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Straight out of Oslo

Stuart Nicholson takes the pulse of the Norwegian capital’s underground jazz scene

05/08/2004 :: There’s a quaint custom in Oslo. In winter as the hours of daylight gets less and less, places of business put two big candles on either side of their entrances to show passers by, hunched against the snow, they are open for trade. At the Club Bla, on the east side of the city in a run down industrial section, the candles are not lit until 10pm. But an hour before opening a crowd of young people begin to queue. By the time the candles are lit, the crowd stretches around the block. But it’s not a rock club, a folk club or a rave, it’s a jazz club. The crowd are queuing to see keyboard player Bugge Wesseltoft’s group interacting with a DJ, improvising grooves that swing with precisely focused abandon, grooves that come out of German techno, British drum ‘n’ bass and jungle and seem to call out for dynamic jazz improv to flow over them.

Wesseltoft and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, close friends, were both in a group in the early 1990s and started experimenting with the rhythms of club culture around the same time. In 1997 Molvaer spearheaded the sound of the Norwegian underground across Europe with Khmer which was followed by Wesseltoft’s album New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland) – which has Molvaer guesting on a couple of tracks.

‘The fact that Jan Garbarek and Jon Christensen and these musicians were world famous, was a very important point for me when I decided to go out on my own,’ says Wesseltoft. ‘But on the other hand I did not really want to copy their style, I wanted to do something different but still keep the tradition I had experienced from them. I was into electronic stuff, which was not so common in the Norwegian jazz at that time, and I always enjoyed groovy music, so what I tried to do was a mixture of groovy music, but still of cource trying to keep the atmosphere from the Nordic jazz thing.’ Wesseltoft formed his own label Jazzland to feature his music, and one of his first signings ws Eivind Aarset, something of a guitar legend in Norway. Commissioned to produce a new work for Maijazz 97, Aarset composed ‘7’, which subsequently became Electronique Noir (Jazzland), and is a classic. Quite simply it numbers among the great post-Miles recordings of jazz-rock and brings the ethos of Hendrix-through-Miles Davis into the new millenium.

‘I have also been working for a very long time with electronics, I wanted to explore that,’ says Aarset. ‘I went into the project wanting to go in a specific direction, focus in on sounds, and at the same time not losing focus on energy and the thoughts behind sound that music has to have. To me on guitar, there must be energy, at the same time depth and meaning.’

Yet Jazzland, with its brilliant roster of talent including Audun Kleive, the dynamic drummer from Terje Rypdal’s now legendary Chasers band of the late 1980s, Jon Balke, vocalist Sidsel Endresen and the brilliant group Wibutee (new album already i the works – keep an eye out for it), is not the only label documenting music from the Norwegian underground.

Rune Grammofon, distributed by ECM, covers a wide range of styles, from musique concrete to alternate rock. With distinctive cover art by Kim Hiorthey, the label reflects the remarkble diversity of the Oslo underground of which jazz is a part, including the brilliant electro-acoustic improvisers Super Silent. Small Town Supersound is home to Jaga Jazzist, the best live act in jazz today by a country mile whose key arranger and composer Lars Horntveth has recently brought out his own album Pooka that pushes in several directions at once, yet moves to the irrepressible rythms of his irrepressible playing on everything from bass clarinet to guita, and from keyboards to violin. France to has produced some serious jazz grooves. Trumpeter Erik Truffaz’s Bending New Corners (Blue Note) showed how the new beats of popular culture can reinvigorate improvisation, while tenor saxophonist Julien Lourau’s Gambit (Warner Jazz) crossed the warp from the tried and tested to urban tribal rhythms of the future. Pianist Laurent de Wilde’s Time 4 Change (Warner Jazz) was a well conceived update of hard bop that shows how the new rhythms inspire soloist Flavio Boltro on trumpet and Gael Horellou on alto. The Excellent NoJazz, whose album of the same name (Warner Bros) has tracks such as ‘Jungle Out’ and ‘Medina,’ showed how a combination of club culture rhythms, ambient sweeps and improvisation could give jazz contemporary relevence. Metropolitan Jazz Affair’s new album MJA is worth checking out (Amiata Records), not every track a gem, but when they’re good they’re very good. And at this year’s Bath Festival, trumpeter Dominic Ntoumos produced an excellent set combining jungle, hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass. In fact, the music of the Norwegian jazz underground has sparked something right across Europe that shows no sign of stopping. This is jazz which has relevance to its time. It’s not what jazz used to be, it’s what jazz can become and people are prepared to queue around the block to hear it.

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