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Vossa Jazz 2023 review: Norwegian festival’s 50th-anniversary edition keeps traditional music close | reviews, news & interviews

Vossa Jazz 2023 review: Norwegian festival’s 50th-anniversary edition keeps traditional music close

Vossa Jazz 2023 review: Norwegian festival’s 50th-anniversary edition keeps traditional music close

Ane Brun, Nils Petter Molvær and Martha Wainwright are amongst those gathering in the mountains

Nils Petter Molvær is in the groove at Vossa Jazz 2023Vossa Jazz/Runhild Heggem

Two drummers are drumming. One held the beat on ABBA’s “Super Trouper”. He is Sweden’s Per Lindvall, more usually associated with jazz. The other is Norway’s Rune Arnesen, whose recording credits are also stylistically varied. Locked-in tight together, their groove provides the backbone for a band led by Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, whose 1996 album Khmer was his first for the ECM label. This is a live revisitation of the album.

Also in the seven-piece outfit on stage is guitarist Eivind Aarset, who was on the album. Though there are solos, the groove binds together a hard-hitting, immersive experience allied with trip-hop but rooted in jazz. Right now, over two decades on, it’s heavier than the album.

Vossa Jazz 2023_Martha Wainwright_Olav AgaThe special performance is for the 50th-anniversary edition of the Vossa Jazz festival, held in the small lakeside Norwegian town of Vossevangen – Voss is the county; the name of the region is interchangeable with the town’s. While as immersive as the Khmer show, the festival is integral to the town yet doesn’t swamp it. Voss is used to visitors. Three large hotels fringing the Vossvatnet lake suggest there might be more of interest here than a once-a-year jazz festival. Above the just-less than 7000 population town, accessed by cable car, are 23 ski slopes on snow-topped mountains, the highest run at 964 metres above sea level. Voss itself, just-over an hour inland by train from Bergen, is at a level of around 56m. (pictured right, Martha Wainwright at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Olav Aga)

Surprisingly, it turns out that the skiing and the festival are intertwined. In 1973, local jazz fans Asle Haaland and Lars Mossefinn went to the Montreux Jazz Festival and thought “it’s on a lake, we’ve got a lake, we can do this in Voss”. Knowing people would be in town for that December’s Alpine skiing World Cup, they put on the festival at the same time. Despite accommodation problems – hotels were fully booked for the skiing – it worked, so Vossa Jazz became an annual event. In 1986 the dates shifted to the weekend before Easter, a less-chilly time of year. Nonetheless, for this major event’s anniversary the temperature gets down to minus-two centigrade and tops out at around seven. The lake stays frozen, as do piles of kerbside snow.

Vossa Jazz 2023_Landslaget for spelemenn _Runhild HeggemAs well as the music it’s named after, Vossa Jazz has also celebrated traditional music from its beginning. This year is also the 100th anniversary of Norway's traditional music body FolkOrg, so an extraordinary big band of jazz and folk players and singers has been brought together. Billed as Landslaget for spelemenn – the national team of folk players – a hugely entertaining show is balanced towards folk but has plenty of space for jazz. Pieces played in specially designed kit range from dances to circular melodies emanating from the Hardanger Fiddle, with its droning, sympathetic strings: Hardanger is one region over to south. (pictured left, the Landslaget for spelemenn show at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Runhild Heggem)

Vossa Jazz, then, is slippery. It never was and still isn’t about compartmentalisation. The audience collects jazz-heads, folks in town from Bergen for the skiing and catholic music fans. Contrasting styles of music are welcome.

Vossa Jazz 2023_Sondre Lerche_Olav AgaCorroborating this, Undergrünnen, playing in the yard beside the lovely, wood-lined 1950’s cinema Gamlekinoen, deal in a hi-watt, psych-inclined rock along the lines of Kula Shaker and Deep Purple had they shaken hands with Sweden’s Dungen and then taken a detour into Acid Jazz territory. There’s even less jazz at hand with major Norwegian star Sondra Lerche in the ballroom of The Park Hotel. While celebrating his recent album Avatars Of Love, sections of the audience melt in the presence of these romantic songs.(pictured right, Sondra Lerche at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Olav Aga)

Not so dreamily, Martha Wainwright stands framed by an arch under statue of Jesus in the Vangskyrkja, the town church which was completed in 1277. The octagonal wooden tower is unique in Norway, its timber hewn by axe rather than sawn. Wainwright is a forthright presence, giving so much it’s hard not to wonder how she can do this night after night. The stone-walled church is Lutheran but her fieriness feels at home in this space as her songs though specific to her experiences have, as she points out, universal themes – especially figuring what comes with aging.

