Bro, Seim and Gustafsson amid the Scandi vanguard at this year's Vossa Jazz


 Foto Runhild Heggem 2 XL

As a snapshot of the great charm of Vossa Jazz's weekender in western Norway no image is more apt than this: saxophonist Trygve Seim, one of the country’s consistently interesting artists harmonising with vocalist Sinikka Langeland and accordionist Frode Haltli just outside the small caravan-cum-sauna with which he travels from gig to gig. The backdrop is a stunning lake, shimmering in mid April-sunshine with snowcapped hills in the distance.

Visual beauty aside, that combination of instruments could be seen as a leitmotif for Nordic jazz with folk undertones, but that is far too reductive a summary. There are several other performances throughout the weekend that show how similar elements can yield music of vastly differing characters. Haltli leads his own avant-folk ensemble, whose clearly signposted intent is well met, while elsewhere artists do not so much look to create ‘fusions’ as engage in a kind of open sky experimentation that crosses many stylistic borders. The trio comprising drummer-percussionist Thomas Strønen, pianist Ayumi Tanaka and multi-reedist Marthe Lea produces one of the most intriguing sets of the weekend, shifting coherently between a kind of floating, gauzy sound, enhanced by the gossamer understatement of Strønen’s brushes, woodblocks and sticks, and withering bursts of tenor, recorder or two-horns-at-once in the style of Rhasaan. Lea’s vocal is an unexpected bonus insofar as it brings a haunting anthem-like quality to the uninterrupted suite in which Tanaka also makes an impression with ghostly countermelodies and drifting textures.

Spacemusic Ensemble is also a revelation. Led by saxophonist-composer Signe Emeluth, the sextet makes much of a rich electro-acoustic palette in which a hefty tuba and Ra-ish synths entwine vividly with the voice of Rohey Taalaj, here in a distinctly different mode to Gurls and Rohey. She performs some demanding wordless vocal lines that twist and turn through eerie chords enhanced by the engagingly sinister sonic web woven with smart precision and joyous abandon.

Both these gigs take place at Osasalen, an intimate space just a short walk from the Park hotel which has several venues, from the gym-like Vossasalen to the smaller Festsalen, Pentagon and Café Stationen, each of which is a stone’s throw from one another, and thus invite a steady stream of punters over the whole weekend.

Yet one of the highlights of the festival takes place in the evocative setting of Finnesloftet, a 13th century banqueting hall whose sturdy wooden frame might still be standing when camera phones have clicked to extinction. Sudan Dudan, consisting of two vocalist-instrumentalists, Marit Karlberg on the slightly cymbalom–like langeleik, and Anders Erik Roine on guitar and Jew’s harp, keep a small audience rapt with traditional songs whose deep melancholy is spiked with some invigorating modernist contours. A duo of a very different kind, the Swiss-Albanian vocalist Elina Duni and British guitarist Rob Luft, also makes a favourable impression with its mixture of pan-European folk, intricate comping and loop station counterpoint.

While this is enjoyable a moment of quite sublime beauty comes by way of another guitarist, Danish master Jakob Bro (pictured above), whose quartet featuring his compatriot, veteran flugelhorn player Palle Mikkelborg, gives an object lesson in how to create fraught but graceful elegies in which the leader’s whispery phrases and mist trails of effects are an effective canvas for the horn player’s concise, sometimes curt figures that often hang tantalisingly in the air. The result is music where stillness is anything but static. Which is sadly not the case with trumpeter Matthias Eick’s set of well-executed but nonetheless colourless themes. Also underwhelming is rock-edged guitarist Hedvig Mollestad who replaces her usual trio with an expanded line-up that includes Portugese trumpeter Susanna Santos Silva, and the result is a slightly ungainly layering of sounds, which don’t quite maximise the substantial individual talents.

In contrast, the glowing charisma and lordly tone of Malian vocal legend Salif Keita, backed by a superlative band, have the audience on its feet, though it feels as if a gig with such a high feel-good quotient should have perhaps closed, rather than opened, the festival. Having said that a handful of potent performances by Nordic artists also win over the crowd with a mixture of intensity and humour. Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s The End, featuring the extraordinary vocals of Sofia Jernberg, exudes the kind of fearsomely uncompromising energy that has defined his work from The Thing to Fire! Orchestra, while Danish drummer Kresten Osgood has a raucous, sometimes rampaging take on small group aesthetics that owes a debt to Ornette and Ayler, though the dodgy vocal is all his. Finnish band Gourmet, featuring saxophonist Mikko Innanen is in a league (and world) of its own. The tinder dry humour and quirky, appealing songs, which are largely instrumental pop with strong soloing, strike a chord with punters that aren’t sure what to make of six guys dressed as five-star waiters. The local sheep’s head is not on the joke-laden menu.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Runhild Heggem