Sound Check Norway: Music from Norway – why it was so important to write a book about it
Skrevet av Edvard Olai Brekke Værland 14.07.2014
After more than a decade of conducting interviews and attending festivals, Italian writer Luca Vitali released his book about the Norwegian jazz scene last year. In this edition of Sound Check Norway he explains why, and what it is that makes the scene so unique.
By Luca Vitali
I am often asked why, as an Italian jazz journalist, I decided to write a book about the smallNorwegian scene.
There are a number of reasons, but the first one is that Norway played a fundamental historic role in emancipating European jazz from its Afro‐American roots. And this is also one of the reasons why it is amongst the most creative and original music scenes around today.
Dismantling the cliché – filling the gapReading some of the more authoritative histories of jazz, I found rather too often that many European phenomena are neglected or treated in a cursory fashion, with just a few elements of the Nordic Sound and of a certain ECM aesthetic being mentioned. ‘A New History of Jazz’, by English author Alyn Shipton comes to mind here. He devotes two whole pages to Tord Gustavsen, who, while an indisputably fine pianist, has not impinged in any way on the evolution of European jazz, and is the kind of musician that a large part of the jazz public expects from “the fiords”. On the other hand, he makes no mention at all of real phenomena, like the one represented by the Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, who in 1964 sold 300,000 copies of ‘Jazz pa Svenska’, becoming the first real spokesperson of a powerful Scandinavian folk identity within European jazz. Nor, to give another example, does he discuss the Nu Jazz of the late 90s, which, with ‘Khmer’ by Nils Petter Molvaer and ‘New Conception of Jazz’ by Bugge Wesseltoft, filled jazz festival programmes around the world for years. Seen from outside, the Scandinavian scene is often associated with the so‐called Nordic Sound, with snow, mountains, fiords and reindeer – a jazz with dulcet sounds and abundant reverb effects. The image does not do it justice.
Nils Petter Molvær, Heineken Jazzaldia, San Sebastian 2012 (Photo: Luca Vitali)
In my book I have tried to dismantle this cliché and to shed light on the less visible part of the iceberg, at the same time investigating the reasons for such richness and originality.
With the aid of the publisher Claudio Chianura, I have tried to fill what seemed to me to be a real gap. As the subject is largely undocumented, it was not possible just to work at a desk, on the basis of on‐line or library research. For this reason the book is the fruit of over ten years of attending festivals all over Norway, of busy weeks spent in Oslo interviewing the protagonists of the music scene, and of listening regularly and unflaggingly to their output.
The anecdotes, behind‐the‐scenes tales and stories pieced together over these years of research together with the protagonists who have contributed to the richness of the contemporary scene are many and varied, and all important in their own way.
Stian Westerhus, Heineken Jazzaldia, San Sebastian 2012 (Photo: Luca Vitali)
Structures of society
I believe that what makes the Norwegian scene so special is the horizontal structure of society, without stars or barons. This has permitted interaction and mingling between prominent and totally unknown musicians, and between figures belonging to very disparate musical scenes. It gave rise to something which is still truly unique today. And it was marvellous to see how everyone responded to the microphone. It was enough just to turn it on and, unbashfully and without reticence, they opened up with enthusiasm and generosity.
Norway is a young country, and does not have to come to terms with a towering tradition, as Italy does. Its people have a strong sense of identity, and climate and geography have long isolated it from the rest of Europe, imbuing it with a spirit of adventure that perhaps dates back to the Viking age. It is no accident that on 17 May, the anniversary of the Constitution, adults and children dress in traditional nineteenth‐century clothes of rural origin, known as bunad – a clear sign of a proud and enduring feeling of identity and a marked sense of civic values and social parity.
All of this, I believe, lies at the origin of the country’s effervescent music scene: its chief characteristics are a powerful inner impulse to search for a personal idiom, and a vocation for improvisation, the real essence of contemporary jazz in Norway. And the result? A musical world with very different sonorities – and without the typical worries of our times: “But is this jazz?”
