Sidsel Endresen @ 60: Oslo, Norway, November 8-9, 2012
“ Sidsel always sings the skin off my body. -- Nils Petter Molvær ”
Sidsel Endresen @ 60: A Special Birthday Celebration
Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria
November 8-9, 2012
Turning 60 can mean different things to different people: for some, it's a time to think about slowing down, and for others, it's a time to kick into higher gear. In the case of jazz and improvising musicians, age seems to do nothing but accelerate their activities; just look at artists like guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Chick Corea, three musicians who are not only touring and recording at an accelerated rate but who are, in the process, delivering some of the best music of their careers.
Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen may not appear to be as busy as any of these better-known musicians, though she has begun to ramp up on recorded appearances, with her potent collaboration with improvising duo Humcrush, Ha! (Rune Grammofon, 2011), and her first recording with guitarist Stian Westerhus, the equally powerful and out-of-the-box Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012) released within months of each other, along with a significant role on Punkt Festival co-artistic directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré's transcendent Uncommon Deities (SamadhiSound, 2012).
However, Endresen has made clear in the ensuing decades since bursting onto the Norwegian scene in the early '80swith the Jon Eberson Group, where she became a true pop star with the hit single "Jive Talking"that, more important than her recorded output, her purpose in life is considerably less ostentatious but far more ambitious. Beginning with two sublime recordings for ECM1990's So I Write and 1994's Exile, featuring other stars on the rise including trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, pianist Django Bates and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft alongside label-stalwart drummer Jon ChristensenEndresen began asserting herself as a more experimental singer (albeit one still committed to melody) and a profound wordsmith. With her three subsequent duo recordings with Wesseltoft, Nightsong (Curling Legs, 1994), Duplex Ride (ACT, 1998) and Out Here. In There (Jazzland, 2002), Endresen commenced embracing the seamless electronic integration that had begun to define a second wave of young Norwegian musicians also including trumpeter Arve Henriksen, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, guitarist Eivind Aarset and percussionist Thomas Stronen, though her own instrument remained steadfastly acoustic.
Following Endresen's last great collection of "real" songs, on 2000's Undertow (Jazzland) she began to more decidedly pursue the use of voice as a textural instrumentcapable of integrating more deeply with a band rather than leading iton tracks like Duplex Ride's "Six Minutes or So." It was here that her investigations into small vocal cells to ultimately create a new language known only to Endresen began. The improv-heavy Merriwinkle (Jazzland, 2003), a trio recording with keyboardist Christian Wallumrod and sound sculptor Helge Sten (also a member of groundbreaking noise-improv group Supersilent), is Endresen's first recorded example of a move away from conventional singing towards a personal approach that has its precedent, to some degree, in Meredith Monk's vocal innovations, but more in spirit than in actual approach and execution. A decade on, there's no doubt that Endresen sounds like nobody elseand nobody else sounds like Endresen.
Since then, her improvisational acumen has evolved, and through participation in the annual Punkt Live Remix festival (in its home base of Kristiansand, Norway, but also abroad in countries including France, Germany, England and Estonia) and collaborations with saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, Humcrush, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Westerhus and others, Endresen has truly become not just a national treasure but also one of the most (perhaps the most) impressive examples of how an instrument can be reshaped into something completely other than what nature might seem to have intended. The core of Endresen's warm, wonderful, lyrical voice remains beneath her more outré experiments, but so too is a new language that brings together guttural utterings, strange stutterings and occasional mutterings. There is, quite simply, no one in the world like Sidsel Endresen.
And so, with her 60th birthday approaching, a collection of people conspired to put together a special celebration at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria club. "It's an interesting story, really," said Norsk Jazzforum's Linda Skipnes Strand, who, among other responsibilities, books Victoria. "It was in a meeting a year ago when I was reminded that Sidsel was turning 60 this year, so I thought, this is Sidsel Endresen, the biggest voice in Norway on the jazz scene, and we like her so much. She's such a nice person, so we wanted to do something. I was kind of nervous asking her because I know she's the kind of person who doesn't love too much attention. So I was kind of nervous; I just sent her an e-mail saying I'd like to speak to her about something, and perhaps we could speak after a concert or something. And the really strange thing is that when we met at the concert, she asked me if we could do something.
