event, incorporating the great outdoors in a ski-recreation destination that also hosts an “extreme sports” festival in the summertime. This year, the venerable Norwegian band Jøkleba-with trumpeter Per Jørgensen, keyboardist Jon Balke (an “extreme jazz” veteran) and percussionist Audun Kleive-performed cool, open-ended post-Miles jazz high up in the snowy ski area above Voss, as parasailers trailed colored vapor trails overhead.

Another Voss tradition, Saturday night’s large commissioned work, is a long-standing tradition that has been adopted by other festivals, and created a certain legacy: Nils Petter Molvaer’s classic Khmer began its life as a Vossa Jazz commission, as did Mathias Eick’s impressive “Voss,” circa 2011 (which he’ll play at the Bergen Jazz Festival in May). This year, the spotlight was turned on the kinetic and multi-talented Stian Carstensen, the accordionist/guitarist/composer/maverick from the band Farmers Market. Carstensen penned a fascinating set of pieces for an expanded group including harp,

This year, an added 40th birthday feature was a second commissioned piece, a melodic and impressionistic pop-jazz work, “YM,” by Tore Brunborg, sometimes reminiscent of the band Passport. He was joined by the stellar Norwegians guitarist-sound painter Eivind Aarset, drummer Per Oddvar Johansen and bassist Steinar Raknes, whose input was sometimes stronger than the material it adorned. In the same theater, the Gamlekinoen, a recent Norwegian saxophone sensation a generation down, 28-year-old Marius Neset returned to Voss after a dynamic showing last year, this time with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in tow, and in energetic sync with Neset’s sharp progressive-yet-romantic vision.

American jazz was in short supply in the mix this year, but no matter: Vossa Jazz is a ripe place to catch up on some Nordic and Scandinavian jazz culture, in a small-town atmosphere seized by the musical cause one weekend per year.

Americans did open the weekend, however, as Brad Mehldau showed up in a groove-lined, plugged-in context, in an empathetic and interactive duet with drummer Mark Guiliana, suitably dubbed Mehliana. Intriguing though it is to hear Mehldau stretch beyond his customary post at a grand piano, working vintage synths and a Rhodes electric piano, the harmonic and rhythmic elements seemed a bit tame, in need of further stretching to reach the level of his masterful work with his acoustic trio. Mehliana is a project to keep tabs on.

Later on Friday night in the Fraktgodsen venue, across the railroad tracks, the thrilling drummer Nasheet Waits led the meaningfully named group Equality with his longtime ally, bassist Tarus Mateen, nimble pianist James Hurt and the fine, fiery alto saxist Logan Richardson. Working out on mostly original tunes by the players, the band asserted a potent musical presence, individually and collectively. By Waits’ admission, the troops were worse for wear after some extracurricular partying in Barcelona the night before, and there was a surreal moment when Mateen was playing an unintended extended solo and suddenly it appeared that Waits had dozed off, although he abruptly burst back into action when wakened into the moment.

Back in the multiple-venue Park Hotel home base of the festival, a long night of sounds culminated in the electric “art-fusion” organ quartet Elephant9, led by the legendary keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, known for his work with Terje Rypdal, Supersilent and his own cool duo, Humcrush. Joined by guest guitarist Reine Fiske, the band cooked up a riveting and textured sound, with hints of Allman Brothers, Larry Young gone wild and some hot abstract wildcatting.

One of the discovery moments of the festival, for this listener, was the BWM Trio, led by the boldly talented pianist Bernt Moen, in tandem with bassist Roger Williamson and drummer Klaus Blomvik. They navigated musical turf alternately straight-ish, free, rocking and sometimes Bad Plus-y, in the mode of fresh contemporary piano trio culture worth checking out and thinking about.

This year, a female musical presence was especially sturdy, and poetic, including a Sunday morning show by the talented 20-year-old saxophonist Elisabeth Lid Trøen, duly wowing a packed crowd in the hip hang zone of Tre Brør Café. Modern fado singer Cristina Branco proved a perfect extra-jazz touch in her alluring, melancholy-lined set later that night.

Over all, the strongest singular takeaway memories for me were the remarkable, improvisation-inspired vocalist Sidsel Endresen’s enchantment in a duet with guitarist Stian Westerhus (whose recording recently won a Norwegian Grammy) and the magical sight-and-sound pairing of the town’s 12th century church, Vangskyrkja, and the great Norwegian female vocal group Trio Mediæval. For this concert of music from Euro-medieval, Norwegian folk and other sources, the harmonious gleam was enhanced by the presence of guests Nils Økland, a mystical master of the Norwegian Hardanger violin, and percussionist Birger Mistereggen. At the risk of generalizing, while Endresen, one of the world’s most distinctive vocalists (and extended vocalists), went to primeval and dark, cathartic places in her set, the Trio Mediæval show waxed angelic, from their own angle.

In the warm and intimate venue of the Ossasalen, part of the Ole Bull Music Academy, further adventures in the fusing of Norwegian folk traditions and other music came in the form of singer-kantele player Sinikka Langeland and her stellar ensemble, with bassist Anders Jormin, saxist Trygve Seim and drummer Markku Ounaskari. The players, well-versed in the delicate blending of folk, jazz, meditative and atmospheric elements, beautifully complemented her post-folk rusticity, in music of muscular introspection and some new idiomatic x factor.

And in a female-oriented angle once-removed, Vossa Jazz brought itself to a rousing, witty close with a wry, swinging and madcap “Divas,” by the Dutch ensemble I Compani, in the Fraktgodsen compound. The rangy cool 10-piece group features some players from the acclaimed Dutch Willem Breuker Kollektief (Breuker died last year), and recently released the album Garbo, from which some of the music here came. Behind them, a screen hosted a creatively Barbarella to the pre-showered Janet Leigh from Pyscho to naughty Saraghina from 8 ½, Maria Schneider from The Passenger and countless other dames and divas flashing before our eyes. Meanwhile, the band played on, over charts with tricky turns, clever tunes and fertile solos.

It seemed an aptly cultured, hip and slightly giddy final touch to another fine festival in Voss, a springtime jazz go-to locale presumably moving on into its next 40 years.

Originally Published