Martinius Helgesen 1890 (Photo: Christian Eggen)
Opening the doors to a new era in jazz
I did not set out to write a history of Norwegian jazz, nor was my aim to contrast European and American jazz. I did however begin with a historic reconstruction of some of the events that changed the course of European jazz. The Norwegian scene is rooted in the great folk tradition of the Hardanger fiddle, and it was onto this that the influence of George Russell was grafted. One the great masters of contemporary jazz, he grasped its qualities and stimulated the generation of Jan Garbarek to become aware of them. It is hardly by chance that Russell, after living for several years in Stockholm and working with the Swedish Radio Orchestra, should then decide to move to Oslo. Here he found ideal terrain and conditions for his school of thought, which got under way in 1953 with the publication of the ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity’ (Concept Publishing Co.).
“In Norway, Russell, and, as we saw, Don Cherry as well, albeit in different ways, opened the doors to a new era in jazz, showing Scandinavians the real potential they possessed. Everyone who took part in their “mini jazz universities” dug deep into their own musical roots, gradually acquiring confidence and experience. They ventured beyond national boundaries, distinguishing themselves by virtue of an identity of their own, which matured both in the field of improvisation and in that of composition. Both were increasingly directed towards music research. Don Cherry is a concrete example of the preparatory work done by Russell: very much to the fore in animating the movement that came to be known as “world music”, he recorded Norwegian jazz with some of Russell’s best pupils, such as Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Terje Rypdal and Arild Andersen. As early as 1960, on the other hand, Russell was predicting that many new sounds and rhythms would need to emerge in the language of jazz to offset an overly limited musicalpalette: a line of thought that would be fully applied in the years to come with Garbarek and his “open space” aesthetic. The developments in Norwegian jazz after 1970 evidently cannot be isolated from all this. The compositional techniques of Andersen and Garbarek, honed in the course of their respective solo careers, were test beds in Russell’s workshops: a kind of multi‐ethnic cooperation – which often fed on the presence, among others, of immigrant percussionists – broadened the rhythmic palette of the Norwegian arranger and performer, but withoutmaking him lose contact with the classical and popular roots of his own music. Artists of Garbarek’s stature had finally dispelled the majority of fears and the reticence that until then had been an obstacle to the rediscovery and valuing of indigenous popular music. Grieg had done the same thing fifty years earlier, bringing Norwegian folk music into the arena of early twentieth‐century European classical music. Now it was the turn of jazz.
(Luca Vitali, Il suono del nord. La Norvegia protagonista della scena jazz europea, Auditorium, p. 25)
Russell, Garbarek, Christensen & Loeberg, Bikuben, Oslo 1967 (Photo: Randi Hultin)
In the collective imagination the German ECM label and the name of Jan Garbarek are the trademark with which Norwegian jazz is identified and exported around the world. But in truth they represent just a small part of the scene. But in the meantime it was fascinating to discover how the association between the sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug (Rainbow Studio) and the founder‐owner of ECM, Manfred Eicher, was crucial for the inner development of the scene; and how Oslo, after the recording of the memorable ‘Afric Pepperbird’ (ECM 1007), became central to jazz in Europe thanks to the frequent presence of international musicians (Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Sam Rivers, Ralph Towner, Miroslav Vitous and many others), who, while recording in the city, also took part in memorable jam sessions at Club7.
Keith-Jarrett & Manfred Eicher, Rainbow Studio, Oslo (Photo: Randi Hultin)
“Listen to it first”
Moreover, what happened at the Trondheim Conservatory at the end of the 70s was quite unique to Europe and the world at large, a kind of Copernican revolution in the academic world of the conservatories, in clear and sharp contrast with the methods used in American schools like the Berklee College of Music in Boston. We might say that in Norway the motto was not “learn the tradition in order to repeat it”, but rather “learn from tradition” and, in order to play music, “listen to it first”. Since then, teaching institutions have assumed an increasingly important role in Norway, spurring musicians on to search for their own voice and their own original style.