"She didn't suggest anything like this tribute concert," Strand continued, "but just something; she really just wanted to be a curator or something. So we did a lot of talking back and forth, and of course I wanted to do the tribute concert, and it was supposed to be a secret, a surprise party, but I did reveal it in the end [laughs]. I really wasn't prepared for all the people we invited to say yes, and there's been such a positive atmosphere. People have been so happyhappy to be asked- -and they all really wanted to do this for Sidsel, and that's why there are 11 of the top musicians on the Norwegian scene. I released [information about the evening] a couple days ago, and the ticket sales just went through the roof. People are just really excited about this. I asked Fiona [Talkington, host of BBC Radio 3's popular Late Junction] to MC because she and Sidsel really get along, and, like so many others, she's a big fan and knows a lot about Sidsel and her music, is familiar with the music scene here and is a really good journalist. She's done this before, she knows what she's doing, so it's great for us to have her."
The first of the two consecutive evenings was devoted to Endresen performing with a new improvising ensemble, the second to a tribute coordinated by Strand, Talkington and Wesseltoft (acting as musical coordinator) that was kept a surprise from Endresen until just two days before the event. Musicians came from across Norway (including some who were out of the country on tour but who flew in specifically to participate in this evening) and even from as far away as England, with pianist Django Bates (who appears on Endresen's two ECM recordings) flying in just for the occasion.
The event turned into a two-day birthday party that confirmed just how important Endresen is to her friends, family and fans, and it was an absolute thrill and privilege to be able to attend.
Perhaps the biggest carrot for Endresen's first evening performance was the opportunity to see her in a larger ensemble, as her recent years were largely occupied by appearances in duos with Håkon Kornstad and Stian Westerhus or in trio with Humcrush, participation in the 2007 Jazzland Community tour and Punkt Festival live remixes and the occasional solo set. For her Victoria show, however, Endresen put together a new ensemble of players known and unknownsome already well established, others clearly ascending.
Pianist Christian Wallumrod is best known for his string of ECM recordings including the most recent Fabula Suite Logano (2010) and his participation in the collective Dans les arbres' self-titled 2010 ECM debut. However, he's far busier in Norway, having collaborated in groups including Close Erase, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Airamero (an early quartet with saxophonist Trygve Seim) and drummer Audun Kleive's Generator X, which can be heard on the recently released Attack (self-produced, 2012). Here, Wallumrød largely stayed with grand piano and a series of internal preparations but occasionallysometimes subtly, other times quite dramaticallyadded electronics to the mix of an otherwise entirely acoustic performance.
Trumpeter Eivind Lønning comes from a new, young generation of improvising musicians twisting and distorting the sonic potential of their instruments in entirely organic, acoustic ways. A member of Wallumrød's Ensemble, Lønning is also one-half of Streifenjunko, a sublime yet extreme improvising duo with Espen Reineretsen. (The duo's most recent release is the vinyl-only sval torv (SOFA, 2012).) With Endresen also recruiting the similarly outer-reaching Streifenjunko saxophonist for her ensemble, there was plenty of preexisting chemistry on hand, with links between Lønning and Reinertsen, Lønning and Wallumrød and, of course, Wallumrød and Endresen, through their collaboration on Merriwinkle. The sextet's other two membersviolinist Vilde Sandve Alnæs and double bassist Inga Margrete Ausare relatively new to the scene, but both women integrated at a profound level in a set that was intensely focused and just plain intense but often in the quietest possible way.
With Endresen situated off to the far end of stage right, and with the more central stage lighting keeping her in relative darkness, it seemed to fit perfectly with the singer's goal, which she articulated in a 2011 All About Jazz interview: "When it came to exploring the voice, my main motive was the wish to do other things with it than simply carrying a song. I wanted to work improvisationally and more instrumentally with the voice so that I could be a true force in the way the music evolved. I wanted to be a real part of defining the form, texture and total sound. I wanted to have the freedom to move in and out of foreground/background. I have always been very frustrated with the role of vocal improvisation within mainstream jazz." Endresen did, indeed, move to the forefront at times, especially towards the end of the 75-minute set, as it gained in intensity and dynamics and the singer became more physically animated from her usual seated position. But more often than not, she was an equal partner in the evocation of sounds strange and familiar, melodic and angular, hard edged and round surfaced, all defining a performance that challenged the audience as much as it did the performers.
If the music coming from the stage was largely abstruse and abstract violin strings scraped, double-bass body bowed, trumpet blown with no discernible note, saxophone evoking warm multiphonic harmonies, piano peppered with unexpected percussive explosions and, of course, Endresen's vocalssometimes rhythmic and other times staggered, sometimes melodic and other times evoking a language known only to the singerit was music being made with absolute focus, so much so that many of those in the audience claimed, after the show, to be as exhausted as the musicians, whose degree of concentration was so deep as to be palpable. Whether this group was a one-off or will continue, and whether or not it might ultimately record, is unknown. In the meantime, it was a treat to hear Endresen in an entirely different context from any of her other recent projects, and it certainly bodes well for the future.
