ROUND-UP REVIEW: Nattjazz Festival 2016 and Nutshell Showcase (Bergen, Norway)

The socialising backyard, part of the scene at Nattjazz
Photo credit: Oddbjorn Steffensen/Nattjazz

Nattjazz Festival 2016 and Nutshell Showcase
(Bergen, Norway. May 2016. Festival Round-up by Phil Johnson)

What makes Norwegian jazz so distinctive? In a pre-concert talk at Bergen’s annual Nattjazz festival on Friday night, the Italian journalist Luca Vitali, author of the book ‘The Sound of The North’ (recently published in an English edition by Auditorium International, translated by Melinda Mele and edited by Fiona Talkington) identified a willingness to experiment and “break boundaries”, picking out two historical “points of departure” as particularly important.

The first, he said, stemmed from the meeting at the Molde jazz festival in 1964 of expatriate US composer George Russell with drummer Jon Christensen and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, a creative encounter that would lead to a new Nordic wave of contemporary jazz, attracting the producer Manfred Eicher of ECM and helping to establish a whole international style. The second, he said, was the late 1990s-era epitomised by Nils Petter Molvaer’s album Khmer and Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conception of Jazz, whose responses to ambient and electronic dance music represented another great leap forward.

Mats Gustafsson
Photo credit: Oddbjorn Steffensen/Nattjazz

Contemporary reflections of both epochs were much in evidence over the initial nights of Nattjazz (“Night Jazz”, right?), which began on Thursday when a brief blast of heroic free-jazz sax by Mats Gustafsson led into the festival’s opening set by Voice & Strings & Timpani. A young Norwegian sextet – two male drummers, two male guitarists and two female singer/musicians, with seemingly everyone sampling and processing their live sounds as they played – their tightly organised aesthetic sounded disconcertingly yet very pleasantly like a sort-of-acid-folk-jazz-experimental update on Pink Floyd playing ’Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ at London’s UFO Club in 1967, complete with an authentic, 60s-style oil and water/paper cut-outs light-show (by Ana Jorge), done on a satisfyingly old-tech Over Head Projector.

Spirit in the Dark
Photo credit: Oddbjorn Steffensen/Nattjazz

The Hammond organ trio Spirit In The Dark, who followed in an adjacent room, were equally historical/contemporary, playing an impeccably old-school gospel-jazz repertoire but with a beautiful (and perhaps very Nordic) understated elegance which meant that none of the players (David Wallumrod, Hammond; Audun Erlien, bass guitar; Anders Engen, drums – he was the amazing drummer in the first edition of New Conception of Jazz) became overly busy or emphatic, preferring a subtly inflected ensemble style to long grandstanding solos. Effortlessly soulful, sonically superb, they were one of the most enjoyable bands I’ve seen in years. The opening night’s programme was completed by the more traditionally ‘modern jazz’ sounds of Come Shine & Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, a fabulous big band (with quartet), whose singer, Live Maria Roggen, is a real star, and the Bjorn Alterhaug Quintet, led by a legendary double bassist, with a winningly cool-school, two-sax sound. The well-known New York City band Sex Mob, led by slide-trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and for this occasion a quartet, played a late-night set titled Circus, Cinema and Spaghetti – Sex Mob plays Fellini, but there was less Fellini/Rota than only intermittently engaging playfulness in the time-honoured ‘downtown’ mode. I’d seen them almost 20 years ago, nothing had apparently changed, and after the Norwegians it all seemed very last-century.

Like most jazz festivals, Nattjazz has acts on simultaneously and it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on any particular artist, such was the constant coming and going from one stage to another. As a result, my perception of the second night was a blur of half-heard encounters with nothing making much impression except a very effective crowd-pleasing funk act, Fieh, whose singer Sofie Tollefsbol, comes on like a kind of Nordic Eryka Badu, which isn’t a bad place to be. The Polish violinist Adam Baldych & Helge Lien Trio, seemed rather to struggle with a dedicatedly ‘concert’ type show in a busy, corridor-like space, fiddling with subtle harmonics when you wanted, perhaps unreasonably, for him to just fiddle and give it a bit of welly.

As a corrective to Friday’s experience, I made a resolution to actually stay in one place and hear every note of Saturday’s show by Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conception of Jazz – 2016 Edition. It was a good call as this is a terrific band who somehow manage to match serious soloing from the very young, all-female quartet (Marthe Lea, tenor sax; Oddrun Lilja, guitar; Sanskriti Shresta, tablas; Siv Oyunn Kjenstad, drums), with the restless contributions of Wesseltoft on keyboards and various processing devices without ever seeming as if they are merely playing the (initially) compliant role of the monster to his Dr Frankenstein. Accentuated by the presence of tabla-drumming, and its importance to the overall group sound, a point of comparison would be one of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time bands with Badal Roy. Certainly there was a kind of Nordic equivalent to Ornette’s harmolodics involved, whether consciously or not, and none of the musicians appeared to be following any overly constricting group role or suppressing their individuality, while Bugge was mainly content to show off his charges. The percussion section of drummer and tabla player were particularly effective.

Morten Qvenild, West Norway Jazz Centre
Photo credit: Jarle H. Moe/Nutshell

The Nutshell programme that ran parallel to the opening days of Nattjazz, funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Vestnorsk Jazz Centre for an international group of promoters and journalists, presented a number of showcases, many of which equalled the quality of the public performances. In brief, the trio of the Hedwig Mollestad Trio with Mats Gustafsson is an absolutely terrific, take-no-prisoners combination of crunching power-trio (like Cream crossed with James ‘Blood’ Ulmer), over-ridden by merciless baritone sax squawks. We also saw Personal Piano by Morten Qvenild, the ex-Magical Orchestra and In The Country keyboardist, an experimental research project integrating grand piano, electronics and visuals into a kind of contemporary ‘sound and light organ’, and a solo performance by Qvenild’s labelmate on Norway’s wonderful Hubro imprint, Hilde Marie Holsen, whose totally improvised blend of breathy trumpet phrases with live electronic processing (one hand for each!) provided a real musical highlight, and an introduction to a very important new talent.

LINK: Nattjazz Festival website 

Categories: miscellaneous

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