Norwegian composers and (improvising) instrumentalists have now attained quite extraordinarily levels of technique: one thinks of Edvard Hagerup Bull’s or Olav Anton Thommessen’s various blends of (Post) modernism and tradition, trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s
(post-Jon Hassell) ability to make his trumpet sound – or “breathe” like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, the synthesised sound-rhythms of which keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft supplied for Jan Garbarek’s 1998 Rites album, or Eivind Aarseth’s free-ranging yet disciplined textural effects on electric guitar, as profiled on the 1997 Electronique Noir.
However, all such technical expertise would amount to very little were it not set in the service of some sort of musical and/or spiritual vision – which so much of this music seems to be. Like the Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), these musicians seem able “to listen for what one does not understand”, as Vesaas put it in his final book The Boat In The Evening.
One might give all sort of reasons for the exploratory richness of such music, ranging from eg. the discovery of vast oil reserves in the early 1960s to the pedagogical brilliance of the jazz music teachers in Oslo and Trondheim (the latter city in particular, has developed a formidable reputation for the stimulating quality of its jazz education at university level). Or one could point to the influence of such long-established festivals as those at Bergen, Molde, Kongsberg and Voss, or the more recent Ultima Contemporary Music Festival in Oslo, and the positive impact of their various yearly commissions and awards on Norwegian musical life. New forces have flowed into the making of Norwegian music, whether from the impact of recent immigration policies or the increasingly assertive tenor of much Sami cultural life, the latter most vividly manifest in the music and songs of some-time Garbarek collaborator, singer Mari Boine. There is also the fact that, just as the legendary Club 7 in Oslo had a great impact on audiences in the 1970s, profiling a wide range of music, so too have recent clubs such as Oslo’s Blå (Blue) helped to create the sort of audience where categories may not seem that important any more (although last year’s Molde Festival precipitated a newspaper debate about the extent to which Blå-type music, often featuring DJs, could or could not be seen as jazz music).
Mixing genres has been part of Norwegian jazz-inflected music since at least the initial modern era of Garbarek and Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen. Today, a good deal of media attention is focussed on the dance or club-oriented combination of elements which may feature on Bugge Wesseltofts’ Jazzland label. Wesseltoft himself is able to combine a contemporary dance-inflected backbeat with some Jarrett-like dynamics, and bring some pleasingly subtle dynamics to his music (the last exemplified by tenor saxophonist – and graphic designer – Håkon Kornstad’s guest appearance on one track of Wesseltofts’s recent Moving release). Amongst all the media fuss that currently surrounds Wsseltoft, one should not forget how much a blues –based Norwegian musician such as guitarist Knut Reiersrud has long been able to synthesise a wide range of elements in his music, from gospel and blues to Norwegian folk. American jazz and the sort of Eastern scalar elements that contribute so much to the beauty of a track like Fjording, from the early 1990s Kirkelig Kulturverksted release Tramp.
The Grieg-like image of an evening-tinged expanse of mountain lake and reflected clouds that is projected on the cover of the 1990 Jazz På Norsk is still very relevant to the tenor of much Norwegian music today, whether it be the brave beauty of Terje Bjørklund’s tonally rooted writing on his Music for Strings album, Ketil Bjørnstad’s dream-like settings of the work of Finnish-Swedish poet Edith Södergran on the 1998 Kirkelig Kulturverksted Ett Liv (A Life) album, or the keening intensity of Terje Rypdal’s Double Concerto for two electric guitars and symphony orchestra, recorded for ECM in 1998. However, jazz or, more simply, music – in the Norwegian style means many (more) diverse things today.