Eleven musicians came together to pay tribute to Endresen in the best way they knew how: by reinterpreting some of their favorite songs from her back catalog, by performing their own music and by speaking about her in ways that demonstrate just how she has touched each and every one of them. With the exception of pianist Django Bates, it was an all- Norwegian lineup, but its age demographics, encompassing Emilie Christensen, Solveig Slettahjell, Live Maria Roggen and Eldbjorg Raknes, highlighted Endresen's influence on more than one generation of singers. And with instrumentalists ranging from Bates, saxophonist Håkon Kornstad, guitarist Stian Westerhus and keyboardist Morten Qvenild, to live sampler Jan Bang, drummer Audun Kleive, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, it was clear that Endresen's multigenerational reach did not and does not apply solely to vocalists.
Throughout the afternoon, a relaxed series of sound checks began to reveal pieces of the evening to come, as the musicianssome of whom had not seen each other in some timegreeted each other, tried out arrangements that had previously only been discussed and collaborated with organizers Wesseltoft, Linda Skipnes Strand and Fiona Talkington to finalize the evening's two sets.
It was also a time for everyone to reflect, in their own way, on how Endresen has touched their lives. Kornstad spoke of the first time he played with Endresen: "I think it was with the Jazzland Community tour. Of course, I'd always admired Sidsel and had listened to her albums when I was a student. I just remember this extreme force that she has; it was really, really clear and forward and energetic. I think the best thing about all the good Norwegian players is that they have this clarity, and so it was really inspiring to experience that for the first time."
Kornstad, already an outstanding saxophonistfirst in the group Wibutee and then with a series of solo albums that explored a new way of approaching solo saxophone performance with the use of looping to create mini-reed orchestras on Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009) and, most recently, Symphonies In My Head (Jazzland, 2011)has largely been on hiatus from performing, as he is currently about halfway through conservatory studies as an opera singer. Given his proclivities for finding new ways to work with existing disciplines, it's no surprise that, in addition to performing conventional opera (he's making his stage debut at the Oslo Opera House very soon), he's already been searching for ways to incorporate this newfound voice into his own music. After performing (on tenor saxophone) with Django Bates and Eldbjørg Raknes on a deep, dark version of Endresen's beautiful "Dreamland," from So I Write, which takes the well-known lullaby "Hush Now" to an even more poignant place, Kornstad delivered a stunning vocal improvisation for Endresen, accompanied only by mbira (thumb piano). "I wanted to do a solo improvisation because we played duo together, and I wanted to try and capture some of that same energy."
Not only did Kornstad capture the energy and captivate the audience, he demonstrated an absolutely gorgeous tenor voice which he'll also be working into his own musical endeavors, tentatively calling it "Twin Tenors"in reference to the two-tenor tradition of players like saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davisbut, in Kornstad's case, with two very different tenors in mind.
Eldbjørg Raknes, who has her own solo career and a recently landed associate professorship at the renowned Trondheim Conservatory, collaborated with Endresen and singer Elin Rossland in the vocal group ESE, which released GACK (Jazzland, 1998), giving her a particular perspective: "She's the queen," said Raknes, laughing. "She's so focused, so serious, so seriously working and honest. That means so much for those of us coming after her, just to be around her. She's inspiring. It's very scary to sing one of her songs, and that ["Dreamland"] was really the first song for me to fall in love with her. So what does it mean? Sidsel, I love you, and I'll just try to sing this song, of course, in my way, and then I'll also do my own stuffwhich is important, I think, in order not to be a copy. But it's scary, this whole thing, with Sidsel there. I told her, 'You are going to turn 60; you don't like to be 60, but this is going to be a great year for you.'"
Raknes opened the evening, in fact, with a solo performance that began with her doing nothing more than evoking the sound of windpossibly as a reference to Endresen's similar beginning the previous evening. But from there the similarity ended, as Raknes began to use an array of processing, looping, harmonizing and more. It was a strong start to the evening, and one that asserted, very clearly, that this was to be an homage to Endresen done in the inimitable and personal ways of all the participants: a nearly three-hour love letter and living, breathing birthday card.
Django Bateswhose most recent record, Confirmation (Lost Marble, 2012), continues the pianist's very personal approach to interpreting the music of saxophonist Charlie Parker amidst a larger collection of originalswas still a relatively up-and-coming young artist at the time of So I Write, garnering attention as a member of the large British ensemble Loose Tubes and for his participation in drummer Bill Bruford's first Earthworks group. The pianist recalled how he ended up performing on So I Write and its 1994 follow-up, Exile. "I'd never heard Sidsel," he said, "though I'd heard the name, and one day I came home, and there was a message on my answering machine, with Sidsel introducing herself as a singer from Norway and saying, 'We'll be making a record; we'd like you to join us. If you're at all interested in this, I can send you a demo.' Then she left a number. What's interesting about this is that it's the only time that, purely on the strength of an answer-phone message, I was able to know completely that I wanted to do this. It says a lot about her voice and the way her character comes out when she's speaking; I picked up the sense of a generous, interesting artistic person. So I said, 'Yes.'
"Then the demo arrived," Bates continued, "and that was beautiful, too. Then I went out and met everyone for the first time, and off we went. It was actually a very short amount of playing before we went into the studio; we just had a couple of rehearsals. So when I listen to So I Write, I hear me and Nils Petter [Molvær] dueting, for instance, and it was literally the first time we'd played together properly, because in rehearsal you kind of skip through the improv bits. And it sounds like two people getting to know each other, pushing each other and listening to each other.
"I think Sidsel is someone who will always be evolving and somehow gaining in courage," Bates concludes. "That's something I've noticed, and when I think back over the years, she was always courageous but originally in a very quiet way that you could mistake for being timid: the strength, for instance, to say, 'I'm going to go on tour and play this music, which is pianissimo all the time, and it's going to work. Trust me.' But now, I remember hearing her latest album, and there were no recognizable words at all. For a moment, I thought, 'Oh man, I love her poetry, her texts,' and then I thought, 'Yeah, she's right. Who else is doing this?' She's saying, 'No more words, at least for this period.' There's an album called One (SOFA, 2006), and each one of those tracks is an investigation into a small group of linked sounds. It's like a scientist putting insects into categories. I'd be interested to hear why she doesn't use electronics, though it makes perfect sense: her language is so broad, why distort it?"
In addition to supporting Raknes' interpretation of "Dreamland" in the first set, Bates took a solo spot in the second that, in addition to his own song written specifically for Endresen and delivered with touching elegance and soft humor, also included a near-Zen interpretation of So I Write's "Horses in the Rain" that became one of the evening's many quiet surprises, with Molvær doubling Bates' gentle vocal an octave lower. Molvær may be better known for his groundbreaking 1997 ECM debut Khmerand, more recently, the electro-centric excursions of his trio with Stian Westerhus and drummer Erland Dahlen, heard on the superb Baboon Moon (Sula, 2011)but here, with just his horn and a microphone, the trumpeter proved that he needed nothing more to deliver a solo that truly represented one of the most beautiful in an evening filled with special moments.
Molvær goes back further with Endresen, perhaps, than did any other performer of the evening. "I first met Sidsel in 1980; she was playing with the Jon Eberson Group, and she had this massive hit ['Jive Talking']," the trumpeter recounted. "Then I met her when I moved to Oslo in '82, and we started to play together in a band called Chipahua, a soul band; it was quite fun, actually, especially in those days, playing at the old Club 7. When it started to get too serious, we left, and I started to play in Eberson-Endresen, which was half of the Jon Eberson group; they did Pigs and Poetry (CBS, 1987). After that, I played with her on and off, on the ECM records and in a touring band with Django [Bates] and [drummer] Jon [Christensen].
"She's my soul mate," Molvær continues. "She makes her own language; she kind of defines herself. These days, when everybody takes music for granted, she is one of the people you cannot take advantage of, and I think that is a very nice thing that some people still do that. She always sings the skin off my body."
Singer Live Maria Roggen is, perhaps, best known in Norway for Come Shine, a straight-ahead jazz group that reunited for a special one-time performance at the 2011 Oslo International Jazz Festival, but her reach is considerably broader, something that was instantly clear upon walking into Victoria early in the afternoon for the sound checks, to find her in the midst of an incendiary improvisational workout with Stian Westerhus and Audun Kleive. Roggen collaborated with Wibutee on Newborn Thing (Jazzland, 1998), is a member of the innovative Trondheim Voices and, after an invitation to perform with guitarist Pat Metheny in 2001 with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, ultimately went on a Norwegian tour with the influential guitarist. For this eveningin addition to a completely free improv where she demonstrated just how deeply Endresen has touched singers in Norway while, at the same time, encouraging them to assert their own voicesRoggen performed a particularly popular song from Endresen, one that Endresen herself has recorded more than once. "The title is 'Truth,'" Roggen explained during the sound check. "It's a very nice song, but I'm more familiar with the So I Write version [the song can also be found on Endresen's third duo recording with Bugge Wesseltoft, 2002's Out Here. In There (Jazzland)], which sounds more improvised.
"I first met her as a singer as part of the audience and in a summer jazz school," Roggen continued. "So I was partly terrified, but that quickly passed because she was so warm and cared so much about her students. Her efforts as an instructor have been very important for all of us. I don't really know her that well personally, except that she's a very personable person. She's not shy; she's very direct. But I do now know her as a colleague, as we teach together; she's a professor at the music academy where I also teach [Oslo's Norwegian Academy of Music]. We talk a lot about anything concerning singing, which I'm obviously deeply interested in. She's an eye-opener; she's always broadening the subject, and she's got a lot of experience dealing with others."
"Truth" was another gentle moment in the first set, despite Westerhus' more aggressive stance; but if their afternoon sound check set a high bar for their improvising trio with Kleive, they somehow managed to raise it even higher during the evening's performance with a spontaneous composition that just about blew the roof off of the 300- plus-seat club.
Singer Solveig Slettahjell's career has, to a large extent, been predicated on the idea of slow music, whether it's taking standards and original material down a couple of dozen clicks in her Slow Motion Quintet and Orchestra, last heard on Tarpan Seasons (Universal Norway, 2010), or looking at more contemporary cover material in duo with Slow Motion keyboardist Morten Qvenild (also of the popular trio In The Country), on the more recent Antologie (Universal Norway, 2012). Her exposure to Endresen came at a young and formative age. "I think that must have been the Pigs and Poetry album," Slettahjell explained. "I was in college, doing music studies, and was actually introduced to jazz through those records. I was astonished, but I didn't meet her until she was my teacher at the academy. In those years that I was studying, she was working with Bugge [Wesseltoft] in their duo, and she was tremendously important to me during those years. "For me, the most significant thing about Sidsel is her truthfulness and her sense of genuineness," Slettahjell continued. "She does things in a very musical way when she is working; even though she's quite intellectual, she's still very practical musically, and that combination is a rare thing."
Slettahjell had the honor of being the final performer of the evening, before the entire group hit the stage for the evening's grand finale. In duo with Qvenildwhose recent studies in what he calls "hyperpiano," seamlessly integrating electronics into the grand pianothe singer performed a quiet but powerful version of Endresen's "Okay," one of Duplex Ride's more moving songs.
Qvenild may not have performed publicly with Endresen but has been affected by her, nonetheless. "We've done some stuff together, some experiments, just not in public," Qvenild said. "When I was in school, Sidsel was an improvisation teacher, so we did some stuff together then. We also did a project together with her and In the Country, but it didn't really end up as somethingit was just a research project. I would love to play more with her.
"When I was 15 years old, I fell in love with her Exile record," Qvenild continued. "It totally blew me awaythat and her duo with Bugge. Some of those songs have just followed me all the way. She's actually one of the vocalists I listened to more than anybody else before I started studying. I think this heaviness in the message, the poetry and the voice, it's somewhere in the legacy of all Norwegian musicians. I've worked with a lot of singers who've been influenced by that, of course, and they have influenced me. There's something about her sincerity that just goes through everything. There's something magical about her voice. When you hear it, it just makes you listen immediately. There's something about it that just attracts your attention. She's like a magnet."
While she didn't perform a note of music, Fiona Talkington's participation- -both behind the scenes and onstage, where she introduced acts and interviewed performers about their experiences with Endresenwas invaluable in creating, as she does when she acts as MC for the Punkt Festival, a warm sense of community that breaks down the barrier between the performers and the audience. As a journalist and radio show host, she's been a longtime supporter of Endresen and the entire Norwegian scene. "The first time I met Sidsel, she swore profusely and told me to leave the hall," said Talkington, quietly chuckling. "She was doing a sound check. She didn't want anyone there, and I hadn't met her before. It was the wrong moment, but I met her later, because she had long been someone who had completely mesmerized me with the quality of her voice, her passionate singing and this unnamed world she seemed to inhabit. This would have been in the late '90s, long before Norway became my second home.
