Looking back at Nordic music of the past 50-60 years, there appear to be two significant points where the music seemed to undergo an evolution so major that, thanks to the help of international labels like Germany’s ECM Records (which also distributed Rune Grammofon in its early years, making that label similarly influential), it changed the shape of music to come. Like most European countries, the first half of the 20th century found Norwegian jazz musicians largely emulating their American touchstones. But the 1960s – and the freedom it seemed to engender within first world countries – seemed to be the time when countries finally began to assert their own musical identities. And when, in the late ’60s, ECM’s Manfred Eicher encountered Garbarek, Andersen, Rypdal, Stenson and Christensen, is it any surprise that the music that emerged – in particular, records like Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1971) and SART (ECM, 1971) – suggested something that, despite being informed by American free jazz, also referenced Norwegian traditionalism?
There’s no denying a lot happened in the ensuing years, with ECM continuing to shine a significant spotlight on a country that had, beyond classical composers like Nordheim and Grieg, never before seen such regular exposure. The label also encouraged some significant cultural cross-pollinations, whether it was Garbarek and Christensen playing in both pianist Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet (Belonging, ECM, 1974) and with American guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner (Solstice, ECM, 1975), Garbarek also collaborating with Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti and American bassist Charlie Haden (Magico, ECM, 1980), Rypdal coming together with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and American drummer Jack DeJohnette (Rypdal, Vitous, DeJohnette, ECM, 1979), Andersen putting a smoking hot group together with up-and-coming American guitarist Bill Frisell, British pianist John Taylor and American drummer Alphonse Mouzon (Molde Concert, ECM, 1982), or singer Sidsel Endresen collaborating with British pianist Django Bates and American cellist David Darling (Exile, ECM, 1994) for an early sign of even greater things to come.
Still, 1996-98 seemed to represent an even greater watershed, one where the electro-acoustic integration of technology emerged with full force- and shook the world with even greater force, thanks to the international reach now possible via the internet, with it now possible for people from virtually anywhere to gain access to music previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It meant that, more than at any other time, the world suddenly became extremely aware of Norway. Four particular releases – Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer (ECM, 1997), Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1996), Supersilent’s 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1997) and Eivind Aarset’s Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998) – suggested new directions for jazz, and revealed a scene that had been growing, unbeknownst to most, for many years but which now reached critical mass.
Since then, the Norwegian scene seems to have exploded, growing almost exponentially. There’s “festival inflation,” with over 600 music festivals taking place across the country annually; a bevy of record labels to add to Rune Grammofon, ODIN, Curling Legs, Kirkelig Kulturverksted and Jazzland, including SOFA, NORCD, Jazzaway, Smalltown Supersound, Resonant Music, Inner Ear, Losen, Drolleholå, Gigafon, Optical Substance, Va Fongool, Atterklang and Hubro, amidst countless others. There’s more music coming out of Norway – and from across the broadest possible spectrum – than ever before. So all seems well. Or does it?
Well, it’s a tremendous plus that Norway’s commitment to the arts has made it possible for so many musicians to pursue creative endeavors, both on record and in performance, and actually make some kind of living. But there are those who feel that the availability of such funding has given Norwegians a disproportionate and unfair advantage. Some question whether the music coming out of Norway is truly as innovative as some suggest, while some actually express anger that this music is not just diluting what jazz is supposed to be (in and of itself a heated debate with no empirical answer possible), but that it’s actually denigrating “real jazz” (again, whatever that is) and taking work away from “real” jazz musicians. Are any of these accusations true?
Certainly, there is a preponderance of Norwegian music finding its way into many jazz festivals around the world, the result of tour funding that would otherwise make such touring impossible. But can Norwegian artists be blamed for taking advantage of their country’s clear agenda to export its music abroad, something achieved with great success in recent years with programs like JazzNorway in a Nutshell, Silver City Sounds and Jazz Expo, where presenters, club owners and journalists from abroad are invited to Norway for a few days of Norwegian music – usually through an existing festival like Molde, Kongsberg or Bergen’s Nattjazz, but also including special showcase performances, arranged specifically for attendees – with the hopes that Norwegian artists will be booked at festivals and clubs around the world, and that journalists will be encouraged to write about them?
Clearly, based on articles like this one – and writings from notable authors like Peter Margasak and Joe Woodard – it’s working, and in ways that go even beyond simply exporting Norway’s music. A recent roundtable discussion, during the 2011 Penang Island Jazz Festival, revealed that its five participants – including participants from Italy, Norway, Japan, China and Canada (yours truly) – had all met through Norwegian events. What these Norwegian programs have done is to create lasting and, more importantly, growing partnerships with people from around the globe that, in addition to successfully working to promote Norwegian music in whatever capacities their respective job entail, regularly collaborate in other ways – one example being my collaboration with British radio host and series curator Fiona Talkington on the liner notes to Arve Henriksen’s career-spanning 7-LP Solidification vinyl box, released in 2012 by Rune Grammofon.
That there is some jealousy abroad for the opportunities made possible to Norwegian musicians is something that should be quickly dispensed with. Is it fair that Norwegians have the advantage of both funds and infrastructure to more successfully promote their work to their country and to the world? Perhaps not, but then again: is life fair?
Norway’s inimitable programs have succeeded in ways even their organizers might never have foreseen, and the funds for recording, writing and touring have certainly appeared to be more than successful. But can the availability of so much arts funding also result in substandard music gaining exposure it doesn’t deserve; can it result in complacency, of artists creating music that ultimately succeeds based on names so established that fans will buy in, irrespective of whether or not the music is actually any good?
Of course it can – and does. But that’s not anything specifically endemic to the Norwegian scene, it’s only that, with so much touring and recording support, it’s more visible than in other countries, simply because if a disproportionately greater amount of superlative music is being made, it stands to reason there’s also a larger number of average or even substandard projects also finding their way out into the world – and even garnering critical and popular acclaim; some, it seems, will accept anything from Norway as good, simply because It comes from Norway – a dangerous mindset, indeed, especially if we’re talking media. But one look at the American jazz scene and it becomes clear that, while the cream usually rises to the top, so, too – and against all logic- does the occasional bit of sour milk manage to find its way there, too.
Is there anything the Norwegian scene should or could be doing differently? Beyond perhaps instituting some kinds of metric (and this may already be in place) that measures the success of groups receiving support – and success is not necessarily reflected fiscally; it can be measured In other ways: the number of gigs; the number of people attending; the number of records sold off the stage (at least a partial reflection of how well the audience was won over); the overall critical response. While implementing empirical measurements can seem antithetical to the very idea of art, there are, nevertheless, ways of determining whether or not money spent on an artist has been well-spent.
But truthfully, the biggest thing that Norway can do to bring its music to the world in a way that encourages less envy and, consequently, knee-jerk backlash, is to do what some of its artists are already doing: collaborate with other musicians from other countries; encourage a cultural exchange that will allow everyone to evolve in an organic fashion. Jazz is and always has been an inclusionary art form, and the only risk Norway runs by having the support it does is to become insular. That it was, indeed, an isolated country in decades past was unavoidable, but no longer holds true. And while work visa costs for getting into the United States are excessive, and costs to tour places like Canada are high simply because it’s a big country that makes travel expensive, these should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles.