Frode Haltli: A Conversation with the Avant Folk Avatar


Frode Haltli performs at the 2018 Nattjazz festival in Bergen, Norway.

(Photo: Knut Utler)

This year at Bremen, Germany’s jazzahead! festival and trade fair, Norwegian acts were featured during an evening-long showcase. And clearly, one of the contingent’s stars was maverick accordionist Frode Haltli.

An important figure in Norwegian jazz—as well as folk and contemporary classical circles—Haltli recently has been stepping into the spotlight with his striking 10-piece Avant Folk ensemble. Now, with an album out on the Hubro label and a few dates coming up on the summer jazz circuit in Europe, Avant Folk proposes an artful blend of original folk tunes drawing from Norwegian and other global references, improvisational maneuvers and Haltli’s own impressive voice on his instrument.

On April 27, in the pristine Sendesaal Bremen venue, Haltli resumed his long-standing sideperson status with Trygve Seim’s 10-piece Sangam project, the headliner of an ECM-focused program. After the set, DownBeat sat down with Haltli upstairs in the vintage control room of Sendesaal, the former Radio Bremen headquarters, to discuss his musical life, drawing from bandoneon players and leading his own projects.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Sangam is a somewhat mythic project. You had one show in the States—at the Portland Jazz Festival in 2007and now tonight’s show was the first performance in seven years. Does the band play outside of Norway often?

Well, we played some European festivals. It’s so difficult to tour with 10 or 11 people. Trygve really wants to record [Sangam] again.

I detected some Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky influences in the music tonight. You come from that world, partly, don’t you?

I do. I have an instrument that doesn’t really fit anywhere—or it fits everywhere. I studied classical music, but I mainly work with contemporary music and contemporary composers. But I also like to improvise. I like things that are in between. I think I can use a lot of the same techniques and references, somehow, in jazz or even in folk music.

The Avant Folk project is a place where I wanted to stretch this further and use ideas I had from working with traditional folk music. I wanted to develop it even further and go outside of the frames for what’s considered to be traditional music—in Norway, at least. There are a lot of contemporary things happening on the folk scene, but what you can do is still quite limited. That’s my main idea with this Avant Folk project: Try to develop it even a little bit further than you normally do.

You played a 30-minute showcase set at jazzahead!, but unveiled a 75-minute commission at Vossa Jazz two weeks ago. Was that work a challenge to realize?

Yeah, that was all different music. Here, we played a couple of old hits; I wanted to do it like a long set. Maybe when you listen to it, it’s clearly like one composition, because the different material is so much related. But I think we will continue to do parts of that and make new combinations.

It was a really good opportunity for me to develop more repertoire and original music for this Avant Folk ensemble. Some of the music could, as well, have been traditional themes, but they are not. I made them. The material that we work from is really simple, and I like that. We all learn the same stuff, so basically anyone can play anything from the material that we rehearse, and then we develop it together.

What is the history of Avant Folk?

We’ve played together a little bit more than two years. I was invited to be the artist-of-the-month at the Riksscenen in Oslo, a great traditional music venue. I did a project with Trygve and two Indian musicians, and another project more related to Norwegian traditional music. They wanted something new, also, and I suggested, “Oh, it would be fun to do a big band, with drums and bass ... .”

Did the large-ensemble Sangam project influence Avant Folk, despite the music being quite different?

Maybe. I thought to myself today, “Ah, maybe this influenced me more than I thought.”

Trygve has also influenced me a lot, just in his phrasing. We’ve played a lot of duos through the years, and I’ve been in some other projects of his. He’s a wonderful saxophone player—just with his tone and this very special way of phrasing. There is a lot of time in his music, in general. That was very influential on me, even though I don’t think I sound like him at all.

Are there particular accordionists who had a strong impact on how you approach the instrument?

I played a lot of contemporary music when I was a student and before that. In terms of jazz and other forms of music, I listened a lot to bandoneon players for a long period. Dino Saluzzi is the one on the top of that list: He’s unique. They have a lot more space in the phrases and phrase freer.

Now that I know myself, I start talking about the bad things about accordion players. There are a lot of accordion players who don’t think so much about the bellows. The bellows are so important. That’s the soul of the instrument. If you treat it just as a keyboard instrument, it can get kind of dull, if you don’t use the dynamics. It’s a little too easy to play fast on the accordion; that’s the problem. A lot of players go out and just play too many notes, with too little variation in the playing.

Youve been working more under your own name recently, but in the past often have worked as as a sideperson. Is that intentional?

Yeah, it goes in periods. It’s a lot of work, especially to run this 10-piece band. It’s basically impossible, especially in Norway. It’s so expensive. But we get such a good response; I just wanted to see how far it can go now.

I work still in groups and have a lot of great colleagues. I also play a lot of trio lately, with [saxophonist] Håkon Kornstad. When you’re a freelance creative musician—as I consider myself and the people around me—we also have kind of an obligation to try to run our own projects. You should also do some of your own ideas and go further with some of the wild ideas that takes too much time. DB

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