Håkon Kornstad is a good example of this model of teaching, embodying, we might say, the “prototype” of the resulting musician: from the Nu Jazz of Wibutee to the free jazz of his trio and through to more recent solo experiences, over the years he has established himself as one of Norway’s very best saxophonists. But having “made it to the top”, instead of sticking to routine, he switched direction in a quite radical way: his decision to enrol at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo as an aspiring opera singer – he is a tenor – has something “blasphemous” about it, if related to the free jazz of a few years earlier… Kornstad’s musical journey is emblematic of the teaching model adopted in Trondheim and subsequently embraced by other conservatories around the country, which have likewise succeeded in cultivating originality and excellence.
Beate S Lech, Polarjazz 2011, Longyearbyen, Isole Svalbard (Photo: Luca Vitali)
A source of originality and impetus
Another great source of originality and impetus in Norway are the festivals, all quite different: while Molde was the first (1961), and attracts the international stars, Kongsberg, which started just a few years later, is the one most attentive to free jazz, as Voss (the third in order of arrival) is to folk. And sticking with Voss, how can we forget the work commissioned by the festival each year, which in its over 40‐year‐long history has yielded genuine masterpieces? Just think of Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra (with Il Cenone in 1992) and Nils Petter Molvaer’s Khmer (with Labyrinter in 1996).
Martin Revheim (Photo: Gustav P Jensen, Dagsavisen)
Something profoundly new
Nor can we fail to mention Blå. After the historic Oslo Jazzhus closed down, one of its great regulars, Martin Revheim, anxious to fill the gap, decided to set up something profoundly new and different:
“Precisely because Martin was conscious that musicians refuse labels, and thanks to their interest and support, what then came into being was quite unforeseeable, and different to any other club in Norway but also elsewhere. This was the period in which Bugge and Nils Petter were working on New Conception of Jazz and Khmer; when many other projects relating to the electronic and DJ scene were under way; when the Veslefrekk trio (Arve Henriksen, Ståle Storløkken and Jarle Vespestad) teamed up with rock musician Helge Sten, aka Deathprod, leading to the formation ofSupersilent; and, again, the same years in which the little more than adolescent Lars Horntveth formed the band Jaga Jazzist… Everything happened in a short space of time, and Martin decided to bring this tumult into the club. Not all of it can be defined as jazz, but jazz was the open base, the point of departure for proposing and exchanging ideas. The result was a genuine laboratory, where the ideas and suggestions often came from Martin himself, or from the young musicians of his generation, the real driving force of the project. Oslo is not New York, but Martin and Kjell set out to achieve the “vibe” of the Knitting Factory: that was the goal they had in mind, and they decided to realize it in Gronerlokka, a very run‐down area of the city, amidst abandoned post‐industrial buildings. They deliberately looked for a space among the industrial premises near the river, until they found one capable of transmitting a special emotion… Judging them to be representative of the mood and atmosphere they wanted the club to have, Martin asked Jaga Jazzist to open the inaugural evening. Jaga accepted. The approach proved to be special from the very start: Bugge was there on that first evening, and after a while he joined Jaga in what was to be a memorable jam. The second evening featured the band Element (later Atomic), who performed with Javid Shankar on the tablas, while on the following evening it was the turn of the duo Petterson Johansson and Paal Nilssen‐Love… By the end of the first week the character of the club was already unmistakeable, and the desire to provide a space for such a lively scene was clear. During the first month Supersilent performed there several times, and presented their second album, 4. This was released by the fledgling Rune Grammofon, the ambassador, together with Smalltown Supersound, of the “advance of the new” – which also included the first examples of noise music, a genre previously unseen on the international jazz scene, but increasingly important at Blå.”
