To begin with, Vossa Jazz has the advantage of its tranquil, scenic setting by the large Vangsvatnet lake, surrounded by the misty, snow-capped mountains, looming up in the distance. The small town of Voss hosts one of Norway's longest running jazz festivals, inaugurated back in 1973. Most of the acts play
in the central Park Hotel, which has several suitable spaces in which to house stages of varying sizes. The programming stance of Vossa Jazz is quite adventurous, even by Norwegian standards, presenting artists that inhabit zones of free improvisation, electronica and extreme guitar mangling.
The majority of the acts are indigenous, with many of these being key players who enjoy high international profiles. There are also a few out-of-towners involved, not least the New York beatnik singer Sheila Jordan, while English reedman John Surman was making a relatively rare appearance with longtime partner,
singer Karin Krog, surprisingly, now in her 80th year. This pair played early in the evening, in the converted cinema, Gamlekinoen, delivering the expected homely, intimate performance, their warm rapport spreading outwards across an attentive audience. In this setting, Surman eases back into a gentle backing role for much of the time, playing be-boppin' baritone runs, heading towards 'In A Sentimental Mood'. He chases Krog's lines with a silvery skipping fluidity, words and saxophone phrases holding hands closely. She recites a poem, and he whispers underneath, on bass clarinet, while both Surman and Krog are subtly tweaking their source sounds with soft echo and diaphanous synth-spirallings.
Also in the cinema, this time in its foyer, Ståle Storløkken's mighty Hammond organ lay in wait, alongside Stefan Pasborg's drumkit. Storløkken is all over, but mostly known as a crucial element of Supersilent and Elephant9. The duo's set matched extreme grind with an almost ridiculous humour, as they dug
up rumbling churchy Black Sabbath riffs and scurried into a rat-infested Gothic crypt. The winding, stoned steps to melodramatic excess were traversed, up and down, several times before their load was shot. Storløkken's bass footwork thrummed beside Pasborg's scattering sticks, entering a creepy Twin Peaks forest, shuffling until the full force returns again, with piledriver drums and Phibes phibrilations. Storløkken can also be subtle, traipsing out thin pipe lines while Pasborg makes thin cymbal scrapes.
More raw power was imbibed straight afterwards, on the hotel basement stage, with alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen (a Dane dwelling in Trondheim) attaining one of the weekend's plateaux, assisted by an all-star band of freedom fighters. With double trouble in the shape of Paul Lytton, Raymond Strid (drums),
Torbjörn Zetterberg and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (basses), her own enraged soloing taking repeated wing amid their battling sides. This was some of the most inspired improvisation witnessed in a while, with natural, organic partnerships emerging, ranging from detailed near-silence into worrying confrontation, the entire quintet working as a single fevered brain. Unleashed, Rasmussen's high wails scrape the low ceiling, dispersed across the rubble of bass/drums scrabble, shot out with a fearsome power and accuracy.
At high noon, on Saturday, in the Ole Bull Akadamiet, just up the hill from the central church, we'd expect guitarist Kim Myhr to open the proceedings sensitively, with his ambient shimmering structures, but in reality, he's already off into another area, making simple open strums and doctoring these resonances via various table-top knob-adjustments, highlighting tones, refracting repeats into an accumulating clangour. When he does pick intricately, it's with the drooped claw manner of a Delta bluesman, before the avalanche of delays arrives. His fingering becomes percussive, aggressively ambient, openly strumming with his right hand, using his left to twiddle the dials. As his hour progresses, it becomes increasingly Terry Riley-ed, the 12 strings becoming so oppressively heightened that we attain the sound of helicopter blades by the fully industrial finale.
There couldn't be a more subtle follow-up than Sheila Jordan, partnered in intimacy by bassman Cameron Brown. She's slightly scatterbrained, but this is partly down to an informal stand-up act where she's closely in tune with the crowd. At the age of 88, Jordan is allowed to forget a few lines, and improvises
with scatting deftness, into 'The Very Thought Of You' and 'Yesterdays', inventing words about the old days with Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano, back in the early 1950s. Jordan and Brown play 'Baltimore Oriole', propped up by a walking bassline, delivering in sprechgesang. Then Jordan dedicates a sequence of tunes to the memory of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, so the eras traversed are emphatically of a sepia vintage, as Jordan and Brown breeze through 'Cheek To Cheek' and 'Let's Face The Music And Dance'.
The Saturday high point was provided by Møster!, a band led by new-ish on-the-scene (at least outside Norway, as he's now freshly-40) saxophone voice Kjetil Møster, and also featuring Storløkken again. This guitar and synth-loaded line-up facilitates a titanic explosion of free-groove abandonment, with most
of their set operating at full-strength, another heady jump-cut to a radically altered universe. It was becoming apparent that such a shunt is an important aspect of the Vossa Jazz programming success. Straight afterwards, the old-guard trumpet star Nils Petter Molvær suffered by comparison. Strong though his set was, and operating on a similarly beyond-jazz level, his atmospheric creations sounded oddly dated, with the 1990s being too close for comfort, while Møster's acid-soaked 1960s visions are now safely beyond time, strangely more up to the moment than Molvær's 'ambient-dance-jazz', despite the sterling rock-pose efforts of his guitarist (and pedal steel-er) Geir Sundstøl.
Sunday's best set unwound early in the afternoon, with percussionist Terje Isungset leading a starry ensemble that included Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Morten Qvenild (keyboards), Nils Økland (fiddle) and Mats Eilertsen (bass). Even though they played the specially-commissioned 'Sildrande' piece for around
90 minutes, our attention was constantly gripped, even during the most environmental of openness. Isungset's bass drum fullness reverberated deeply, the twinned Hardanger fiddles bowed with dignified stateliness, and Henriksen revealed a deep desire to plunge his horns into an amplified fishtank, and rattle them around, always in search of previously unexplored aural possibilities. The conclusion came amid the sound of dripping cave-walls, dispersed around the cinema theatre via surrounding speakers, encouraging a poignant form of meditational contemplation.
Later, the trio In The Country, regularly keen on collaborations, presented a team-up with blues guitarist Knut Reiersrud and singer Solveig Slettahjell. Although the concept was to address the blues repertoire, in reality this seemed to be more specific, focusing on the gospel-inflected end of the street. The quintet made a fine balance between reflecting the idioms and impressing them with their own traits, subtly updating such chestnuts as 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen' and 'Trouble In Mind'. This was a satisfying way to finish the weekend, with a project that melded elements of genre tradition and wayward intervention, setting folks on their way with a springy steps and spiritually heavy hearts.
– Martin Longley
– Photos by Amalie Johannessen and Runhild Heggem/Vossa Jazz