Bold Risk-Taking Elevates Vossa Jazz
Norway’s jazz festival scene appears to be hale and hardy, and with admirably deep roots. The summertime Molde festival crossed the golden (50th) anniversary two years ago, while the Bergen’s Nattjazz festival hits 40 this year, and the compact-but-mighty Vossa Jazz Festival is looking at 40 years in 2013. Voss, a lovely and humble lakefront- and fjord-hugging town in western Norway, remains a critical feature on the Norwegian jazz cultural landscape.
In this year’s Vossa Jazz program, the fifth run by director Trude Storheim, matters of artistic balance, of carefully blending commerciality and artistic chance-taking, were in typical high form. This festival doesn’t always have a strong American jazz presence, and this year’s New York link rested solely on Marc Ribot’s feisty, tough and riffy band Really the Blues (not really, but close enough for art jazz). What Vossa Jazz does specialize in is Scandinavian jazz offerings hard to catch stateside. The high points from that geo-cultural quarter this year included the uniquely electro-acoustic ambience of Norwegian trumpeter-texturalist Nils Petter Molvær (whose iconic 1996 piece Khmer actually premiered in Voss as a commissioned work). Molvær’s trio (with guitarist Stian Westerhus and drummer Erland Dahlen) created an epically atmospheric, voodoo-Miles-goes-Nordic sonic canvas.
For this year’s commissioned work, following last year’s superior Voss by Matthias Eick, saxophonist-composer Karl Seglem unveiled his long, impressionistic-waxing suite Tingingsverket “Som Spor”, which massaged the ear nicely but lacked much substance or a “there there.”
Opening the festival proper was another Scandinavian admixture, with fine and flexible Danish pianist Carsten Dahl joined by Norway’s bassist-of-note Arild Anderson and drummer Jon Christensen. If the pianist and bassist were bold and virtuosic, the unpredictable and reductivist workings of Christensen, blessed with a Paul Motian-like minimalist genius, proved even more fascinating. Long miscast as an ethereal drummer, Christensen has a bold rebel spirit and fierce belief in “the moment.”
If there was a prominent unsung-hero performance this year, it had to be the rare appearance of seasoned and mysterious Finnish saxophone legend Juhani Aaltonen, whose show in the intimate Osasalen room (in Voss’ Ole Bull Music Academy) was a stunner, in ways cathartic and contemplative. Sometimes called “the Jan Garbarek of Finland” (whose career may have been truncated by his long period of reclusiveness), Aaltonen—here in a quartet including pianist Iro Haarla—moved with inspiration and ease between passages of introspective depth and expressionistic free-play, in waves of energy plugged into some internal, focused artistic power source rarely encountered.
In the same room, young pianist Eyolf Dale demonstrated his technical and expressive prowess in the bare-all solo mode. While still honing the proper blend of romantic and intellectual instincts, he is well on his way and worth keeping track of. Another fresh-sounding Norwegian act on the bill was the increasingly popular Urban Connection, an acoustic chordless trio with bass, sax and drums, finding its way between lyricism, tighten-up funk and post-bopping gymnastics. They assert a cool, nimble collective vibe.
Elsewhere, Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft stepped away from his normal synthy, funk-pumped turf for an impressive stab at the subtle solo piano context, easing into “Like Someone In Love,” “Moon River” and a slo-mo “Giant Steps” with a disarming persuasiveness. Susanna, a trio led by Susanna Wallumrød of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra fame, floated her bright and moody art-pop into the enchanted ambience of the town’s 13th century church.
The Thing (bari saxist Mats Gustaffson, drummer Paul Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten) dished out its artful fury in the center of the long room known as the Fraktgodsen—sans p.a.—rather than on the stage. From that deliciously brain-rattling show, we drifted over to the central Park Hotel to catch the Valkyrien Allstars, a captivating band that combines traditional Norwegian folk music (replete with the unique, sympathetic string-adorned Hardanger fiddle, a.k.a. hardingfele) and agreeable pop dollops. Closing out the weekend on a graceful, and occasionally rhythmically roiling, note, Marilyn Mazur’s Celestial Circle—featuring the dreamy-gleaming voice of Dane Josefine Cronholm—exerted its lovely, circular jazz-folk-worldly logic.
Once again, Vossa Jazz combined its beautiful fjord-town ambience with a concentrated weekend encounter featuring musical muses of various stripes and intensities, and mostly with a strong Scandinavian accent.