Nordic Sounds Abound at Vossa Jazz Festival

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Vocalist Simin Tander brought disarming depth and entrancing spirit to the Vossa Jazz Festival in Voss, Norway, on March 20.

(Photo: Courtesy of Vossa Jazz Fest)

A warm bath of synchronicity hit the lakeside town of Voss, Norway, in the heart of the 43rd annual Vossa Jazz Festival. The blissful sense of convergence of elements came courtesy of respected and increasingly international Hardanger fiddle master Nils Okland, during his contribution to the long history of the festival’s keynote commissioned work (or “Tingingsverket”).

There, before a full house on Saturday evening, Okland held sway over his expanded band (most of which is heard on his fine recent ECM album Kjølvatn), in an inspiring, high-profile example of the enlightened pact between Norwegian folk music and jazz sensibilities. And it took place at a festival that has done its part to champion that Nordic-jazz-folk liaison, and in the very town home to the prominent Norwegian folk music-leaning Ole Bull Academy. Okland himself studied and taught there, and has played many times in the intimate Osasalen, an important secondary venue for the festival.

Vossa Jazz 2016 opened with the somewhat anomalous booking of Dave Holland’s trio, with guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire, in a jammy, pleasing enough hourlong, suite-like set. But American jazz only figures marginally into the programming plan or ethos of this generally Norway-minded festival.

Voss is a fine place to go for anyone curious about this thing called Norwegian jazz, a swath which this year ranged from the feistily cool post-Ornette acoustic quartet Cortex to hip jazz-metal guitarist Hedvig Mollestad. (She also played in thunder-lunged, r&b-influenced Bernhoft & The Fashion Bruises’ old-school closing set).

Young guitarist-composer-conceptualist Stein Urheim, winner of the Voss Jazz Prize in 2010, unveiled an ambitious, purposefully style-traversing commissioned work with a fetching moniker, “Traveling with the Natural Cosmolodic Orchestra.”

Tord Gustavsen, the ECM pianist of introspective but sometimes shallow-ish dimensions, nicely stunned the crowd with music from his new album What Was Said, mainly thanks to the genuinely captivating German-Afghan singer Simin Tander, often bringing disarming depth and entrancing spirit to settings of texts by Sufi poet Rumi.

Of special note from the up-and-coming camp: The Hanna Paulsberg Concept affirmed the saxophonist/leader’s growing reputation as a voice to keep tabs on (especially beyond her native Norway). With tasteful soloist wits and awareness of space and phrasing, plus a strong melodic sense as a composer, she led an impressive young group, highlighted by the exciting and imaginative drummer Hans Hulbækmo, also in the Moskus Trio and, recently, inducted in the Scandinavian left-end-jazz supergroup Atomic.

Another high point in the festival offerings came in the form of inspirationally improvisational and seductively irrational Sidsel Endresen, a Norwegian musical legend who refuses to rest on laurels, or structural comfort zones. The vocalist holds a unique place in Norwegian musical lore, as someone well known to the general pop-conscious public for her more mainstream work of decades back, and a brief flirtation with Nordic moody albums for ECM.

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