Critics on both sides of the Atlantic agree that on today’s jazz scene Bugge Wesseltoft is probably the only musician who can get away with calling an album The New Conception of Jazz. Full stop. The album was awarded a Norwegian Grammy in 1996 and was among the year’s best albums in many countries last year. The reason is that it is totally innovative. Wesseltoft merges art and technology in such a way that the borders between high, popular and avant-garde culture are eliminated. On the follow-up, Sharing, two years later, he herds the listener into grazing grounds where the music grows so vitally and abundantly that your mouth waters. Here are fat American, instinctive funk and minimalist European rhythmic configurations. Here are night-black house rhythms, not in stark contrast but as a broadening supplement to airy notes that smell of daylight and newly-cleaned houses. Now he is touring Europe with his orchestra called, naturally, New Conception of Jazz.
In Wesseltoft’s music, traditionalists have great difficulty in distinguishing between present and past. The Norwegian DJs Abstract and Strangefruit add sweating rhythmic beats from the grooves. One of Norway’s finest jazz poetry voices, Sidsel Endresen (LtN 3/99), suddenly finds herself at the top of the Deutsche Club Chart remixed by Andreas Dorau – that’s what can happen when Wesseltoft is on the move!
He didn’t know it was possible to be a jazz musician. While he was working his way towards musical awareness, Bugge played in both punk and dance bands. He is at his best between these two extremes, but his heart is in jazz. He has no formal jazz education but has played with the cream of the Norwegian jazz scene: Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christensen. He loves techno, but finds it even better after an acoustic tour with, for example, drummer Billy Cobham. In Wesseltoft’s case, opposites don’t attract, they accumulate!
His baptism of fire was in 1993 when, as a 28-year-old, he performed his own work A Little War Story at the opening concert of the Voss Jazz Festival. The commissioned work is an institution on the Norwegian jazz scene that sets the standard for the rest of the season. He tried to find a different feeling from when he played other people’s music, and he found it. Since then, he has gone on searching.
As a studio musician, he has played on almost one hundred records and believes versatility to be a good thing. It comes in handy when he and Sidsel Endresen perform at concerts – or rather improvise, because that’s what they do. She is an extremely versatile singer and lyric writer with a background from jazzrock and r&b and has studied under Meredith Monk. Their cooperation is openness personified because nothing is preordained. One piano transition may lead to a Joni Mitchell song, another to on-the-spot improvisation. The Duo albums Nightsong (’94) and Duplex Ride (’98) are fine documentation, but remember that no two Endresen/Wesseltoft concerts are ever alike. In the studio they work according to Miles Davis’ simple but demanding model, with simple formats that they improvise around. This autumn Sidsel’s new solo record will be released by Bugge’s recording company Jazzland Records, just before she sings for a week at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
Bugge Wesseltoft’s recording company has become a centre for new ideas and talents. He learns every day from his computer and from hearing re-mixes of his own music, how other people emphasise the original. When the BBC’s pop channel Radio One began to play Wesseltoft, the Independent wrote enthusiastically, “It shows just how far postmodern juxtaposition can go.” Not surprising, really, because after all we are talking about New Conceptions of Jazz!