FACE TO FACE: On a fourth yearly visit to Voss, Norway, the columnist’s sensation of edging towards status as honorary Norwegian arrived along with the sheep’s-head-on-a-plate at the banquet table, without so much as a wince. This was the annual ceremonial smalahove dinner in the Hardanger region in which the normally wasted area of the animal, above the neck, is elaborately smoked, salted, prepared and plainly presented in what Mrs. Fleischer—our hostess, of the historic Fleischer Hotel fame—joked was a “face to face” fashion. Suddenly, I’m an expert-in-training, explaining to a neighboring festival neophyte that, yes, the eyeball is quite tasty, and not gelatinous.
One of several strong Norwegian jazz festivals, the 38-year-old Vossa Jazz takes over this small, lovely, lake-and-mountain enveloped town, a 90-minute drive from Bergen. It’s a fine place to disembark for fans of the distinctive flavors of Norwegian jazz. One of those avid fans, clearly, is ECM Records head Manfred Eicher, who has recorded many of its artists over the decades. ECM connections held true with some of this year’s finer goods—i.e. rising star Mathias Eick, the renascent, post-health crisis veteran guitarist Terje Rypdal, seasoned, moody and also energized Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and Dans les Arbres, one of the more entrancingly minimal “free improv” groups around. Featuring Norwegian enchanter, pianist Christian Wallumrød and French clarinetist Xavier Charles, Dans les Arbres cooks up hypnotic, hyper-detailed soundscapes, from the “soft and subtle is the new loud and expressionistic” end of the Euro-free scene. Rypdal’s new two-hour work for combo big band/chamber group, with ally/trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, spun light and dark around the theme of Wily E. Coyote—we kid you not. Elsewhere, diversified young Norwegian sax sensation Marius Neset showed what the fuss is all about: remember that name.
Meanwhile, back at the smalahove, many akavit toasts (chased by Hansa) were made to the occasion and to the guest-of-honor, trumpeter-bandleader Eick, fresh off premiering his fine 90-minute commissioned work called… Voss. This was the strongest of the commissioned works I’ve heard, mixing Eick’s admirable melodicism and easy-to-love groove machinery and some of that dark-ish Nordic abstraction popularized by another famed Norwegian trumpeter, Nils Petter Molvær (whose well-known Khmer, incidentally, began its life as a Vossa Jazz Festival commission). Beware: Norway, the place, the culture and the sensibility, as a geo-craggy landscape on the northwest sector of Europe, proudly aloof from its continental host, is addictive… and also expensive. To the Hardanger sheep community, I salute you and apologize. Skål!
VOCAL POWER: Apropos of little but a word, the greatest “Norwegian” moment in Santa Barbara last week came when Kurt Elling dug into an affecting and agreeably tricky new arrangement of “Norwegian Wood,” one of many tingly pleasures at his Lobero Theatre concert. The concert was a kind of official capping-off of the current jazz concert season, and a rousing, jazz-enriched and moving show at that. Already this year, we’ve had memorable jazz world blasts, in the form of the John Scofield/Bill Frisell trio double-header at the Lobero and the amazing Esperanza Spalding show, just post Grammy scoop, at Campbell Hall.
But wait, the jazz concert muse is not entirely mothballed until fall. On Friday, Ventura-bred and long NYC-based and worldly alto saxist David Binney shares his considerable artistic wares with the local scene, at the new eastside spot, the Piano Kitchen. This is bassist-composer-piano tuner Jim Connolly’s new work/play haunt, and a promising addition to the scene where music off the beaten path can come to be. Binney, a cerebral and emotionally powerful presence as both fearsomely fine saxist and composer with something deep to say, has been working at his art and craft since the late ‘80s. He has recently seen levels of credit and respect befitting his artistic aplomb and vision. Binney had a feature profile in Down Beat magazine, and his most recent album, Graylen Epicenter (Mythology) was lavishly praised by Pat Metheny. Promises to be a hot night out, with intelligence attached. (www.jimconnollymusic.com).