VOSSA NOVA: Is Sidsel Endresen one of our greatest living vocalists? The argument could easily be made, especially after hearing her courting her own private outer limits in a primal post-modernist tour-de-force performance last week at the Vossa Jazz Festival, in Voss, Norway. She’s a legend in her native Norway and far beyond, even though no genre suitably contains her inimitable mix of jazz, noise, true improvisation, Nordic folk, and other unnameable sounds and ideas. Stateside, her beauteous ECM album Exile gave her American profile a boost, but generally, one has to go transatlantic to catch her in action. (Check out her MySpace page for a reasonable sampler taste).
This year’s Vossa Jazz Festival—the 37th annual for one of Norway’s small-but-mighty, resilient jazz fests—shed light on other current pinnacles of Scandinavian jazz. Earlier that Sunday afternoon in the acoustically pristine recital room at the Ole Bull Academy, the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson played solo, illustrating why he’s one of the world’s most poetic piano virtuosos. The night before, the wily, cool Finnish band Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio rattled the rafters of the Fraktgodsen venue, down by the tracks: post-Ornette Coleman-isms met Finnish wryness and intensity (partly via captivating oddball keyboardist Seppo Kantonen).
If you’re of a certain persuasion, attracted to the meeting places of culture and nature, of a cultured epicenter and a remote outpost, Norway has a sure, potent appeal. It’s an important nation in the global sense, but also proudly in its own continental corner, still blessed with a sparse population, strong ecological identity (despite its hale oil industry), and cultural roots systems—including a special, particular Norwegian jazz sensibility, exerting a stronger imprimatur on the international jazz scene of late.
At Vossa Jazz this year, that Norwegian factor emerged in different ways. There was the hypnotic two-hour midnight blend of abstraction, ethereality, and “hard jam” rock energies when Supersilent (featuring magical trumpeter Arve Henriksen) met Motorpsycho. Norway loves its singers: the fare ranged from the art-pop wiles of Kirsti Huke, in cahoots with fine, undersung saxist Tore Brunborg in a project called Scent of Soil, to veteran favorite Karin Krog, who collaborated with Brit John Surman on a varied commissioned piece, Songs about this & that, with Norwegian players. Norway also provided the musician ranks for Mike Mainieri and Northern Lights, including versatile maverick keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft.
Nature interacted with culture in direct, dramatic, and entertaining ways in the “Extremjazz” extravaganza on Saturday afternoon (Voss is also known as a haven for extreme sports). Keyboardist-situationist Jon Balke marshaled his troops in an hour-long piece, perched atop the mountain ski area, Hanguren, looking down on the stunning lake-centered town far below and adapting to the element of choreographed parasailers zooming to and fro. (Embarrassing confession: This journalist declined an offer for a tandem parasailing flight. Insert chicken sounds here.)
After the Krog/Surman premiere, artists, and VIPs (and press, that “special needs” branch of VIPs) descended into a banquet room in the historic Fleischer’s Hotel. We were gathered for the ceremonial “smalahove” dinner, featuring the region-specific cuisine of a sheep’s head, washed down with akavit and Hansa beer.
In other extra-musical news, I heeded the advice of guidebooks and locals on a day off and got thee to Flåm. The remarkably scenic and famous Flåmbana branch-line train descended steeply from the snow-covered Myrdal station to the idyllic little Sognefjord-hugging port town of Flåm (also home to a tasty microbrew, Ægir). In that side trip, despite the tourist-geared appurtenances, the distinctive beauty and mystery of Norway felt tingly real, wholly removed from the noisy, info-cluttered world we know. Flåm now belongs on the short list of dreamtown/hometowns for this admitted, addicted Norway-lover.
SHOW OF THE WEEK: Don’t miss jazz trumpet wonder/bandleader Terence Blanchard, Saturday, April 10, at the Lobero. While the Grammy-stockpiling musician has appeared here with Dianne Reeves and the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars, this will be his official Santa Barbara debut as bandleader, on the heels of a fine new album, Choices.