The day before guitarist/composer Hedvig Mollestad and her six-person band headlined at the 46th annual Vossa Jazz Festival (April 12-14), the group went hang-gliding in the mountains surrounding Voss, Norway. A small village on the train line between Bergen and Oslo, Voss is a popular center for extreme sports—longboarding, dirt biking, BASE jumping—and the local delicacy is half a roasted sheep’s head, eye intact. Not a place for the faint of heart.

The Voss approach to music festivals is similarly fearless. Each year at Eastertime thousands of concert-goers descend on the village for three days of jazz, folk, and world music spread across 12 venues, and among the many performances are three commissioned world premieres, sponsored by the Arts Council of Norway. Mollestad was this year’s recipient of the most prestigious commission—the Tinginsverket.

Under the auspices of the Tinginsverket, Mollestad had the luxury of expanding outside of her usual guitar trio format, so she took away the bass and added two keyboards, a trumpet, and percussion. These changes in instrumentation allowed her to explore rhythmic variations beyond the locked-in rock-jazz grooves she’s known for; during her set on the second evening of the festival she moved her band neatly through odd meters, free sections, and common time with nary a blip. Absent the bass, keyboardist Marte Eberson bore most of the responsibility for the group pulse; her chunky chords provided the uplift on which trumpeter Susana Santos Silva could soar. The mix didn’t necessarily come effortlessly, though—with so many acoustic instruments to take into account Mollestad had to pull back on her usual full-bore electronics. New compositional ideas rose to the fore as a result.

“I wanted it to be—not tricky, but unexpected,” Mollestad explained in a post-concert interview.

The Vossa Jazz Festival is rife with the unexpected. Day One programming featured Mali singer Salid Keita and his large ensemble—which includes the celebrated kora player Mamadou Diabaté—pushing West African beats and exhorting the audience to dance; saxophonist Karl Seglem feeling his way through modal textures and inventive modern jazz forms; Kaada/Storløkken, the keyboardist duo of John Erik Kaada and Ståle Storløkken, recipients of a secondary commission for their gorgeously cinematic pianism; Norwegian indie pop icon Thea Hjmeland; and the neo-soul group Fieh, which leapt into the spotlight with their first release less than two years ago—a Garageband-recorded single called “Glu.” This breathless array represents less than half of the performances that day.     

For good or bad, many of the concerts overlap, and it’s impossible to take in all of them. So the biggest challenge at Vossa Jazz might not be in negotiating a landing on the side of a mountain or in staring down a plated barnyard animal, but in choosing which concerts to attend.

A strong recommendation would be to prioritize any of the concerts that draw on Norway’s indigenous music—especially if roots music appeals. One isn’t likely to hear the langeleik (a kind of zither), the Hardanger fiddle (a violin with eight strings), or the bukkehorn (a goat’s horn) much outside of Norway.

To name a couple of contenders for must-hear national artists: The vocal-strings duo Sudan Dudan mixes Norse folk music with Americana, singing in close two-part harmony against trim, steadily picked accompaniment in the guitar and the langeleik, with twangy interjections from the munnharpe (a mouth harp). The setting for their Day Two afternoon concert—the Finnesloftet, a medieval banquet hall and the oldest secular building in Norway—only enhanced the otherworldly affect of their eerily plaintive vocals and hypnotic thrumming.

Later in the day, accordionist Frode Haltli presented Avant Folk, his latest performance project, in a commissioned set. The 10-person group—diverse in age, gender, and musical backgrounds—moved through Halti’s improvisation-based compositions, culling ideas from not only Norwegian folk idioms, but from classical music, modern jazz, and the avant garde. These long, through-composed pieces benefited from contrasting instrumental solos and exciting shifts in dynamics and provided a compelling example of meta-genre concertizing.

For jazz holdouts, trumpeter Mathias Eick—by far the most straight-ahead jazz musician of festival’s lot—put in two appearances: one with his quintet on Day Two and a second with fellow ECM recording artists, saxophonist Trygve Seim and pianist Jon Balke, on Day Three. Eick, a meticulous player with a pristine tone, projects an understated emotionality when he performs; such accessibility contributes greatly to Eick’s thriving international career.

While Eick and his quintet played in the Gamlekinoen, a former movie theater turned performance space, the electronica duo Recomposed set up in the festival’s club space. Here, co-creators Iain Chambers and Dan Nicholls used audio samples of Vossa Jazz live performances to fashion wholly new auditory experiences in real time, disrupting (in a most amiable way) accepted notions of composition and authorship.

Mollestad’s sound check from earlier in the day was one of the samples that Chambers and Nicholls used that night. In a roundabout way, the Recomposed piece satisfies one of Mollestad’s ambitions for her commissioned piece—that it live on beyond the Vossa Jazz Festival.

“I don’t want it to be a one-off,” she asserted. “I want it to have legs.”

She feels differently about the hang-gliding, however. “I’m really happy on the ground,” she concluded.

(Reprinted from Downbeat Online 19 April 2019)