"Our friendship has grown over the years, and my respect for her has grown and grown," Talkington continued. "Wearing my radio hat, obviously I play her music quite a lot on the program, but I absolutely love it. This happens all the time, that I play Sidsel and somebody hears her for the first time'Who is that?'and they rush out and buy her music, and it becomes a part of their lives."
Like Molvær, Audun Kleive is about 10 years younger than Endresen, and so his association with her goes back considerably further than many of the other artists who came to participate in this tribute. "Sidsel also knew Radka [Toneff, a legendary Norwegian singer who, tragically, took her life in 1982 after just turning 30]. This was when I was probably 19 or 20, the first time I met her," said Kleive. "We started collaborating pretty early in a band with an accordion player, Eivind One Pedersen, who co-wrote one of the pieces we're going to play here tonight, 'Truth' [from So I Write], with Nils Petter. It was a strange group. Then I played a little bit with the Jon Eberson Group, with the group that did Pigs and Poetry. We were also a couple for a time, and we had a touring band around the Undertow record."
Kleive was also a member of Molvær's trio until 2010, when Erland Dahlen took over the drum chair, so the opportunity to play with Westerhus again, in the context of Live Maria Roggen's performance, had particular significance. "It's a pleasure to play with Stian again, since we played with Nils Petter for quite some time," Kleive said. "He's a fantastic musician. I'm here to tell Sidsel, through my playing, that I seriously respect herjust for staying put in this experimental direction, which is rare (and hard). I remember the first time I heard it, at the National Theater here in Oslo, and she sang some incredible, strange stuff that I'd never heard before. And it was kind of embarrassing because I thought, 'Oh no, what is she getting herself into, and how is she going to get out of this alive?' But I learned a lot from that feeling, I remember, because this is something you have to fight. As an improvising musician, you will get into these kinds of scenarios often. How to get out? It's actually how to solve such situations that is a big part of the game.
"The fragility of a voice is not so easy to hideif you have drums and cymbals, you can basically hide behind them," Kleive says, laughing. "Sidsel's fantastic. Her poetry has always been fantastic; she's a great singer, a great improviser and a great poet. And a very, very nice lady." And while Kleive was able to hide behind his drums for most of the evening, his solo spotwhere he did more things with a single small cymbal and his hands than most drummers do with an entire kit demonstrated absolutely no problem with his being utterly naked onstage, with nothing to hide behind, or with his dealing with the ever-present risks of being an improvising musician. He can explore new paths while confident that, some way, somehow, he'll find his way back.
Singer Emille Christensen comes with a pedigree; her father, Jon Christensen, is perhaps the country's most internationally acclaimed percussionist, having played in landmark groups with pianists Keith Jarrett and Bobo Stenson as well as in early recordings with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal. He was, in fact, one of the "big five" of Scandinavian artists, and after being "discovered" by ECM Records' Manfred Eicher he ultimately became something of a house drummer for the label for some time. But having a musical parenteven one who has reached such legendary status as Christensen didis no guarantee that a child will be either good or successful as a musician, and Emilie Christensen has been slowly gaining ground in her career, with significant spotlights like the same opening show at the 2011 Oslo International Jazz Festival where Live Maria Roggen performed.
"I don't remember the first time I heard Sidsel," Christensen said, laughing. "I suppose I was very little. My father has played a lot with her, so I would have heard her a lot when I was child. Of course, she's always been phenomenal in my life. So I Write is the first record I can remember, and I recall that it was something else than what I had been listening to, of course. This was really, really something else- -so melodic, in a way, but something that was far away from my world. I started singing jazz when I was very young, but then a lot of people told me, 'Don't sound like her.' So I was also trying to move away from her." For her performance in the second set, Christensen contributed an original tune. "We were discussing my childhood and if I should have her as a teacher, and I always felt, 'No, that's impossible.' But the last year of my education at the Norwegian Academy of Music, I had her as a teacher, and she helped me a lot with lyrics, writing and English. She's the best in Norway. So I worked with her on this song." Christensen also performed Endresen's dark and gentle "Dododo," from Undertow, supported by Bugge Wesseltoft, Stian Westerhus, Audun Kleive and live sampler Jan Bang.
Bang's annual Punkt Live Remix festival, in Kristiansand, Norway, in addition to his numerous collaborationsincluding a decade-long stint in Nils Petter Molvær's group, beginning in the late 1990shas created an ever-expanding international family of musicians, writers and others. A significant participant in trumpeter Arve Henriksen's acclaimed Cartography (ECM, 2008), Bang released his own equally lauded ...and poppies from Kandahar in 2010, on British avant songsmith David Sylvian's SamadhiSound label, following it up this year, in collaboration with fellow Punkt co-artistic director Erik Honoré, with the similarly well-received Uncommon Deities (SamadhiSound, 2012). "It was back in '88 that I first met Sidsel," Bang recalled.
