Trondheim Jazz Festival: May 9-13, 2012
Not unlike the members of Food, for the past few years, pianist, New Conceptions of Jazz creator and Jazzland label head Bugge Wesseltoft has been exploring the nexus where technology and conventional instrumentation meet but, unlike his Ango/Norwegian cohorts, in the context of solo performance. Albums like Playing (Jazzland, 2009) and IM (Jazzland, 2007), and performances including Punkt in 2006 , Montreal in 2007 and Huagesand in 2008 found Wesseltoft seamlessly integrating solo piano improvisationinformed, to some extent, by Keith Jarrett but with a sparer, more spacious approachwith a similarly intuitive knowledge of synths and samplers allowing him to create more expansive soundworlds filled with rhythm, harmony and unequivocal lyricism.
Wesseltoft's most recent release, Songs (Jazzland, 2012), however, trims out all the gear and places Wesseltoft alone, with nothing more than a grand piano. A self-educated musician who, nevertheless, clearly understands the roots of the jazz traditionas his 2008 performance at Mai Jazz, with bassist Arild Andersen clearly demonstrated, as the pianist and bassist took Norwegian and Swedish traditionalism into burning modal territoryfor Songs, Wesseltoft turns away from free improvisation and original composition to interpret a number of well-known jazz standards and Great American Songbook chestnuts. If this is Wesseltoft's "Standards" record, however, it's one that's no less personal than IM or, for that matter, the music contained on his 2008 New Conceptions of Jazz Box (Jazzland). Others might choose to use these familiar songs as the foundation for virtuosity or radical rework; Wesseltoft, instead, clearly understands the meaning of each of these songs, and if his interpretation leans towards the impressionistic, the gentle and the balladic, then that's clearly of design and intent.
For his Trondheim Jazz Festival date, Wesseltoft was given the ideal venue: Vår Frue Kirke. An old church ideal for a solo piano performance, while there was a PA system being used, the sound engineer maximized the beautiful natural acoustics of the room, simply using his system to help spread the sound throughout the large cathedral. Wesseltoft performed a number of pieces from Songs, most notably a version of Henry Mancini's well-worn classic, "Moon River," here transformed into a gentle tone poem where the familiar melody was never far from the surface, even as Wesseltoft stretched the song out with a rubato reading that never missed its mark. "How High The Moon" was equally moving, Wesseltoft's perfect instincts combining sheer melodism with occasional blue tinges that demonstrated near-flawless instincts and an ability to hear opportunity in the subtlest of nuances, the most delicate of ideas.
Wesseltoft also turned the Miles Davis /Bill Evans jazz standard, "Nardis"a title not on Songsinto a ruminative high point in a set that truly was one long high point, from start to finish. If Erik Satie were a jazz man, and one who interpreted the jazz canon, he might sound something like Wesseltoft and his performance of music from Songs; imbued with an unmistakable command of the jazz vernacular, Wesseltoft's Norwegian upbringing has brought an entirely different perspective to this music, which, along with Food, stands as one of the 2012 Tronheim Jazz Festival's most memorable shows.
The following afternoon, another performance at Vår Frue Kirke took advantage of the room's wonderful acoustics for a show that was, in many ways, diametrically opposed to Wesseltoft's lyrical and eminently accessible set from the night before. The New Songs is a new multi-national collaboration between singer Sofia Jernberg and guitarist David Stackenäs (both from Sweden), French pianist Eva Risser and Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr. Myhr and Stackenäs first met at the 2009 Punkt Festival, where they did not actually play together but shared a double bill: Myhr in duo with French guitarist Sébastien Roux; and Stackenäs as a member of Labfield, with Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach. Clearly, however, the two shared many things in common, most notably a penchant for oblique strategies and unorthodox means.
While use of the term "songs" for music such as this might seem paradoxical, the six songs on A Nest at the Junction of Paths (Umlaut, 2012)compositional duties split evenly between Risser and Jerbergare, indeed, songs, albeit with odd titles like "I'm a Pine Tree Prickle," "A White Square" and "Reality Had Little Weight." Jernberg seemed to be classically trained, possessing a wide range and the ability to navigate odd intervallic leaps. While not at all like German singer Dagmar Krause, of Henry Cow and Art Bears fame, both Jerberg and Risser's music seemed to occupy a place in relative proximity to these two influential and collaborative 1970s/'80s groups belonging to multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith and percussionist Chris Cutler, with similar New Music proclivities and room for open-ended improvisation. But, unlike those bands, without a rhythm section of any kind, The New Songs' music tended to be even more ethereal, with Stackenäs' use of ebows on his acoustic guitar creating long, droning tonalities as a foundation for Myhr's jagged angularities, delicate wind chimes and zither, and Risser's similarly abstruse and prepared approach.
There was plenty of eye contact throughout the set, as the various group members provided visual cues to navigate a set of music that, in its largely soft textures and rounded surfaces, was strangely compelling despite its challenging compositional constructs. Not for the faint-at-heart, perhaps; but for songs on the avant side of the equation, certainly easier to approach.