Folk-Jazz on the Fjords and Elephant9 get gnarly at Nutshell Jazz

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Bergen-Jazz

Suddenly, a burly Viking saxophonist is softly blowing a ballad in the middle of a Norwegian fjord. The 19th century fishing sloop sailing us between wooded, mist-topped mountains has quietly moored mid-stream. A river journey which had seemed a benign riff on Apocalypse Now is transformed by Trygve Seim (above) standing up near the prow, unannounced and unamplified, backed by a waterfall's distant roar. When he switches from tenor to toy-sized soprano for an Arabic-style tune from his latest ECM album, Rumi Songs, and asks us to hum along, we become a group tuning fork communing with him, on enclosed water which cradles a throbbing acoustic only possible here. It's soulful, Sufi, longboat jazz: unforgettable.

This is the early climax of Nutshell: a showcase event for invited press and pros, alongside the opening weekend of Bergen's public Nattjazz Festival. We're initially based in Hardanger, the small fjord-town home to the Hardanger fiddle, a remarkable 17th century folk-dance instrument with two layers of strings. This allows two melodies to magically harmonise, when played at a similarly old hillside farm by Eirin Tjoflot. It's also played by Nils Økland in the trio 1982 in a beautifully light, pine church, adding wild gypsy flourishes to Øyvind Skarbø's landslide drums, and the bassy pump of Sigbjørn Apeland's harmonium. Their soft folk resolution to a seasick shanty adds to the sense of place, as shadows creep in from the almost endless twilight.

Cellist Maja Bugge (above) is all about locations, sitting amidst snake-coils of rope in Hardanger Boat Preservation Centre as she damps her strings with lime-tree sinew, making them sound keelhauled. Almost equalling Seim's magic when we reach mountain-enclosed Bergen, meanwhile, is pianist Ingrid Breie Nyhus. It's impossible to say quite what her deeply evocative music is, till she explains her transposition of family-learned, troll-peopled folk songs. Then the strong old, roiling forces conjured by 'The Fiddler Hall' are clear. From Edvard Grieg's wooden composing hut by the water on Bergen's edge to Garbarek, roots in folk music and landscape remain crucial.
At a restaurant on Mount Floyen, with Bergen looking Mediterranean below in the spring sun, Team Hegdal's Erik Hegdal leans his head back on tenor to scream, but this band can cry just as well. Diners' conversation quiets for an elegiac coda like a New Orleans funeral, merged with more modern bittersweetness. They move seamlessly from Ornette-style choppy waters to the invitingly lyrical, then a fierce mutant samba, with a mountain forest at their back.

Nattjazz itself takes place inside a former sardine factory. The Helge Lien Trio start with an exotic oceanic pull, Lien's piano pacing like a walk through the jungle, and bringing Blakean tigers to mind. The Thing's drummer Paal Nilssen-Love brings his Large Unit, a high-energy big band informed by his love of free and noise music. There's a sense of steamy dislocation on this hot night during their hyper-speed near-cacophonies, Nilssen-Love's mouth hanging open as he locks in with guitarist Ketil Gutvik at panting, cartoon pace.

elephant9-nattjazz

Elephant9 (above) are the opening night's big draw, with ECM veteran Terje Rypdal guesting, and Ståle Storløkken leaning back from his organ like Star Trek's Scotty when the engines cannae take any more. There's a fair bit of prog-jazz filler between his lightning bolts, though. Storløkken also guests with the free-minded, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes swaggering BmXL, this time humbly comping. The love for the band's Per Jørgensen, a vital Bergen scenester since the 1970s, is clearly felt when this absurdist joker bows his head for a last, piercing trumpet solo. They've been eccentric, but beautiful: Norwegian jazz's rooted originality in a nutshell.

– Nick Hasted

– Photos by Brit Aksnes and Jarle H Moe