Art Ensemble of Chicago Reunites in Norway


Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago performs during the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in Oslo, Norway, on July 7.

(Photo: Magnus Stivi/Kongsberg Jazzfestival)

The Kongsberg Jazz Festival, held every summer in an otherwise sleepy silver mining town about 90 minutes from Oslo, Norway, is one of the most reliable spots to embark on a crash course of current trends in Scandinavian jazz, and the 2017 edition of the event was no exception. But this year, much of the excitement was devoted to the appearance of a storied American group whose influence on creative music remains profound: the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Following the death of founding bassist Malachi Favors in 2004, the group had essentially shut down, but enticed by a residency earlier this year at London’s Café Oto, co-founder and reedist Roscoe Mitchell has reconfigured the group for select performances, and the quartet’s two nights at the cozy Energimølla club represented the latest of such occasions.

Without founding members Favors and Lester Bowie (who died in 1999) and reedist Joseph Jarman (who is devoted to running a Buddhist dojo in Brooklyn), the Art Ensemble of Chicago feels like a bit of a misnomer. Joining Mitchell and long-time percussionist Famoudou Don Moye were two of the former’s most trusted colleagues, bassist Jaribu Shahid and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. Wisely, nobody in the group attempted to conjure the image of the old band, carefully avoiding any reference to Bowie’s trademark white lab coat or Favors’ face paint.

The group’s set on July 7 began like all AEC performances, with the musicians facing east in a moment of meditative silence. The band summoned a quiet rustling that supported an epic solo from Mitchell on sopranino saxophone, a rigorous, spiritual excursion into searing circular breathing that inspired gasps, smiles and even some head shaking from the capacity audience.

The performance, as well as a totally different set the following night, was built around improvisation, with virtually no thematic material surfacing until the end of the night—the first evening the group revisited two of its most durable and melodic gems, “Odwalla Theme” and “Charlie M.,” and in most ways that seemed fitting. Mitchell is not the type of player to recreate his past, and the rapport of the players built something new.

Despite relying on a cane to climb up on stage, Moye sounded incredibly strong and fresh, both on kit and congas, while Ragin played with a characteristic blend of post-bop lyricism and abstraction, engaging in some “little instrument” interaction with the drummer in moments of repose. Shahid conveyed a solemn but focused presence, getting the job done with little fuss.

For those expecting a stroll down memory lane, the concerts may have been disappointing. But the performances reflected a more crucial aspect of AEC, which was to push forward, reminding us of the group’s operating motto: Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.

One of the most satisfying displays of current Nordic sounds arrived on Friday afternoon when percussionists Paal Nilssen-Love and Ståle Liavik Solberg presented Saeringfest—a slightly derogatory name that everyone involved seemed reticent to translate, but appeared to refer to myopic free jazz fans with no interest in any other sort of music. It was held in the darkened confines of Smeltehytta, and it was billed as a fest within a fest.

The four sets offered a simulacrum of the August festival the pair organizes in Oslo called Blow Out, which mixes free improvisation and experimental music. The highlight of the event was a bracing solo set from Frenchman Pascal Niggenkemper, who delivered a veritable clinic in prepared double bass, whether wedging objects within the strings of his instrument or thwacking the fret board with an assortment of kitchen utensils.

Nilssen-Love and Solberg presented the second-only performance by their Pan-Scan Ensemble, a superb all-start band with veteran Swedish pianist Sten Sandell and a trios of jousting trumpeters (Goran Kajfes, Thomas Johansson and Emil Strandberg) and saxophonists (Anna Högberg, Julie Kjær and Lotte Anker) bringing impressive shape and restraint to a pair of spontaneous excursions where uncontrolled chaos could likely emerge.

Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson also debuted Konge, a new quartet with Norwegian bassist Ole Morten Vågan, veteran Danish drummer Kresten Osgood, and Denmark’s Signe Emmeluth, the latest in a string of discoveries of young Scandinavian reedists he’s shared in recent years. They delivered a fiery set of organically ebbing-and-flowing free improvisation that was given serious heft, propulsion and friction by the weighty rhythm section.

Osgood—a 40-year-old percussionist who’s worked with the likes of Paul Bley, Sam Rivers, Masabumi Kicuchi and Ran Blake—is the sort of drummer who’s engagement with free music never abandons his innate pulse and swing feel, drawing comparisons to Han Bennink. He also shares Bennink’s comic sensibility, something he brought in abundance to an afternoon set by Nacka Forum, a freewheeling but ferociously driving quartet led by Swedish reedist Jonas Kullhammar—who’s just as hammy as the drummer—with bassist Johan Berthling and Kajfes. Their deeply enjoyable set crackled with wit and energy, with original tunes that collided hard-bop and early free-jazz with influences from South Africa and Eastern Europe.

The Norwegian quartet Lemur blurred the lines between free improvisation and contemporary classical music with a fully improvised set at Smeltehytta, where cellist Lene Grenager, double bassist Michael Duch, flutist Bjørn Habbestad and French horn player Hild Sofie Tafjord unspooled texture-rich tones in overlapping configurations, casting a mesmerizing spell that put the focus on timbre. They were followed by Norway-based Dane Mette Rasmussen, who delivered a riveting set of alto saxophone improvisations that drew upon her well-established energy and heat, but also showcased a developing sense of architecture.

The most astonishing performance I witnessed came from Agnes Hvizdalek, an Austrian based in Oslo, who’s solo vocal performance at Galleri Åkern left my jaw on the floor. Using a dazzling array of extended techniques, she seemed to not only split her voice into a pair of distinct tones, but to shape them each in distinctive rhythmic/melodic patterns, accented by a variety of percussive glottal stops. I don’t know if she can build upon what I heard, which at times felt a bit like a catalog of sounds more than a cogent piece, but for now I’m still marveling at what she did. DB

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