Norwegian Jazz 101a: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2009
While Nattjazz's emphasis was on Norwegian artists, it did bring in some groups from farther afield, although pianist Bobo Stenson and his triobassist Anders Jormin and relative newcomer, drummer Jon Fältare hardly strangers, coming from nearby Sweden. Stenson is often billed (as he was here) as "Scandinavia's Keith Jarrett," but such comparisons are in many ways unfair and long past their "best by" date. Stenson emerged around the same time as Jarrett (earlier, in fact, on ECM, as a part of the first wave of Scandinavian artists receiving international exposure through the label, also including Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen), and while he's as imaginative an improviser, there's less ego, less overt virtuosity in the pianist's approach to interpreting everything from Silvio Rodriguez (a personal favorite of Jormin's) and Ornette Coleman to Henry Purcell and some original material. Whereas Jarrett commands visual attention on any stage, Stenson is almost invisible...though the same could hardly be said for his music. And while it was only one aspect of the group, those who feel that European artists can't or won't swing need look no further than this trio.
l:r: Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin, Jon Fält
Stenson's touch was as elegant as ever, although Fält has clearly lit a fire underneath the trio since replacing Jon Christensen a few years ago, a quality made abundantly clear on his debut with the trio, Cantando (ECM, 2008). He possesses the same interpretive, temporal elasticity as Christensen, as well as the legendary drummer's ability to suggest more with less, but is equally capable of being a more direct player when the need arisesas it did on the group's potent version of Coleman's "Race Face." With his surprisingly small kit he was a kinetic alternative to Stenson's quiet, reserved persona, breaking up even the most propulsive rhythms with quirky punctuations and staggered breaks.
As for Jormin, German journalist Karsten Muetzelfeldt said it best: "He's the voice of the group." Jormin's singing tone and innate lyricism were on display throughout the trio's set, although his robust tone also anchored the band when Stenson and Fä were in free flight. What distances Stenson from Jarrett is his greater attention to space and a sense, while he may be the trio's titular leader, that there's a greater collective mindset at play. The music ranged from the refined and reflective to surprisingly outgoing and even a tad expressionistic, but through it all, even when there were clearly delineated solos, there was an underlying democracy that made every piece a true three-way conversation amongst equals.
Violinist Ola Kvernberg, on the other hand, was the clear center of attention at his late night performance. With his regular triobassist Steinar Raknes and drummer Erik Nylanderaugmented by Børge Fjordheim, who brought a number of unusual textures that included a bowed saw to his array of percussion instruments, Kvernberg drew largely from his latest album, the irrepressible Folk (Jazzland, 2009).
l:r: Børge Fjordheim, Ola Kvernberg, Erik Nylander
Starting with the buoyantly slap-dash rhythm of "Roland," Kvernberg quickly got the audience's attention with his octave violin, an instrument tuned an octave below a normal violin. Strumming it like a guitar before grabbing his bow to deliver its languid theme, Kvernberg also used a series of foot pedals to subtle effect, creating a rhythm loop to drive the more folksy lyricism of "Mariam."
The additional percussionist could have cluttered things up, but Fjordheim worked in perfect concert with Nylander, creating layers of rhythm that drove Kvernberg's concise solos to greater heights, bolstered by Raknes' penchant for grabbing onto a pattern and milking it for all it was worth. Kvernberg took the majority of the solos throughout the set, and that was largely a good thing as Raknes, for instance, was a far better accompanist than he was a soloist.
The music ranged from hip hop-inflected to folkloric, with a fiery exchange between Kvernberg and Nylander at the start of the hard-swinging, modal "John" the closest Kvernberg came to the intense free play of his work in bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaken's quintet. Kvernberg's music was eminently accessible while being undeniably substantial, and if Folk is one of the best releases of 2009, the violinist's performance at Nattjazz stands as one of the festival's high points.
For JNiaN's final day, the group was taken off the coast of Bergen by boat to Holmen, an island where the Cornelius restaurant offers imaginative seafood cuisine taken from the waters surrounding the small island. Scallops, sea urchins and oysters were but a few of the delicacies offered raw to JNiaN participants, along with some fine wine to complement it.
The island is a brief 20-minutes from the heart of Bergen by boat, with the restaurant's seating capacity approximately 250. With gorgeous views of the surrounding islands and fjords, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful place to enjoy a meal, and the grounds surrounding the restaurant have been cultivated to make any visit to the restaurant an experience that transcends merely going somewhere pleasant for a meal.
With 4,500 annual guests since 2007, a trip to Cornelius is more than just a terrific sit-down meal. Groups coming to the island are met by one of the restaurant's owners, Alf Roald Sætrealso known as "Shellfish Man"who offered drinks and raw seafood to JNiaN members, along with an engaging story of how the restaurant came to be, delivered with the perfect timing of the best comedian.
Tanks in the walkways surrounding the restaurant's five large rooms kept fish, lobster and other shellfish on display, as everyone gradually made their way into the largest room for a sumptuous lunch of fish soup, salad, crab, prawn and fresh bread. Following the meal and speeches from local arts representatives, violinist Nils Økland gave a brief performance on hardanger fiddle and viola d'amore. Both instruments resemble traditional violins, but have additional strings that, situated below the strings that are played, resonate sympathetically. The instruments also have more strings than the conventional four-string violin (usually seven or more), and are tuned in various ways, just as guitars often are for traditional folk music.
Økland is a true master of these instruments, referencing the rich Norwegian folk tradition while largely focusing on original material, some from his new ECM album, Monograph (2009). As with his performance at Punkt 08, the violinist's touch was impeccable, drawing delicate nuances out of his instruments with the lightest touch of the bow, making this all-acoustic performance all the more vivid. Økland introduced each piece with some information about the instrument being used and the source of the song. With nothing but his feet to create a pulse during the more propulsive tunes, Økland represented a sharp contrast to the effects-laden musicians who may be mining similar territory for inspiration, but are approaching it from an entirely different angle.
Returning to the hotel for a brief pause before a final evening at Nattjazz, JNiaN participants reflected on just how well the entire trip had been coordinated, a perfect combination of networking and social interaction, fine music and exposure to Norway's stunning geography and distinct culture. Each night, after the Nattjazz performances, the Key Club provided a low-key place for JNiaN members to relax, talk about their individual work and reflect on the music they'd heard throughout the day, as well as pick up promotional material from the various artists participating at JNiaN and Nattjazz.