Seven Days In Norway: The 2009 Oslo Jazz Festival
In a festival that variously included opera orchestras and big bands and banks of synthesizers and percussionists two and three at a time, the most music of all came from one man and one Steinway piano in Kulturkirken Jakob. Enrico Pieranunzi has quietly become one of the most important pianists in jazz. His solo recital encompassed his own melodically inevitable compositions ("Winter Moon," "As Never Before"), some epic interpretations of standards, some film music (Nino Rota's "Theme From La Strada"), some Monk, and a Scarlatti sonata. Around and above each chosen platform, Pieranunzi erected towering pianistic architecture. "My Funny Valentine" is the Italian Jazz National Anthem. All the Italians play it, but no one plays it like Pieranunzi. He released the melody gradually, in fragments, as if reluctantly, then overwhelmed it with inspired spontaneous decorative detail. "'Round Midnight" (perhaps the universal Jazz National Anthem) was a barely visible recurrent thread in a vast tapestry.
Joshua Redman, that peerless musical athlete and showman, played a typically ferocious, impossibly proficient, unfailingly entertaining set with his trio (bassist Matt Penman, drummer Gregory Hutchinson) at a jam-packed Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. (For Joshua, they took out the tables on the main floor and replaced them with rows of chairs, to fit in more people.) By the time Joshua's voluminous cadenzas and high leg kicks and explosive codas were concluded, there were no faces in the crowd without ear-to-ear grins, including those of the ushers and bar maids. (Anywhere in the world, it takes a special player to impress a bar maid.)
Steady rain fell on the last day of the festival, Saturday August 15. Bill Frisell played a rare solo concert in Kulturkirken Jakob at four in the afternoon. Solo jazz guitar is a challenging format, even for Bill Frisell, even with the support of digital loops. In the early part of the concert, he seemed indecisive, meandering into tangents and digressions, falling into odd intervals, hinting at melodies and perversely withdrawing them. But with Frisell, you have to be careful. What you think is a digression can eventually manifest itself as central and profound, because he does not build statements in any previously known way. It is a matter of getting in tune with his quirks. Once you make the connection to his proprietary logic, other guitar players sound obvious and intentional. When Frisell settledif he can ever be said to truly settleinto country songs like "You're Cheatin' Heart" and "Lovesick Blues" (the latter from his remarkable new album Disfarmer), it was like peace and truth. Melodies deeply rooted in American culture were reimagined and transformed in silver guitar notes that rung out and ascended to the high vaulted ceiling of an old church in Norway.
It was slightly surreal to leave one of the world's great guitar players at Kulturkirken Jakob and walk in the rain to a very boring guitarist, Eivind Aarset, at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria. But first you had to wait in the rain on the street outside the club, under a gradually saturating umbrella, for 45 minutes. Aarset and his Sonic Codex Orchestra were delayed on their flight out of Rome. Once inside, dripping listeners were treated to music of turgid ponderousness. Double drummers churned and thundered. The electric bassist, Audun Erlien, took an interminable, inane solo. Aarset's guitar solos were so minimal in content that they were presumably intended as Zen. They were more like wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Or bubblegum. Sugarless bubblegum.
It sounds painful, but it was actually almost funny, and a way of making one grateful for all the excellent musical experiences that had come before, during seven very special days in Norway.