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Birth of the cool II
Norwegians rule at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

Despite the presence of jazz big shots (Wynton Marsalis), world-music sensations (Orquesta Aragón), and pop superstars (Lauryn Hill), some of the most compelling music made at the 23rd edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (which ended this past Saturday) was by a group of unassuming blue-eyed and soft-spoken Norwegians.

Their names are unfamiliar to most American ears: Nils Petter Molvaer, Sidsel Endresen, Eivind Aarset, Ketil Bjørnstad. And many of their albums are not available on these shores. (On the other hand, the Swedish piano trio E.S.T. have been making inroads in the US on Sony; they played Montreal after I left.) Still, their music is worth searching out (Amazon UK stocks it at Working in a traditionally and perhaps indelibly American genre, they have created a musical voice that’s neither a pale imitation of stateside playing nor a perfunctory rejection of it. Influenced as much by ambient music, contemporary electronica, indigenous folk melodies, and classical minimalism as by traditional jazz improvisation, these Nordic artists are bringing a frosty, restrained sensibility that registers with their geographic and cultural climate. Call it birth of the cool, part two.

Scandinavian jazz musicians have of course been garnering global praise since the ’70s, when the influential German label ECM began to record and release their work: think Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson, and Terje Rypdal. But to American ears, many of these albums are marred by a gooey new-age influence — maudlin sax tones and soothing synth pads that position the music uncomfortably close to Kenny G territory. Such was the case in Montreal with fiftysomething Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad. Performing a cycle of songs from his latest album, Grace (Emarcy/Universal), Bjørnstad and the rest of his group (guitar, singer, samples/electronics) made music that sounded like an unholy alliance of Moby, Mozart, and Enya. Sporting poetry by John Donne set to lightly drifting classical-pop cadences, it lacked any kind of harmonic drive or melodic tension: though the music yearned for spiritual depth, it achieved only saccharine sentiment.

Scandinavian performers of the next generation, however, have escaped the dreaded "new age" tag. Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer performed a late-night set in Montreal that easily traversed the chasm between jazz and electronica. Fronting a piano-less sextet (including two musicians working turntables, samplers, and electronics), Molvaer came up with a sound that suggested In a Silent Way for the post-rave generation: long-form songs featuring simple harmonic movement, hypnotizing vamps, and minor-key melodic riffs. Except that instead of resorting to Miles Davis’s gently chugging funk, Molvaer and his band performed along with shapeshifting drum ’n’ bass, frazzled chunks of experimental techno, and cavernous dub. The crowd danced fiercely, but unlike what you’d hear from the popular jazz-electronic act St. Germain, the improvising didn’t feel like an afterthought — no soggy hard-bop regurgitations here. And Molvaer didn’t sound like another Davis clone. His breathy playing was melancholy but not bluesy, more ethereal than gritty, with hints of Middle Eastern modes and folksy pastoralism.

Sitting backstage after the show, he smoked Camels and sipped vodka while explaining the genesis of his sound. His roots are as a hard-bop player in the vein of Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown, but he radically changed his style after being exposed to Don Cherry, Jon Hassell, and, of course, Miles Davis. "I always disliked the competition aspect of jazz," he said. " ‘How many chords can you play? How fast? How smart are you?’ I’m not interested in impressing people."

Performing along with Norwegian folksingers and discovering the music of Bill Laswell and Brian Eno led Molvaer to his current ethno-tinted electro-jazz fusion. And he credits the Scandinavian temperament with his patient and relaxed trumpet style. "For me space is very important. I try to be very relaxed in what I do. Think of it like poetry; it’s like the difference between haiku and beat [poetry]. I like both, but I lean more toward haiku."

Molvaer has released several albums in America on ECM, but his latest, and best, this year’s NP3 (Emarcy/Universal), has yet to find an American label. In fact, the day after his performance, he was going to fly to New York to try to secure stateside distribution.