(Luca Vitali, Il suono del nord. La Norvegia protagonista della scena jazz europea, Auditorium, p. 187)
Jan Bang Nasjonal Jazzscene, Oslo 2010 (Photo: Luca Vitali)
In such a varied environment, audiences got to hear Norway’s most famous classical pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes (a regular guest at the club for many years), but also, thanks to close links with Ultima Festival and NyMusikk, lots of contemporary music as well (with the conductor of the Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Eggen). And the first two editions of All‐Ears, the festival founded by Paal Nilssen‐Love and Maja Ratkje, were held at Blå. Again, it was to Blå that the founders of the new‐born experimental Sofa Music label, Ingar Zach and Ivar Grydeland, brought, once a week, musicians such as Derek Bailey and Evan Parker – amongst the most representative exponents of English improvisation.
The years I am talking about, those of Blå and of Nu Jazz at the end of the 90s, are precisely those in which I began to take an interest in the Norwegian music scene. As my enthusiasm grew and I learnt more, I realized how much there was to discover besides the nucleus of musicians popular at festivals around Europe. Pursuing this interest, and following the scene more and more closely, brought me into contact with the musical world of Jan Bang and the Punkt Festival, founded with Erik Honorè and characterized by the Live Remix.
Arve Henriksen, Punkt Festival, Kristiansand 2011(Photo: Luca Vitali)
Recounting a music scene
How, having discovered this extraordinary reserve of creativity and originality, I came to the decision to write a book about it is no longer entirely clear to me. Certainly, I have tried to give it a narrative imprint – as lively a one as possible – and to convey a sense of the story I gathered from the first‐hand accounts of the protagonists (Norwegian and foreign), interwoven with stories and recollections. I have explored the connections of jazz with other musical genres; tried to analyse the influence of political movements and the role of the conservatories and churches; to build up a picture of the different kinds of venues (clubs, dance halls, theatres); and to process every pertinent strand in an investigation intended to be all‐encompassing. An enlightened publisher then gave me the possibility to put a face to many of the protagonists involved, with two photographic sections (a historic one produced in conjunction with the JazzArkiv of Oslo, and a contemporary one), and to crucially enhance the reader’s understanding of the topic with an accompanying audio CD, which documents some of the expressions of the contemporary scene.
Terje Isungset, Ice Festival, Geilo 2010 (Photo: Luca Vitali)
I have made every effort to break down stereotypes, and to situate each phenomenon within its correct dimension, while respecting a diversity of perspective that an Italian, or perhaps more generically, a non‐Norwegian eye, could certainly not avoid…
“Artists draw inspiration from nature and elect special places there: and so Måren is congenial for Seglem, Lillehammer is stimulating for Isungset, and Pulpit Rock, high above the fiord of Lysefjorden, is inspiration for Molvær, because it conveys the spirit of the indomitable Viking heritage. Such choices are never prompted, as one might be inclined to suspect, by a sensationalistic intent or a desire to display what is an admittedly fascinating Nordic exoticism. These artists act instead like the Italian who sings operatic arias under the shower or the Japanese person who, while raking the garden, applies Zen: naturally.”
(Luca Vitali, Il suono del nord. La Norvegia protagonista della scena jazz europea, Auditorium, p. 157)
All this is in order to recount a music scene which has inherited from the founding fathers of that first ECM generation the pioneering and independent spirit that made them the standard bearers of the emancipation from the Afro‐American matrix, contributing significantly to the identity of European jazz.
Luca Vitali (Bologna, 1967) writes articles on jazz and other sounds for Giornale della Musica, AllAboutJazz Italia and InSound, he collaborates with IL – the monthly of il Sole 24 Ore – and Radio Città del Capo.
He is one of the founder members of EJM (Europe Jazz Media – a network of journalists, editors and magazines of Europe Jazz Network) and is the Italian representative for the monthly publication, EJM – Charts.
Since 2010, he has been one of the artistic curators of the Angelica Festival, however, he also organises other initiatives of contemporary music and performing arts.He has collaborated for years on a permanent basis with various Norwegian institutions in Italy, such as the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Royal Norwegian Consulate, as well as Jazzforum, Music Norway, Listen To Norway and Jazznytt in Norway.
‘Il Suono Del Nord’ was released on Auditorium in 2013.