My first, and lasting, musical impression of Norway’s Vossa Jazz Festival, a fascinating Nordic-centric event, came on the top of a snow-covered mountain at midnight back in 2008. As part of this festival’s sometimes outdoors-y and natural integrating projects, in the first year the festival’s directorship was handed to current director Trude Storheim, the unique percussionist Terje Isungset was staging one of his “ice music” concerts using frozen, subject-to-melt, tuned percussion instruments and, in this case, vocalist Lena Nymark, in a mesmerizing ski resort high above the lakeside village of Voss.
Fast forward to the 44th annual Vossa Jazz festival, a respected Easter-timed event that effectively kicks off the Norwegian jazz festival season each year. Isungset has come down off the mountain to create what was possibly the highlight of this year’s fest, in the form of a commissioned work, “Sildrande.” On the Sunday afternoon of this densely-packed weekend-long fest (April 7–9), in the town cinema, Gamlekineon, Isungset brought together a fairly all-star grouping of Norwegian players, including the acclaimed trumpeter Arve Henriksen and Hardanger fiddle player Nils Økland, for a fascinating suite of music that tapped into Norwegian folk, abstracted “free” zones, and a certain naturalistic idealism in sound—identifiably Nordic.
In Voss, music from Norway, Scandinavia and Europe beckons, while American acts generally play a small role. This year’s model was leaner on the American front than usual. Pianist Matthew Shipp presented an intense, free-ranging and craftily standards-deconstructing solo concert in the intimate Osasalen venue of the Ole Bull Academy. Other notable Americans stated their case as side players. The versatile pianist Aruán Ortiz performed in tandem with evocative Norwegian vocalist Grete Skarpeid, and visitors from Gotham—pianist Alexi Tuomarila, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gerald Cleaver—bolstered Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s New York Quartet (riding high and limber on material from a new ECM album, December Avenue).
Certain mini-themes could be detected in the program, including due attention paid to seasoned jazz singers in intimate, duo settings. Norwegian singer Karin Krog, turning 80 this year and sounding deep in her unique voice, played in duet with baritone saxophonist John Surman, while Sheila Jordan, going strong and spontaneous at age 88, appeared in fully musical regalia with just bassist Cameron Brown.
African elements threaded through many a set this weekend, kicked off by the dynamic festival-opener Busi Ncube, from Zimbabwe by way of Oslo, and via the African-esque rhythms and guitar work heard in the engrossing body of music by Anders Røine and band at the cinema on Saturday afternoon. This new, live score for the Norwegian silent film Kristine Valdesdatter, a project which won a Norwegian Grammy, turned extra-musical when technical difficulties with the vintage projector permitted only snippets of the film to screen. But no matter: the music spoke eloquently and impressionistically for itself.
For anyone who makes a habit of catching Vossa Jazz and keeping tabs on its legacy, be aware of the high-profile commissioned work showcase known as “Tingingsverket.” This year’s spotlight went to the all-women aggregate behind “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a fascinating new art-pop song cycle by the artist known as Susanna (Susanna Wallumrød, sister of important pianist/composer Christian Wallumrød).
Krog and Surman presented their new song cycle in this forum in 2010, and one of the most famous commissioned works, from many years ago, was enigmatic trumpeter and sonic painter Nils Petter Molvaer’s classic “Khmer,” which became an ECM album effectively propelling him onto the wider international scene. This year, Molvaer returned for a late-night show at the Gamlekieon, sidling up to just past midnight, with the surprising addition of Norwegian pedal steel guitar player Geir Sundstøl.
One of the young musicians rightfully seizing attention was the Danish-born, Norway-based alto sax force of nature Mette Rasmussen, whose double-drummer, double-bassist free improvisation hour of power was one of this festival’s memorable takeaways. It didn’t hurt that she surrounded herself with bold and sensitive players, up for the free-range task: veteran Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid on drums, and bassists Ingebrigt Håkaer (The Thing) Flaten and Torbjörn Zetterberg. Set up in a wing formation, with the compact but formidable leader to the rear of the stage, Rasmussen projected with undeniable invention, galvanic energy and tonal imagination.
From the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, there was the late Sunday afternoon ritual when the festival “goes to church” (that church being the enchanted 12th century Vangskyrkja, in the heart of town). This year’s special church concert was the best yet I’ve heard, a duet with Bendicte Maurseth on the traditional Norwegian hardingfele fiddle and voice, in duet with Jasser Jah Youssef on viola d’amore. The pair spun a web of spare, beguiling music, with spiritual resonance in the wings, in an ideal setting. Pure magic, of the “only in Voss” variety. DB