Approaching 60, Kongsberg Jazzfestival Remains Balanced, Ambitious


From left, Joakim Rainer Peterson, Alexander Riris and Rino Sivathas perform at the Kongsberg Jazzfestival.

(Photo: Morton Kolve)

Of the jazz festivals that Norway sponsors throughout the year, Kongsberg Jazzfestival is one of the oldest and most ambitious. And it continues to manage a balancing act that addresses the needs of several different audiences. For this year’s 59th-annual event, held July 5–8, it brought in pop acts and held a weekend street festival that lasted late into the night. For jazz audiences, Kongsberg Jazzfestival hosted performers of international renown as well as new, homegrown talent. And it also presented two intertwined events — Særingfest and Avanthagen — that featured top free improvisers and experimental musicians.

The opening night belonged to two veteran performers, guitarist John McLaughlin and tenor saxophonist David Murray. While they played very different music, each found renewed energy and purpose within a group. McLaughlin, who is still performing live even though he proclaimed his retirement from playing concerts in 2017, presented his Indian-rooted group Shakti, which began 50 years ago and had just released its first studio album in 46 years. The guitarist said in a recent interview with DownBeat that a meditation-based treatment had assuaged his career-threatening arthritis, and he took the stage with remarkable ease, sitting cross-legged on stage with fellow Shakti founder Zakir Hussain on tabla, Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin and Selvaganesh Vinayakram on kanjira (frame drum) and other percussion. After a cheery greeting, they tore through one older tune, “5 In The Morning, 6 In The Afternoon,” with their trademarked speed and precision. Then singer Shankar Mahadevan joined, and the ensemble switched to newer material that alternated between softer, lyric-based songs made overly plush by McLaughlin’s guitar synthesizer and lightning-paced exchanges of konnakol (syllable-based singing). The group’s members cheered each other on, and McLaughlin evidenced as much satisfaction in closely shadowing his bandmates as he did in own solos. As the concert progressed, his playing grew increasingly bluesy, which generated more infectious appreciation from Hussain. This was not the music of elders jogging a victory lap, but of a band that clearly loves playing together.

In 2019, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who have worked together within a myriad of different bands since the 1990s, backed David Murray on a tour of Europe. But the trio’s concert at Kongsberg explored a different dynamic. Some good-natured ribbing from the audience made it clear before the first note was played that the two Norwegians were on home turf. And the choice of material, heavy on tunes repurposed from Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit, turned this into a more collaborative affair. The dynamic throughout was of strong forces pushing against each other, with Murray’s high-end forays and blues-steeped romanticism striking incandescent sparks against the drummer’s pure-sound blasts and Brazilian street-party grooves while Flaten provided a center of gravity. Murray’s enthusiasm was visible as well as audible, as he shook a few dance steps during Nilssen-Love’s “Springsummer.”

Two newer Norwegian units stood out, one for promises made, and the other for promise delivered. The Joakim Rainer Trio includes pianist Joakim Rainer Petersen, bassist Alexander Riris and drummer Rino Sivathas. Petersen’s compositions presented intricate structures instead of soloist-accompanist set-pieces. The band sometimes seemed to struggle to perform the material with the precision it required, but the music’s ambition still marks them as one to watch. Execution was not a problem for Morgonrode. The quintet’s instrumentation consists of three folk fiddles, acoustic bass and drums. Swinging rhythms bore up their stirring vocal harmonies and bracing, rustic string textures. The idea of combining jazz and folk music is hardly new, but Morgonrode cultivated a compelling tension by pitting loose grooves against immaculate renderings of traditional forms.

While Særingfest celebrates improvisation and Avanthagen more experimental approaches, both programs share the same venue, a stone room in Kongsberg’s mining museum, and analog synthesizer player Thomas Lehn enlivened sets from each. His abraded textures and pointillistic provocations strategically stirred the restive waters of a first-time encounter involving drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, saxophonists Lotte Anker and Kristoffer Alberts, and strings players Lene Grenager and Michael Duch. He was a more dynamic presence in a free-wheeling duet with trumpet and saxophone player Torben Snekkestad, using his highly customized instrument to set broad intervallic parameters and fill their spaces with electrical storm-bursts. And bassist Joëlle Léandre was by turns authoritative and existential during two other sets. In a trio with drummer Mark Sanders and clarinetist Andreas Røysum, she bridged the gap between the former’s timbral approach and the latter’s non-repeating melodies with a foundation of seething, bowed tonalities. Her solo set grew from a different set of contrasts. While her spoken asides professed fatigue and fragility, the cohesion and complexity of her playing projected a power accumulated during a half-century spent connecting the worlds of John Cage, free improvisation and deep blues feeling. One month earlier, she had been feted with a lifetime achievement award at the Vision Festival; at Kongsberg, she showed just what can be done with a lifetime of achievement. DB

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