The guitarist in Molvaer’s band, a willowy blond named Eivind Aarset, also performed with his own group at the festival. Surrounded by racks of electronic gear, Electronique Noire (Aarset with bassist Marius Reksjø and drummer Wetle Holte) played shrouded in a darkness that was fitting for their nocturnal driftings through scattered ambient and ferocious jazz-rock roar. Recalling Chicago groups like Isotope 217 and Tortoise, Aarset’s performance mined the veins of experimental rock, improvised jazz, and electronica, though the trio indulged in some feral metal peaks and prog flirtations that no ambient Midwesterner would approve of.

In concert and on his latest album, last year’s Light Extracts (Jazzland/Universal), Aarset is more concerned with pure sonic play than with traditional melody lines. The result sounds like a cross between Bill Frisell’s dreamy swells and Adrian Belew’s skewed effects tweaks. There’s also an eerie similarity between Aarset’s woozy guitar tone and the plate-shifting roar of Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. Call it a musical convergence of cultural/ethnic traits; at the northern edge of the Western world, these Norwegian sound sculptors draw more on background noise — Aarset’s playing sounded by turns like crashing waves, jet-engine roar, and a skipping CD player — than on the world of traditional harmony and melody.

Singer Sidsel Endresen gave a festival performance that recalled another Northern artist, Icelander Björk. Both vocalists display an affinity for strange vocal mannerisms, spoken asides, odd melodic leaps, and jarring chromaticisms — I’m guessing that Nordic folk music is the shared thread. Singing over a musical backdrop of micro-arranged electronic tics and off-center piano accompaniment, Endresen sounded like a cabaret singer from a Lars von Trier film, full of dread and mystical yearning. With her long, straight sandy brown hair and Joan Baez bangs, she looks a bit like an old folkie, and there is a definite Joni Mitchell quality to her intimate songs. Her 2000 album, Undertow (Jazzland/Universal), comes off like confessional folk for 21st-century cybergeeks. But in concert, there was a jarring bit of avant-garde experimentalism tossed into the mix: she’s fond of singing in a made-up language of abstract syllables and sounds, twisting the "lyrics" with sharp glottal stops, guttural gulps, and percussive mouth noises. It seemed she was swallowing her words and then regurgitating them in strange combinations.

Before a performance on Musique Plus, Quebec’s version of MTV, Endresen smoked thin European cigarettes and mused about her musical background. "I got a bit bored with the jazz-vocal roles. "I don’t really like scat singing, so I found of way of working more as an instrumental singer, by taking elements from other musical traditions — Japanese, Arabic, Norwegian, Inuit, and even classical — to create a kind of improvisational tool." The result doesn’t sound anything like traditional vocal jazz, but it shares some of those same traits: an emphasis on phrasing, on carefully shaping each note and placing it within the musical framework. "I realize that it’s not typical jazz. But I think it shares a lot of things. Though there’s a different temperature — it’s cooler. American music is hot; I don’t think I’d ever get that compliment."

SWISS SINGER SUSANNE ABBUEHL can be lumped in with the Cassandra Wilson–ization (or Norah Jones–ization, if you prefer) of the jazz-vocal medium. She’s an attractive, raven-haired singer who doesn’t scat, or sing traditional standards, or perform with typical jazz accompaniment. But as her Montreal performance proved, going pop is only one of the options open to young jazz singers. In her first North American concert, Abbuehl sang a mix of radically interpreted standards, unusual covers, original compositions, and Indian classical music that enchanted the hushed crowd. Although it was only 6 p.m. on a steamy June day, the gentle pliancy of the band and the downy haze of her voice made it feel like a snowy Sunday in winter.

Many songs were taken from her excellent American debut, April (ECM), which finds the singer matching poems by e. e. cummings with original music and original lyrics with music by Carla Bley, among others. Her warm, clear voice isn’t showy, but Abbuehl’s deceptively simple approach works with the long, sustained tones and deliberate micro-tonal bends she learned from her studies in India. The bass-less trio that accompanied her (piano, drums, clarinet) emphasized gentle, limpid arrangements and gave her plenty of room to dance over the bar line and move throughout the music. The pianist specialized in impressionist Keith Jarrett–esque chords that only heightened the sense of tonal ambiguity. Rarely does a cover of "Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair" sound as foreign and unfamiliar as Abbuehl’s made it.

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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