Framed by History, Vossa Jazz Hits 45


Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland adds a special brand of minimalism to his indigenous Norwegian instrument while improvising as a member of the trio 1982.

(Photo: Ådne Dyrnesli)

Versatile Danish drummer Kresten Osgood was getting busy during a solo gig at the Vossa Jazz Festival, deploying his drum kit, toys, melodica, and even a potted plant, in a freewheeling improvised performance. The “room” itself was anything but neutral: Norway’s Finnesloftet dates to 1295, the Viking Era, and is one of the oldest non-religious medieval halls in Western Europe.

Vossa Jazz is unique, in part, because of its inspired interaction with sites and sounds, working toward enhancing atmospherics. In that vein, the fascinating choral-chamber project In the Beginning, comprising Danish vocalist Kira Skov and Estonian saxophonist-arranger-composer Maria Faust, gained ambient intrigue from its setting in the town’s Vangskyrkja church building, which dates to 1277.

Held March 23-25 in this small, idyllic lakeside town, Vossa Jazz—the Norwegian jazz festival circuit’s kick-off event—celebrated its milestone 45th edition this year. American artists only are intermittently accounted for here, as the fest favors Norwegian and Scandinavian scenes. This year, the token American performer was the brave and innovative guitarist Mary Halvorson with her hard-to-categorize avant-jazz project Code Girl.

But opening the festival with cross-generational Norwegian jazz performers, veteran bassist Arild Andersen led an all-star aggregate. The bassist, sometimes coloring his acoustic bass sound with digital effects, was joined by pianist Helge Lien, drummer Gard Nilssen and special guest, tenor saxophonist Marius Neset, a shining star of new Norwegian jazz.

One special feature of Vossa Jazz’s birthday celebration was an expansion of the festival’s hallmark commissioning program. In addition to the annual Tingingsverket work, this year supplied by Eirik Hegdal’s engaging “Musical Balloon,” three other commissioned pieces graced the program.

Hegdal’s “Musical Balloon” struck me as one of the best commissions of recent vintage (the ninth I’ve caught). Saxist-composer-bandleader Hegdal, former director of the open-to-adventure Trondheim Jazz Orkester, created a fascinating suite in a micro-big band context, laced with theatricality, moments of swinging bravura and an overall narrative ebb-and-flow. His bandmates included drummer Jon Fält—a potent, sometimes humor-lubed voice among current Norwegian drummers—ace trumpeter Eivind Lønning, limber guitarist Nils Olav Johansen, vibist Mattias Ståhl and bassist Ole Morten Vågan.

On the dogmatically quieter end of the spectrum, the unique trio 1982 settled into the intimate Osasalen performance space of the famed, folk-oriented Norwegian folk music academy, Ole Bull Akademiet. Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland is ostensibly 1982’s melodic lead. But he brings a special brand of minimalism to the indigenous Norwegian instrument, a rustic violin with sympathetic strings. Hints and fragments of traditional folk themes waft through the trio’s improvisational flow to meditative, but never static or predictable, ends.

Young drummer Øyvind Skarbø naturally embraced the trio’s introspective mission, but also brought jolts of absurdist humor, for comic relief. The trio has recorded fine albums for the wondrous ambient-inclined Norwegian label Hubro. But catching the group live, as the music literally unfolds and invents itself, is a precious treat.

At 45, Vossa Jazz is going and blowing strong, with a particularly hearty program and statement of purpose, circa 2018. DB

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