The weekend of March 23-25 the mist lay heavy on the mountains, fjords, and frozen lakes surrounding Vossevangen, Norway, the setting for the 45th annual Vossa Jazz Festival. Despite the town’s diminutive size—Vossevangen and its broader municipality claim only 14,000 inhabitants—each day hundreds of ticketholders crowded into the festival’s several venues, all just a short walk from each other along a picturesque center street.
The festival headliners played the main stage at the Park Hotel, an expansive building that boasts four sophisticated performance spaces of varying sizes. On day one, a lone musician stood down center on the darkened main stage and opened the first show with a long, sonorous note sounded on the wooden lur, a traditional Norwegian horn (looks like a didge, sounds like a trumpet). The lur player slipped into a sweet, solemn folk melody that faded into whistles and shouts from the audience, a surprisingly apt lead-in to the premiere of an effects-laced, rhythmically driving jazz composition by bassist Arild Andersen and his quartet. Andersen is one of Norway’s most internationally renowned jazz musicians; he tours constantly, and on the day of this concert, his label, ECM, was releasing his latest album, In-House Science. (Just a few days after this Vossa Jazz premiere, Andersen played the launch concert at Blue Note Tokyo.)
While it’s the fluid integration of traditional Norwegian sounds and modern jazz that distinguishes Vossa Jazz among music festivals, curator Trude Storheim’s vision for the event is nothing if not all-embracing. Her programming across the festival’s 35+ performances featured avant garde, big band, experimental, folk, pop, and world musicians, many of them holders of Spellemannprisen, the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammys. Besides Andersen, the main stage alone welcomed Norwegian acts as diverse as hip-hop star Lars Vaular, wildly popular folk singer Ingebjørg Bratland, and saxophone/clarinet player Eirik Hegdal, former artistic director of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. These concerts, in a room seating almost 1,000 people, were standing room only.
Vossa Jazz is also known for its Tingingsverket, the most prominent jazz commission in Norway. This year the honor went to Hegdal, who debuted “Musical Balloon,” his composition for six players, on the festival’s second evening. In this work, Hegdal pulled several musical components together into one clean, refreshing musical statement: percussive free improv, a recurring swing motif, horns trilling in tight harmony, neat syncopated structures, and surprising melodic leaps as a testament to the joy of sound. His players, all former TJO bandmates, had generous solo time, with current TJO artistic director and bassist Ole Morten Vågan, trumpeter Eivind Lønning, vocalist/guitarist Nils Olav Johansen, vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl, and drummer Jon Fält. While this exhilarating group performed, the audience listened rapt, as if watching a balloon disappear into the sky.
In keeping with Storheim’s vision, this year the festival added to its list of commissioned works. Four artists or groups received backing for their festival premieres: Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori for his impressionistic “The Net of Indra”; folk multi-instrumentalist Anders Roine and the avant garde band Skadedyr for the environmentally aware “Mutationes Tempestas”; the folk-jazz quintet Hildo, for a lilting homage to the Voss Church; and HP Gunderson and The Last Hurrah (!!), a U.S.-Norwegian band fronted by singer Maesa Pullmann, for the blues-soaked piece “Los Angeles.”
The smaller venues offered more subdued contexts for the audiences to experience the festival’s offerings. The Osasalen, a small auditorium in the music school Ole Bull Akadamiet, transformed into a cozy, lamp-lit salon for the trio 1982; in the soothing atmosphere of the room violinist Nils Økland’s controlled, delicate bowing, organist Sigbjørn Apeland’s deeply felt harmonies, and percussionist Øyvind Skarbø’s rhythmic abstractions evolved into a transcendent meditation. In Vangskyrkja, the 13-century Voss Church in the center of town, the vocal duo Kira Skov and Maria Faust sang from their album In The Beginning, a musical summoning of the sacred and the folkloric, backed by a traditional choir and a modern horn section. In Gamlekinoen, a converted movie theater, singer/violinist Sigrid Moldestad offered moving renditions of the traditional Norwegian folk music that has earned her three Spellemannprisen. And in Finnesloftet, one of Norway’s oldest non-religious buildings, Danish drummer Kresten Osgood explored the outer edges of percussive sound.
Also in Gamlekinoen, the irrepressible British composer/multi-instrumentalist Django Bates teamed up with the Bergen Big Band, now in its 26th year, to visit his previous work with the innovative swing orchestra Loose Tubes, a 1980s jazz phenomenon in Great Britain. Along with Loose Tubes drummer Martin France and flutist Eddie Palmer, Bates re-created his tune “Yellow Hill,” a bright, horn-focused composition and one of the biggest hits from the orchestra’s eponymous first album in 1985. On the final tune of the set, Bates had the horn section exit through the audience, riffing through a free improvisation—a thrilling close to the Gamlekinoen lineup on the festival’s final day.
Almost all of the performers at Vossa Jazz 2018 hailed from Scandinavia or, like Bates and Pullman, participated in creative collaborations with Scandinavian musicians. The exceptions to this rule provided a smattering of contrast with the Nordic sounds: American avant garde guitarist Mary Halvorson led her ensemble Code Girl in a blazing set behind free improv singer Amirtha Kidambi, and South Korean singer Youn Sun Nah showed off her wide-ranging vocal skills in an eclectic repertoire of revamped pop/rock tunes, French chanson, and contemporary jazz.
During the Easter season, the usual time of the Vossa Jazz Festival, the town of Vossevangen still lies wrapped in a wintry Nordic beauty. The festival rooms, though, ring with a Nordic beauty of a different sort—one of artistic connection, musical exploration, and cultural celebration. Equally dazzling.