Music in Norway now embraces the wide-ranging flair and humour of the Brazz Brother as well as the trip-hop grooves and ambient lyricism evident in Nils Petter Molvær’s late 1990s Khmer and Solid Ether ECM recordings, the improvisational fluidity and fire of Frode Gjerstad and Petter Wettre, Håkon Kornstad and Frode Nymo (hear the last-named with bassist Steinar Raknes and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen on the excellent Urban Connection release from 2001) and British guest Tony Oxley appearing at Blå with guitarist Ivar Grydeland and bassist Tommy Kluften; the reverie-rich lyricism of Garbarek and Rypdal, Arild Andersen and (especially) trumpeter Arve Henriksen – the measured beauty of whose recent Sakuteiki solo release on Rune Grammofon is matched only by his work in the outstanding Food quartet with among others British saxophonist Ian Bellamy and the distilled synthesis of density and translucency in this work with pianist Christian Wallumrød and sound processors Jan Bang and Erik Honorè on the extraordinary Birth Wish; the ongoing excellence of Karin Krog, bitter-sweet, pop-caressed yearnings of singer Silje Nergaard and existentially taut, mythically charged reflections of Sidsel Endresen, the wild abandon of percussionist PaoloVinaccia, bassist Arild Andersen and saxophonist tore Brunborg in collaboration with Sicilian singers on the 1996 live Oslo recording ‘Mbara Boom, and the tempered reflections of the saxophonist’s earlier suite Tid (Time), which featured Norma Winstone, the African-tinged exuberance of the Coloured Moods band (with one of the many excellent female vocalists in Norway today, Kristin Asbjørnsen, also to be heard on record in the Kvitretten and Krøyt ensembles) and the ascetic intensity of Garbarek’s various collaborations with The Hillard Ensemble; the wide-ranging fusion grooves of Terje Gewelt’s meeting with Billy Cobham on the 1999 Hide and Seek and the modern-mainstream joys of Kevin Dean’s Over at Ola’s (with ao. Keyboardist Dag Arnesen, bassist Bjørn Alterhaug and saxophonist Knut Riisnæs, whose brother Odd, incidentally is yet another fine Norwegian saxophonist); the bold mixture of jazz sextet string quartet and voice on Per Husby’s philosophically meditative and ecologically sensitive Notes for Nature of 1990 and the world-ranging yet crisply turned and jazz-inflected arrangements of Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Ochestra; the driving scratch’n’rap styled fun of today’s multi-layered post-modernist Jaga Jazzist band and the more “chops-oriented” genre-mixing sophistication of guitarist Jon Eberson’s recent Dreams That Went Astray release on Jazzland (featuring ao. Singer Beate Slettevold Lech, Pål “DJ Strangefruit” Nyhus on vinyl). And that’s only the tip of the iceberg… Of all the new labels active in Norway today, Rune Grammofon is perhaps the most provocative, ranging from re-workings of Nordheim to freshly configured improvisation and ambient soundscapes through to sonic rock and a beautiful revisioning of folk material in violinist Nils Økland’s Straum of 1999-2000. And like so much Norwegian music today, Rune Grammofon Records (marketed and distributed by EDM) feature graphic design and packaging as thoughtful as it is attractive.
With a population of some four and a half million, over the past decades Norway has managed to produce some of the most exciting genre-crossing music in the world. Once the snowball started in the 1960s by Krog and Garbarek, Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen got rolling, it soon took on the sort of identity that one encounters only in folk tales: big enough to sustain and develop itself, while at the sae time breaking into many, many – widely dispersed yet related – pieces.
Many (including me) would argue that, even though contemporary Norwegian music has not yet produced a performer on the poetic/innovative level of any of the Big Four of Garbarek, Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen, the sheer range of activity evident today suggests there may soon be a third “golden age” of Norwegian jazz, or new music. (The odds on this happening were increased recently when Moldavian pianist Misha Alperin moved to the Oslo area). Will the jazz/new music boom in Norway last? Can a population of only four and a half million support or sustain such levels of creativity for very long? Given the history of the past forty or so years, something tells me that the good people of Norway (or rather, their more than slightly crazy musician) are going to provide some strong and positive responses to all such questions.
Jan Garbarek I Took Up The Runes ECM
Misha Alperin North Story ECM
Arild Andersen Hyperborean ECM
Jon Balke/Magnetic North Further ECM
Biosphere/Deathprod Nordheim Transformed ECM
Mari Boine Gula, Gula Real World
Terje Bjørklund Music For Strings Hemera
Ketil Bjørnstad Water Stories ECM
Kari Bremnes Løsrivelse Kirkelig Kulturverksted
Jon Eberson Dreams That Went Astray Jazzland
Tore Elgarøy The Sound of the Sun Rune Grammofon
Sidsel Endresen Undertow Jazzland
Svein Finnerud Sounds and Sights Resonant Music
Jan Garbarek Group Afric Pepperbird ECM
Arve Henriksen Sakuteiki Rune Grammofon
Terje Isungset Reise NOR
Karin Krog Jubilee. The Best Of Thirty Years Verve
Paal Nilssen-Love Sticks and Stones SOFA
Masqualero Re.Enter ECM
Nils Petter Molvær Khmer ECM
Silje Nergaard At First Light Universal
Nils Økland Straum Rune Grammofon
Arne Nordheim Electric Rune Grammofon
Knut Reiersrud Tramp Kirkelig Kulturverksted
Terje Rypdal Skywards ECM
Harald Sæverud Complete Piano Music vol.2 Victoria
Karl Seglem Rit NOR
Trygve Seim Different Rivers ECM
Geirr Tveitt Suite nr. 1 SIMAX
Bugge Wesseltoft Moving Jazzland
Fartein Valen The Eternal Rune Grammofon
Various (including Egil Kapstad) Jazz På Norsk Gemini
Various The Sweet Sunny North vols. 1 & 2 Shanachie
Various (Janson/Toresen/Anton Thommessen/Hegdal/Hagerup/Bull/Asheim/Wallin)
New Music From Norway Norsk Komponistforening
Various Popofoni Aurora
Various Love Comes Shining Over the Mountain Rune Grammofon
Jan Erik Vold Ingentings Bjelle (Nothing’s Bell) PAM
Wallumrød/Henriksen/Bang/Honore Birth Wish BMG Panovision Series
Petter Wettre Trio Meet The Locals Resonant Music
Thomas Widerberg Visual Landscapes TWCD
Food Veggie Rune Grammofon
Many thanks to Tom Bækkerud, Tor Hammerø and Finn J. Kramer-Johansen for their help in the research of this article.