2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
SInce the release of This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (Rune Grammofon, 2005), Norwegian piano trio In the Country has evolved a sound and built an audience that has no issue with taking a rather conventional format and twisting it into a brand new shape. While acoustic piano, double bass and drums have always formed the core of In the Country, on its subsequent recordings-2006's Losing Stones, Collecting Bones, 2009's ambitious Whiteout and 2011's live CD/DVD combo, Sounds and Sights (all on Rune Grammofon)-the trio of Morten Qvenild (piano, keyboards, vocals), Roger Arntzen (double bass, vocals) and Pål Hauskens (drums, percussion, vocals) has gone through its own shifts, moving increasingly towards song form and more vocals. None of the trio's members have what might be considered a great voice in conventional terms, but both Hauskens and Qvenild, in particular, are perfectly suited to In the Country's fragile, often deeply personal subject matter.
There was, however, considerably less singing at the group's Umeå performance than a year ago at its Festival International de Jazz de Montréal show, where the trio even reached beyond its own compositional framework for a very personal look at guitarist Mark Knopfler's title track to the Dire Straits hit album, Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros, 1985). On the other hand, as fine as In the Country has been in concert, consistent in its absolute consistency, even those who've seen the group numerous times since 2006 agreed that its Umeå set-with the venue packed to the rafters-was one of its best ever, and one of the highlights of Umeå 2012.
With a projection screen above the band displaying black and white imagery-some moving, some still, of running water, forestry and wildlife-the group introduced a number of pieces from its just-recorded fifth album, to be released by Rune Grammofon in February, 2013. If this performance was anything to go by, then this may well be another leap forward for a group that has been making significant steps with each recording. With everyone performing at the top of their game, special props must go to Hauskens, who has never sounded better. Always a drummer concerned with texture-whether it's towels draped over his drums to mute the sound, large bamboo brush-like sticks to allow him to play with a certain amount power at lower volumes, or attaching a percussion instrument to his left foot so that he can use them in time with the rest of his kit-Hauskens has also always been a player with wide-open ears. On this night he seemed especially connected, which was a very good thing because Qvenild was soloing with particular strength as well.
Qvenild's current doctoral studies are based around his concept of "hyper piano," an organic and seamless blend of the acoustic and electric. From the beginning of the trio's show it was clear that at least some of his studies were beginning to bear fruit as he treated his piano both with acoustic preparations and electronic processes. Arntzen was, as ever, the modicum of simplicity and perfection in his spare choices. Older material included Whiteout's "Kung Fu Boys," here played with more fire than usual, and an even more vulnerable version of the Sound and Sights' haunting, melancholic "Slow Down." The end result was a truly triumphant performance that garnered both a standing ovation-and in Umeå, where they were clearly not handed out perfunctorily, that meant something-and a well-deserved demand for an encore.
Along with Isabel Sörling Farvel, England's World Service Project was another high point of the 2011 edition of the 12 Points Festival. Not only does the festival create a platform for young acts to be heard by fans and the media, but in the last couple years it has implemented a new initiative called 12 Points Plus, where three groups are selected to go on a European tour, in order to further expose them to an even larger audience. As interested in promoting up-and-coming bands as it is legacy acts, Umeå is an active participant in 12 Points Plus, and this year's edition brought three groups to the festival: France's Actuum, Poland's Maciej Obara Quintet, and England's World Service Project. If time and too many choices made it, sadly, impossible to catch Actuum and Obara, it's a good thing that World Service Project wasn't missed, as this young group-ranging in age from 21 to 26-is clearly one deserving a close eye and ear.
Beyond its own music, WSP has been involved in an ongoing project/festival called Match and Fuse, bringing together groups from various countries. The 2012 edition brought groups like The Netherlands' Tin Men and the Telephone (one of the absolute high points of the recent Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2012), Norway's Pixel and Synoke, and England's Led Bib and WSP. What became clear, upon speaking to WSP keyboardist Dave Morecroft, was that this is a very, very bright group of young players who is taking its career by the horns and using everything at its disposal to gain recognition.
The group's debut, 2010's Relentlessm (Brooke Records), demonstrated no shortage of promise from the quintet-at the time including, in addition to Morecroft, saxophonist Tim Ower, trombonist Raphael Clarkson, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Neil Blandford. Blandford has subsequently been replaced by Michael Clowes and, if anything, based on its Umeå performance, the group has made significant strides in a relatively short period of time: greater confidence, a much greater injection of humor and overall craziness into the proceedings, and a much stronger group identity. Songs like "De-Friender," which Morecroft introduced with its relevance to the Facebook age, was loaded with knotty stops and starts. An unrelenting pulse moved from thundering rock beats to up-tempo swing in a heartbeat, before dropping down into a free section that began with Morecroft, Clarkson and Ower in trio, but soon paradoxically built up and dissolved further when Chaplin and Clowes joined the party.
And, as jagged and sharp-cornered as so much of Morecroft's music was, there was, indeed, a party atmosphere from a band that was clearly having fun as, in the same tune, it broke down into a polka beat that evolved into a disco beat...and then stopped entirely, only for the whole band to rejoin with even greater power. "Fire in a Pet Shop"- like "De-Friender," appearing on the group's 2012 self-produced EP, Live from London, things got downright silly when Morecroft and Clowes began making animal noises, ranging from monkeys to cats. But silly is good, especially when you've a group this talented, this together and this promising. Chaplin looks like he's barely begun shaving (though he is, in fact, 21 years old), and the rest of the band looks like it's only a couple years older. But World Service Project is a band that, as outrageous as some of its music can be, takes its business very seriously, with Morecroft and Clarkson attending two daytime panels-one on trends and tendencies in jazz, and the other on jazz media-and participating in them with the kind of interest that is rarely seen in such educational programming at festivals.
There's no doubt that World Service Project is a group with promise, and one committed to self-promotion at a time when it's absolutely essential, especially for young, up-and- coming bands. But with performances like its incendiary Umeå set, and a new record on the horizon, if there's any band that's doing everything right, and deserves all the acclaim it can handle, it's World Service Project. Stay tuned: there's clearly plenty more to come.