May 10 – 15, 2022
In reality, Trondheim lies in central Norway, but this city still feels very northern in relation to those other festival homes of Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, and Molde. Trondheim Jazzfest took on its present name in 1998, but has roots that spread back to 1980. Spanning a week, it colonizes a host of city-wide venues, including theaters, cafés, bars, and arts centers.
One of the city’s chief exports is the Trondheim Jazzorkester, which has also played regular concerts on the Norwegian festival scene since its formation in 1999. It is extremely versatile, with a malleable instrumentation that facilitates wildly different stylistic possibilities. Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and Jason Moran represent their more mainline collaborators, but the Orkester has also worked with Swiss math-rock combo The MaxX, for instance.
The Canadian New Yorker saxophonist Anna Webber joined the Orkester for this Jazzfest, composing her eight-part Aural Topography for a line-up that featured such notable players as saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, keyboardist Liz Kosack, bassist Ole Morten Vågan, and drummer Hans Hulbækmo. The twelve-piece grouping had doubled drums, basses, keys, and tubas, initiating a certain sonic bias and balance from the outset. This performance in the Dokkhuset waterside venue had been delayed since its original date of 2021.
Webber has been writing large ensemble works for around a decade, and this latest piece represents a significant pinnacle of expression. Initially conducting, Webber cast Rasmussen as lead saxophonist, climbing to extreme high notes, as the Jazzorkester made isolated power-bursts, clipped with percussive marks from the drum skins and the bows of the upright basses. There was a gagaku sparseness, notated, but with sounds taken from a free improvisation vocabulary. A symmetry of twinned instruments still held variety, as accordion was matched with electric keyboards and electronics, while percussionist Matilda Rolfsson impressed with her specialized small-gongs-dragged-edgewise-across-skins technique. There was a Braxton-ish swoop of volume and capering, separated phrases, punctuated by brief pauses, as Webber picked up her tenor saxophone, her opening solo providing the most jazz-based articulation of the entire set.
Kosack’s electro-palette was imaginatively abrasive, as she left space-traces in her wake. The percussionists investigated woody-clusters, then most of the band members suddenly sang in a wordless unity. Rasmussen soloed across a pointillist section, providing plap-hup alto blurts, as an oddly New Orleans party groove emerged—only to end its life as a Louis Andriessen styled stutter. Rasmussen serenaded with a vibrato reed-shake, as the twinned tubas recalled the sound palette of Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus. Another notable stretch had group whistling, high-skating accordion, tiny electro-chirps, and Webber soloing on flute.
By complete contrast, guitarist Lage Lund guested with the band of saxophonist Petter Wettre, both of these players being transplanted Norwegians. They appeared in the side-theater of the DIGS Café, with Daniel Franck (bass) and Jakob Høyer (drums). Smoky tenor formed a relaxed vibration, with Lund operating inside a traditional guitar tone, swingin’ and luminous, fleet, and with an almost indiscernible frisson of mild distortion. Notes resonated fleetingly, as Lund held onto them slightly longer than most players would, before floating off on a fresh jet stream. He explored smoothly enunciated angularities, with a speed-bop fluency. Lund and Wettre made slickly dueling exchanges, toward “I Remember You,” with the guitarist sitting out for a while. Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” featured singing harmonic decoration, courtesy of Lund, with Wettre arriving at an a capella tenor conclusion.
The Samfundet student building, with its warren of potential performing spaces and retro-quirky interior design, hosted a festival within a festival on the Friday and Saturday evenings, with highlights provided by the Norwegian quartet Kalle and the French-Belgian trio of Darrifourcq/Hermia/Ceccaldi. Both of these represented extremities of dynamic contrast, with the latter being more jazz/improvisation-based.
Kalle involved an unusual combination of drums, guitar, saxophone, and heavily electronicized tuba, the latter played by the highly imaginative Heida Mobeck, utilizing brutally low bass lines and sheer abstract sonic re-forming. Guitarist Martin Miguel Tonne is also a member of rock quartet Pom Poko, those masters of intricate melodic angularity, here increasing the depth and unpredictability of the Kalle combination.
Sylvain Darrifourcq, Manuel Hermia, and Valentin Ceccaldi use drums, tenor saxophone, and cello, often dense with stop-start jolts, tearing out the ears with waylaying friction assaults, then operating with a spectral-waif insubstantiality. Their heavy riffs held appeal outside of jazz, but their quieter stretches operated within the most extreme zone of minimalist improvisational caressing. Their compositions sound like improvisations, but if we (wisely) catch them several times, recurrences can be gleaned.
On a lighter note, the Jazzfest concluded with a large band show from Stian Carstensen, known for his Balkan-jazz-speed-metal Trondheim outfit Farmers Market, together since 1991. He moves from accordion to guitar to keyboards to banjo to low whistle, singing and directing a band that includes conventional strings, as well as harp and cimbalom. It’s an exotic, sometimes kitschy or comedic spread, virtuosic in execution, casual in intent, played to a crowded Byscenen, which had the strong whiff of a standing-room rock venue.
This was a strong return to the full Trondheim lineup of old, (meaning pre-2020), also including one of the best Jan Garbarek performances witnessed by your scribe, as well as fresh discovery, the Synesthetic 4, a Vienna foursome who shuffled no wave guitar contortions, Dada vocalizations, labyrinthine clarinet solos, and nervy funk rhythms. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten offered their new band, the Guts and Skins Octet, with its three-quarters female international horn front-line, as well as Alexander Hawkins on piano and Hammond B3 organ. Sensitized free rabble frequently gave way to intense rumination, or drone waves, or Afro-funk exultation, this ensemble catering to many tastes, without compromise. Fearsome!