"I was doing this solo album for CBS in Norway, and the company director knew Sidsel. I had this idea for a song that I'd written together with Erik, called "Merciful Waters." It was actually a duet between myself and Morten Harket from A-HaI was a singer at that timeand Sidsel came into the studio. She'd done a concert in my hometown, and after the concert she went to the studio, and she recorded three lines, I think it was [laughs]. I had this idea of two different places in the song kind of a stupid thing to do; you have a duet with another guy and suddenly there is a third voice coming in, saying two words, or something like that.
"So that was actually my first meeting with her, and I really adored her," Bang continued. "Her voice is something that is quite unique in the world and in music, and 10 years later, I started working with Bugge Wesseltoft, and he was doing an album together with Sidsel called Duplex Ride. He asked me to do some live sampling on one of the pieces, and I finally had a chance to pay Sidsel back, because I know that she did my session for free back in '88, so 10 years later I was back in the studio with both of them. That was the start of a fruitful relationship and friendship over the years through to today. We've just released Uncommon Deities, and Sidsel is very much present on it and also with the Punkt Live Remixes, with which we travel around the world."
What's perhaps remarkable is how, surrounded by musicians intimately connected to the world of electronics, Endresen remains steadfastly acoustic in her own performances, singularly focused on what she can do with this single unprocessed voice. "When you think about what we do," Bang said, "it's that we imitate each other. So sometimes I imitate her, and sometimes she imitates me. And I guess that's the same with other players: we imitate each other; that's what musicians do. Talking about Sidsel, it's easier for me to talk about players outside of Norway people like David Sylvian, who says that Sidsel is simply the best, and I think that it's really a fantastic compliment for someone to say about Sidsel. I feel that it's absolutely right. There are other singers that I really, really adore, but the thing with Sidsel is she has transformed her instrument from the early days, when she was like a soul singer, and then through the ECM years where she was a jazz singerthough not the scatting kind of singerand then, for the last 10 or 12 years, developing this unique way of singing that you could say is kind of in the ballpark of Meredith Monk, but still it's completely different. I think that her phrasing and her rhythmic precision are so unique, and this is what I really enjoy about Sidselshe's really so precise."
Endresen has also innovated the ways in which singers are perceived. In performance, as Kleive pointed out, she's rarely center stageas was the case with her show the evening beforeand she often seems to situate herself as far away from the spotlight as possible. "I think she is really concerned about being part of the band," Bang continued, "and that's Sidsel's way of singing. A lot of younger singers have taken that concept and do thatnot only being in the spotlight but being part of the band and working with them. You see Arve Henriksen do the same thing as a trumpet playerbeing part of the bandand then suddenly there is this beautiful voice coming out of it, playing these beautiful lines. But you have to remember that being a singer and using a voice as an instrument, it takes a lot of focus. For a listener, you can hear all these different things, but when there is a voice involved, it captures everything: the attention zooms in and everything focuses on that. Sidsel is very much aware of that. She's really a true musician."
Endresen's duo work with Bugge Wesseltoft straddled the two worlds she inhabited at the time: that of the lyrical, poetic songwriter and one that reflected a burgeoning interest in being a fully improvising musician. In the three recordings they did together, between 1994 and 2002, the gradual move from one world to the other is easy to hear. "We met at some concerts where I was listening and she was singing, and she was sneaking in to listen to us, which I didn't know," Wesseltoft recalled. "We were both teaching at this summer jazz camp in 1991, and we talked about working together. She had a band at the time with Django [Bates], Nils Petter [Molvær] and Jon [Christensen], and she wanted to do a more open mix of experimental stuff and cover songs, which was a strange combination [laughs]. But I loved it, of course. The duo albums did very well; Duplex Ride went to the top 10 of sales in Norwaynumber six, I think. All three records were a really a mixture of these fantastic originals and the really kind of far-out freaky stuff."
"What I loved most of all is that we developed our music through playing," Wesseltoft continued. "Sidsel is impossible to rehearse with; it's almost impossible to hear hershe's just mumbling something and I'm playing piano, just to get through the form. She just basically wants to hear what I'm doing: 'Yeah, yeah, do that, that's OK.' And I ask, 'What are you going to do?' and she says, 'Well, we'll see.' [laughs]"
Wesseltoft's latest solo recording, Songs (Jazzland, 2012) presents a series of variations on jazz standards, so it was only appropriate that, in helping to organize this evening, his focus was on re-interpretations of some of Endresen's most beloved songs.
Stian Westerhus has been playing regularly in a duo with Endresen since the summer of 2010, and so his participation in the evening was a given. "We did a double solo show at the Oslo Jazz Festival in 2009," Westerhus explained. "I'd been listening to Sidsel since I was very young, so when she said, 'How are you about doing an encore together?' I said, 'Yeah, that'd be great.' So we were really nervous, even though it was just a five-minute thing, but it was so much fun. Sidsel was asked to do something at the Molde Jazz Festival the following year, and she proposed that we should do a duo."
That first official show and many moreincluding Endresen and Westerhus' 2011 performance at Bergen's Natt Jazz that was used for their first release together, Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012), as well as a short set at the 2012 Kongsberg Jazz Festival, part of the All About Jazz Presents series, which was even more powerful, potent and cathartictogether demonstrate this remarkable duo's limitless potential. "There's not really any discussion whatsoever beforehand," Westerhus revealed. "Sometimes after the gig, you go through some of the things that happened that were particularly good or particularly bad, but I think our language has developed through playing a lot together and through trying to push each other a little bit more each time."
While Endresen's acoustic approach seems diametrically opposed to Westerhus' heavily effected style, the guitarist is quick to point out that things aren't exactly what they seem. "Sidsel eventually becomes electronic as well, with the microphone; her microphone technique is incredible," he enthused. "We did this incredibly tiny show at this festival, in a really small room where she was just singing through very small studio monitors, being really careful with the volume. Still, the richness of her voice was so big; even then, you could get the sensation of it being really loud [laughs]. I really don't know how she does it, but it just sounds so huge."
Beyond Westerhus' accompanying Live Maria Roggen on "Truth" and Emilie Christensen on "Dododo," Westerhus delivered a short solo improvisation for Endresen, straight from the heart. His most recent recording is the captivating The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012)recorded in Oslo's Vigeland Mausoleum and taking advantage of its massive 20-second natural reverb. Just as The Matriarch focuses more heavily on Westerhus' use of a violin bow, so, too, did arco playing figure largely in his work at the Endresen tribute, though he also resorted to the many other unorthodox techniques he's been honing over the past decade, delivering one of the evening's most searching, searing and evocative moments.
After an evening of great beauty and great extremes, how do you finish? In this case, by bringing everyone onstage for what may well be the weirdest, wackiest, wildest version ever played of Don Covay's "Chain of Fools," made famous by Aretha Franklin. With Molvær and Kornstad forming the strangest horn section ever to get down with their bad selves, Wesseltoft began the songwhich Endresen had sung often in Chipahua but also recorded with the keyboardist on their duo debut, Nightsong. That recording is outré, to be sure, but is nowhere near the level of zaniness going on onstage at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria on November 9, 2012.
With all the singers grabbing a verse and the rest coming together as a spontaneous backup group, with Kleive delivering a strong backbeat, Westerhus some jagged rhythm playing and Bates gyrating on the floor at the foot of the stage, Endresen was eventually coaxed into coming forward and joining her friendsthough, as ever, she remained distanced from the spotlight by singing on the floor directly in front of the stage, beside Bates.
Endresen may be focusing on improvised music these days and exploring a language that's as distanced from this kind of music as could possibly be imagined, but when she picked up a microphone and began to sing, it became crystal clearas is so often the case with artists of this caliberthat it's not really a matter of her being unable to to sing this kind of music with absolute authenticity and inimitable personality, she just chooses not to anymore...well, at least, on nights other than this one. One more reason, then, to feel so tremendously fortunate to have been invited to Oslo for this truly special occasion.
If Sidsel Endresen's path is one that's largely situated to the far left of center these days, with an approach that continues to break new ground with each and every performance and recording, when she sang "Chain of Fools" at Victoriawith just the right amount of husky soulfulnessshe revealed that the pop star of "Jive Talking" was still buried deep in there somewhere. It was just one more reason to love her for her courage, her strength, her vision and her honesty. As the evening broke down into an after-party that went on well into the early hours of the morning of November 10, there was one unmistakable message: that Endresen is deeply loved and respected by her friends, her family, her fans and her fellow musicians.
Sixty is, after all, just a number, isn't it? Happy birthday Sidsel, and to everyone else, stay tuned: there's clearly plenty more to come.