Kongsberg Festival Teams Up Improvisors

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The generous support the Norwegian state funnels into the arts long has reaped palpable benefits. For a country that is only slightly larger than New Mexico, it possesses one of the most fertile and creative music scenes anywhere in the world. Arts funding plays heavily into Norway’s educational system and it helps support its artists to travel abroad. At this year’s edition of the always diverse Kongsberg Jazz Festival—held July 4-7 in a small town about 90 minutes from Oslo—I noticed yet another product of that arts funding. Norwegian festivals have enough support to attract top-notch, high-profile performers from around the globe. Surely, much of the budget at this year’s fest covered splashy pop concerts that pleased local audiences, whether Sting with Shaggy or the country’s recently reunited favorite sons A-ha. But more interestingly, there were plenty of settings for Norway’s strongest improvisors to perform alongside international heavies.

Særingfest—a fest within a fest that features the programming aesthetic of Norwegian drummers Ståle Liavik Solberg and Paal Nilssen-Love—returned for the second year and offered some of the most electrifying music I heard all weekend. Solberg performed in a remarkable first-time quintet with the veteran American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, British reedist John Butcher, French bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and the dazzling Oslo-based Austrian expat vocalist Agnes Hvizdalek. While she hasn’t reached the same level of empathy and elasticity in an improvisational context as her collaborators, she nonetheless was riveting, and the frontline masterfully engaged her arsenal of extended techniques, playing off a mixture of birdsong imitation, glottal clicking and extreme vocal fry. The rhythm section pitched its activity downward, meeting the singer on her own turf: Niggenkemper’s impressive techniques produced thrillingly brittle, twangy flurries of snapped strings and ad-hoc resonating devices, while Solberg’s often-turbulent playing opted for hushed friction, focusing on sustained textures, rather than time.

Nilssen-Love also got in on the action, presenting Arashi, his superb working trio with Japanese reedist Akira Sakata and the Swedish bassist Johan Berthling. While the unit delivered some of the high-octane free jazz Sakata has been exploring for five decades, one of the most affecting passages came as the reedist shaped a stunningly tender solo on clarinet amid silence, before the drummer gently added calming patters with a set of claves. The Japanese musician also put down his horn to chant and tap into his impressive overtone singing.

The following day, the versatile Norwegian keyboardist Christian Wallumrød debuted a new project with the German pianist Magda Mayas—the group was supposed to be a trio with fearless British guitarist Mike Cooper, but he dropped out of the fest. Even without his presence, the music was inspired. As he’s been doing in his project Brutter with his brother Frederik, Wallumrød bypassed his usual piano for a keyboard-free electronic setup, producing abstract tones, erratic beats and synthetic smears. Mayas alternated between piano and clavinet, both heavily prepared; in her hands the instruments are less keyboards than boundless sound generators, and her arsenal of treatments dazzled listeners, who could be seen craning their necks and leaning forward to see how she was producing such alien sounds. The blend between the two musicians didn’t always cohere, which isn’t surprising for a first-time meeting on instruments manipulated in such radical fashion. But the set was never less than compelling, auguring well for future encounters.

Not everything included multi-national casts, though. One of the most remarkable sets was from a Norwegian quintet led by bassist Jon Rune Strøm. It takes a lot of confidence for a bassist-led band to employ a second bassist—Christian Meass Svendsen—but it worked beautifully, especially on material where the two bassists would branch off into polymetric grooves, each taking one of the two superb horn players (trumpeter Thomas Johansson and saxophonist André Roligheten) along with them. Rather than allowing two disparate grooves to collide or clash, drummer Andreas Wildhagen masterfully twined them together, underlining the connective tissue in the leader’s pithy post-bop themes.

Equally impressive was the French improvising trio En Corps, featuring pianist Eve Risser, who’s as resourceful with her preparations as Mayas, although she uses them in a much different way. Along with bassist Benjamin Duboc and drummer Edward Perraud, En Corps created sustained volleys of sound and rhythm, forever morphing, shifting in density and intensity, and never stumbling. The trio operates like a single organism, constantly toggling between explorations of color, movement and friction. The trio performed for more than an hour, taking a remarkable journey that felt as if it was over in a blink. But one of the most entertaining sets came from Swedish trumpeter Goran Kajfes, leading his Subtropic Arkestra through an eclectic repertoire of unctuous ’70s Turkish pop, Ethiopian soul and even a Tame Impala cover, all of it with a unified sound powered by a top-flight band of improvisers, who cumulatively erased any gap between pure fun and schmaltz with a mixture of passion humor, and nonchalant virtuosity. DB




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May 2019
Branford Marsalis
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