Vossa Jazz 2023_Ane Brun_Olav AgaAt the other smaller venues – the Khmer and Landslaget for spelemenn concerts took place at the Idretshall, the town’s sports hall – fieriness was also to the fore with bands which were jazz as such. In the Pentagon, a large basement bar/restaurant in the basement of the seemingly limitless Park Hotel, Bushman’s Revenge reframe free jazz in a hard rock, guitar, bass and drums context with the pep of a band just out of the gate, with excess energy to burn – since 2007 there have been nine studio albums but there’s no sign of any brakes. Team Hegdal share this liveliness – and, in Gard Nilssen, sport the same drummer as Bushman’s Revenge – and their frontline is the duels and duets between clarinettists/sax players André Roligheten and Eirik Hegdal. Nilssen and double bassist Ole Morten Vågan just-about keep it grounded. The Source, playing as The Source Of Voss, have been around for 30 years and are on at yet another of the Park’s rooms, the Jazzklubben. Again there’s that head scratch: after such a time how can these four players continue confronting the music with such vigour? (pictured left, Ane Brun at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Olav Aga)

Vossa Jazz 2023_Moskus collaboration_ Runhild HeggemJazzklubben is also the setting for the trio Moskus’s collaboration with guitarist Stein Urheim and electronic manipulator/vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll. Billed as Branches & Limits, what they come up with is unique and, overall, indefinable. Lengthy passages nod to Takk-era sigur rós, and there are also elements of liturgical harmonium music, Frippertronics, motorik and Jon Hassell’s Forth World Music. An enchanting, engrossing experience. On the same stage, Australian trio Trichotomy are engaged, engaging and require less figuring out – though is that some of “MacArthur Park” in Sean Foran’s piano? (pictured right, the Moskus collaboration show at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Runhild Heggem)

Out of the hotel and back in Idretshall, Mari Kvien Brunvoll’s sister Ane Brun is on stage before a packed crowd. Accompanied by pianist/keyboard player Marte Eberson, she commands yet is restrained. She moves sweepingly with the drama provided by the songs themselves – a song like “It All Starts With One” is performed sparingly as an entreaty where originally on record it was supported by full, ebbing and flowing arrangement.

Vossa Jazz 2023_sagn Arild Andersen_ Kai FlatekvålA regular aspect of each year’s Vossa Jazz is the Tingingsverk – the commissioned work. This year, it is hotly tipped guitarist Oddrun Lilja Jonsdottir’s presumably autobiographical I, musically dropping in on Ethiopian jazz, North African music and soul and, subject wise, drawing from the medieval Icelandic poem “Lilja” (the lily). (pictured left, Arild Andersen at Vossa Jazz 2023, photo by Vossa Jazz/Olav Aga)

Back in 1990, the Tingingsverk was double bassist Arild Andersen’s Sagn which, in keeping with the festival’s spirit, teamed jazz with traditional music. In 2023 and performed at Idretshall, it is a work shifting seamlessly from sea-shanty like melodies to free-jazz extemporisation with room for traditional vocalist Kirsten Bråten Berg. It’s a suite reframing Norway’s musical heritage in a jazz context – building on what started with Dexter Gordon’s ground-breaking appearance with fiddle player Ivar Medaas to play the folk song “Kjerringa med staven” at the 1964 Molde Jazz Festival. From that point, jazz and Norway’s traditional music were never far.

Vossa Jazz is about jazz, and isn’t about jazz. Its 50th year makes it clear that while individualistic singer-songwriters like Ane Brun, Sondre Lerche and Martha Wainwright and boundary pushers like Bushman’s Revenge, Moskus and Team Hegdal neatly slot in with the festival’s delightful inclusivity, there’s a strand which wants to keep Norway and its own music to hand; an element which can’t help but tap into a sensibility where the Kveding singing style or the Hardanger fiddle are kept within reach. But here, surrounded by the mountains and beside the water of inland Norway, how could it be otherwise?

@MrKieronTyler

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