Is there no end to the Norwegian appetite for live music? For a country of five million people, 1.5 million of whom live in its capital, Oslo, it would seem not as witnessed by a busy weeklong Oslo Jazz Festival packing out venues large and small. Yet this festival’s government aided music making has its detractors too, not least free improv drum firebrand Paal Nilssen-Love who started his own alternative, improv-heavy, Blow Out festival in 2010, in something of a protest move against some of the mainstream tendencies of the city’s main jazz event. It’s perhaps ironic then that Blow Out, in spite of its ‘alternative’ intentions, is equally well attended and well organised.
So while the two opposing sides settle their differences, it’s the listening public that reap the rewards of a huge variety of sounds across a hot a sultry week in mid-August. With populist vocal bookings in the shape of Tony Bennett, Madeleine Peyroux and Kurt Elling front loading the programme, it was the appearance of Gregory Porter (pictured above left) at the architecturally stunning Oslo opera house that was the first of several memorable concerts. Backed not by his regular British quintet (who would tear it up the following night at the Victoria jazz club), but by the finely poised sound of the Helge Lien Trio and the superb Norwegian Radio Orchestra (aka KORK), Porter more than rose to the challenge of assimilating his impassioned gospel-edged vocal style with both the imposing yet inspiring acoustic space and not one but two new adventurous backing ensembles. Ironically it was his a cappella encore of Nat Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’ that created the night’s most chill inducing moment, you could hear a pin drop in the awed silence.
Guitarist and über cool composer Stian Westerhus (pictured left) provided a suitable gothic alternative to such heartwarming sounds with his equally invigorating workout with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra a mile across town at Parkteatret. With netting draped down in front of the stage and warnings that ‘strobe lighting is in use’ this was no cosy jazz gig, more a voyage through a dark netherworld where avant metal, free noise, pugnacious brass and surging violins collide in harrowing ways. Entitled ‘Ripples, Rapples and Disbelief’ it was as if one of Westerhus’ extended guitar improvisations had morphed into a symphony of head-crushing proportions, its climax a blizzard of thrash metal drumming and extraordinary experimental operatic vocals from Maja Ratkje.
Other festival highlights included maverick Supersilent/Humcrush keyboard maestro Ståle Storløkken’s charmingly unhinged and sprawling solo on the Oslo cathedral’s 300-year old organ, that threatened to shake the building to its foundations, while rising star young composer/pianist Anja Lauvdal’s gifted ten-piece offered a free and folky, sometimes riotous, take on Jaga Jazzist’s prog-jazz sound.
Yet with both mainstream and modern tendencies operating in different orbits throughout the festival it took the imposing talents of Nordic bass giant Arild Andersen to combine both aspects with his fiercely impressive new quintet. International in its make up with saxophonist Tommy Smith (Scotland), trumpeter Markus Stockhausen (Germany), pianist Marcin Wasilewski (Poland) and drummer Patrice Héral (France), they effortlessly combined each of their specialisms: be it Smith’s incendiary post-bop tenor solos; Stockhausen’s seamless and beautiful use of electronics; Héral’s brilliant solo spot that mixed Tuvan throat singing, beat boxing and Indian konokol; or indeed the bassist/leader’s own occasional FX loops. Andersen’s writing is also a thing of great power, the knotty themes taking in forceful rhythms and open harmonic structures, that gave way to some phenomenal free flowing solos from all concerned. At one point Andersen paused to introduce his bass, pointing out that its carved headstock features a lion’s head in full roar: an appropriate representation of this band whose bark had plenty of bite too.
– Mike Flynn
Photos: Gregory Porter courtesy Ola Sundberg – Stian Westerhus photo Mike Flynn