Seven Days In Norway: The 2009 Oslo Jazz Festival
Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria is a fine place to listen to music, the $10 small beers notwithstanding. (The going price for small beers in Oslo is around 58 kronervery close to $10. It is one of the most expensive cities on the planet.) There are ascending rows of little cushioned booths, and acoustics good enough that Monk's Casino played without amplification. Some of the most interesting music at the festival took place in the Victoria, like drummer Aldo Romano's hip, low-key neobop French quartet (alto saxophonist Geraldine Laurent/clarinetist Mauro Negri/bassist Henri Texier), and a group called PELbO, your basic vocal/tuba/drums trio. (The personnel were Ine Hoem/Kristoffer Lo/Trond Bersu respectively.) Unfortunately only Monk's Casino dared to play acoustically. (Nerve is a virtue Monk's Casino does not lack.)
It was culture shock to go from the jagged shards of Monk's Casino to the smooth contours of tenor saxophonist Bodil Niska caressing standards like "Autumn Leaves." She played Chat Noir, a tight, efficient, classy club space near the neoclassical Nationaltheatret building, with its statue of a dour Henrik Ibsen. The Scott Hamilton Scandinavian Five also played Chat Noir the following day. At European jazz festivals, nationalism is often apparent. Bodil Niska is much less famous than Scott Hamilton, and presumably much more available to Norwegian audiences. But she filled Chat Noir and there were some empty seats for Hamilton.
One purpose of attending a jazz festival is to make new discoverieslike the highly likable Niska. Another is to hear players live whose work you have experienced only on records. It was great fun to experience in person the sheer sensual luxuriance of Scott Hamilton's tenor saxophone sound. As for his time, you could awaken him from a deep sleep at 4 a.m., hand him his horn, and he would be swinging his ass off before his feet hit the floor. Still, his ballads are best ("In A Sentimental Mood," "Skylark"). In a perfect world, Scott Hamilton would play every song you ever liked.
The festival made use of some funky rock venues. Two inconsequential Norwegian rock bands, Bellman and Lama, played a large airless space with a clever name, Rockefeller. It made much less sense to put Mathias Eick in a similar dive without seating, Parkteatret. It is true that Eick's current band (keyboardist Andreas Ulvo, electric bassist Nikolai Eilertsen, drummer Torstein Lofthus) rocks out in person. But it is also true that Eick is one of the most promising new voices in jazz, and it would have been preferable to hear him in a setting where it was possible to concentrate on his long lines of yearning trumpet lyricism. Eick played his widely praised ECM debut album, The Door, in its entirety. In a live setting, the cool, airy pieces from the album were ignited into hard loud grooves by the rhythm section. Yet Eick stayed within himself. The fascination of this band in person was the contrast between the delicacy of Eick's trumpet designs and the driving energy all around him. In Eick's sense of dramatic moment, you hear the Miles of Sketches Of Spain. But his concepts for overall ensemble form are up-to-the-minute and his own. Eick is a storyteller with a seductive, golden trumpet sound, impeccable chops (he maybe had one fluff all night), and a very bright future.
One of the revelations of the festival was the trio of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass), Hakon Kornstad (reeds), and Jon Christensen (drums) playing free, floating jazz versions of religious folk songs that Flaten learned from his grandmother. Imagine a fast bass supporting a slow saxophone. Kornstad wafted simple melodic minor key rituals and then patiently, creatively pursued their implications, while Flaten ran ahead and Christensen lagged behind, scattering ambiguous murmuring accents.
Christensen was a guest added for this performance. He is the only famous member of the trio, but Flaten and Kornstad are world-class players. Flaten was powerful and poetic, both pizzicato and arco. Kornstad played mostly tenor, but sometimes switched off to a surprisingly fluid and graceful bass saxophone. This was often music of extraordinary quietness. Pieces did not so much begin or end as happen for a time. Much has been written about the "Nordic sensibility" in jazz, often found on the ECM label. Like most critical categorizations, it is an oversimplification. (As this festival proved, a lot of Nordic music is hard and raunchy.) Yet there is also a kernel of truth to the concept of a Nordic aesthetic. It is difficult to imagine players from outside Scandinavia willing to risk playing jazz this ephemeral, willing so to trust the openness and attentiveness of their audience.
The setting for this performance was Kulturkirken Jakob, a lovely brick 19th century church whose acoustics added a natural ambient extension to the trio's pale, austere, haunting music. There is a CD on the Compunctio label, Elise.