The Jazz.com Blog
April 22, 2009 · 0 comments
Earlier this week, jazz.com featured part one of Stuart Nicholson’s review of the Vossa Jazz Festival. Today we conclude his coverage with his account of a performance by two leading Norwegian jazz vocalists—both major talents who deserve to be better known outside of Europe—Solveig Slettahjell and Silje Nergaard. T.G.
This year, Vossa Jazz presented two major Norwegian vocal talents, Solveig Slettahjell on Saturday night and Silje Nergaard on Sunday night. Both are at key stages of their careers, and both have made a significant impact on Scandinavian jazz.
Solveig Slettahjell arrived out of the Norwegian Academy of Music almost fully formed. She had her own concept and a mature idealism with which to realize it. Her debut album Slow Motion Quintet from 2001 revealed a singer with a startlingly original approach. Turning to the standards repertoire, she slowed the tempos down to an achingly slow pulse. Short notes became long notes and long notes became even longer but Slettahjell showed she had the voice, the intonation and phrasing to draw deep meaning from the words and melodies she sang (for vocalists and instrumentalists alike, playing at slow tempi without heading for the sanctuary of double time as quickly as possible is a real challenge).
Her accompanists, the Slow Motion Orchestra (trumpet, piano – Morten Qvenild, who has his own group In the Country – bass and drums), subtly deconstructed each song, so that singer and band seemed in parallel musical universes that mysteriously converged at key cadences. It was original approach and suggested huge potential.
That was realized in 2004 with Silver, that numbers among the great jazz vocal albums of the last twenty years. The choice of material was spot-on, each song responded to her original approach and she even included a couple of originals. In retrospect, this fine album came too early in her career. Like a fiction writer’s blockbusting debut, the question became “How do you follow that?” With difficulty seemed to be the answer.
However, inspired by the Vossa Jazz commission, Sletahjell has reconvened her Slow Motion Orchestra, augmented with a guitar and additional keyboards, and has produced a major work in “Tingingsverk,” which will be toured around Norway this fall. Additional voices (four male, two female) were whistled up and while essences of Country and Western lingered in the air from time to time it was great to see the singer returning to her creative best and taking on new challenges. Indeed, surpassing Silver now might not be the bridge too far it once seemed.
Silje Nergaard has had her share of success as well. The only jazz artist to have two albums shoot to No. 1 on the Norwegian album chart within a week of release over the heads of the likes of Madonna, Beyonce and Jay Z, she has, like Sletahjell, won several awards in her native Norway. Yet albums such as Port of Call, At First Light, Nightwatch and Darkness Out of the Blue, despite achieving remarkable sales, all seemed works in progress, signposts along the road to some yet to be imagined destination.
An idea of what that destination might be comes with her current release, A Thousand True Stories, recorded with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, and arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza. Nergaard considers herself a songwriter as much as a singer, and on A Thousand True Stories the songwriter took precedence over the singer. And the songwriter certainly didn’t do any favours for the singer with some awkward intervals which she fearlessly negotiated. With lyrics by her long-time collaborator Mike McGurk that were often dark and rich in meaning she has produced her best work to date.
Her Vossa Jazz appearance was her first performance of the album with her regular group, which comprises Helge Lien on piano, Håvar Bendiksen on guitar, Finn Guttormsen on bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums. On stage for 90 minutes, it was an impressive performance by both singer and ensemble. Helge Lien revealed what an accomplished all round musician he was with a couple of inspirational solos, while Håvar Bendiksen showed the maturity and ease of execution of someone twice his youthful years.
Nergaard’s voice has matured since her last release in 2007; no longer does she seem the ingénue contemplating the end of a love affair she had on earlier albums; now she sings with the authority of a woman who has survived the pain and sadness life’s experiences has thrown her way. When she sings of how love has died in “A Thousand True Stories” there is an emotional realism that adds extra depth to the song. It was a performance that probably would have been impossible five years ago, but now she seemed every bit the artist whose time has come.
In a festival not short of highlights, Vossa Jazz saved the best instrumental performance until last when Andy Emler’s Megaoctet from Paris provoked a standing ovation. Nordic Cool doesn’t usually countenance that sort of thing, but this was a bravura performance full of wit, originality and considerable musical accomplishment. On the festival circuit it is not unknown for musicians of a certain age to coast a little, and as in the game of Monopoly, collect the money as they go past “Go.”
Not so pianist Andy Emler’s ensemble. In what amounted to an all-star ensemble of some of the finest musicians on the Paris jazz scene, they lived up to their reputations and then some. Dizzying arrangements that seemed on the verge of spinning out of control were contrasted by moments of witty Gallic humour. Alto saxophonists Thomas de Pourquery and Phillipe Sellam played with such energy, zeal and invention they seemed to have imbibed the elixir of eternal youth rather than the local beer. With drummer Eric Echampard underlining the point by lifting the soloists and ensembles to ever greater deeds of derring do, the ovation at the end was a fitting climax to a festival that started off well and never let up.
Showing us new ways of thinking and feeling about jazz may be the validating task of an artist, but at a jazz festival it is also the task of the festival director. Trude Storheim at Vossa Jazz succeeded in doing that with a festival that revealed the myriad of fascinating and exciting ways jazz is developing at the hands of artists intent on showing their own identity, many of whom are not known beyond their national borders. It was quite an experience.
This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson