Nordic Jazz: Resetting the Compass, by Mischa Andriessen

Article by Mischa Andriessen on Nordic Jazz, theme of the 2017 Festival Jazz International Rotterdam (27-28-29 October).

While jazz students the world over were toiling away for hours on scales and practicing other techniques, tutors at the conservatory in Trondheim travelled in a totally different direction. The school focuses primarily on learning to listen. The system devised there, which encourages aspiring jazz musicians to trust their ears instead of theory, produces independent musicians who, upon competing their four years of jazz education, confidently opt for a career in alternative pop or rock. They do, in any case, pay little heed to genres and styles. Take, for instance, a band like Jaga Jazzist: how would you classify them? Out of Jaga Jazzist came The Shining, a band that mixes jazz with black metal. Trumpet player Matthias Eick also played with Jaga Jazzist, but now he combines American with Norwegian folk music, and of course with jazz.

Sweeping statements about a region as large as the Scandinavia, Finland and the Baltic states quickly lead to untenable generalizations. Even so, it is an undeniable fact that musicians from the region have played an important role in the evolution of European jazz and improvised music. Years ago, the jazz writer Stuart Nicholson asked rhetorically, ‘Is jazz dead or has it moved to another address?’ The latter of course is the case. According to Nicholson, the jazz that matters had relocated to the northern European countries.

Why? On the one hand because conditions for musicians there are generally good. Countries like Norway and Denmark boast many support schemes that enable musicians to play with foreign stars, to organize tours, and to record music. And then there is funding to promote all that. Moreover, and this is even more important, many musicians from the Nordic countries have demonstrated a mentality that unites two essential characteristics: openness and collegiality. The broadest possible spectrum was and is kept in scope. Elements from classical music, pop and folk are often embraced by jazz musicians. Rather than trying to stand out or compete with one another in jam sessions, they seemed, and still seem, to enjoy working together. According to Nicholson, the American system forces musicians to seek out the extremes. Who can go furthest? Fastest? Who plays the most or the strangest notes? In the Nordic region, by contrast, musicians permit themselves more time, give one another more time.
Cliché alert!

Two words crop up very frequently in discussions about Nordic music. One is spaciousness. The other is atmosphere. Both terms apply in particular to a section of the ECM catalogue. This German label has released lots of jazz from the Nordic countries, but with an aesthetic that certainly cannot be applied to all music from the region. Nor, incidentally, to all Nordic music on the ECM label itself. Musicians like saxophonist Jan Garbarek and pianist Bobo Stenson might indeed play uninhibited and atmospheric music, but take a listen to their early records for ECM. Stenson in his early years was not only riotous but also on occasion unpolished. But later, as the Swedish pianist eased off a little, the cliché of the soberly babbling music that reflects tranquil, empty landscapes doesn’t hold. There’s still a lot going on in the music of Stenson. Only now it’s more concealed.
Whoever has space can move freely
Perhaps the platitude of spaciousness applies in another way to Nordic jazz. Whoever has space can move freely and is not hindered. Every musician expresses that in another way and comes up with a different sound, but peace and space certainly help in allowing ideas to ripen. Much contemporary jazz moves freely between the tonal and atonal, between various genres and traditions, western and non-western.

You see that on a large scale in the Nordic scene too. That is partly a matter of mentality, of an open and committed attitude, and perhaps also of courage, the nerves to want to be different, unafraid of departing from the familiar. Yet that is not all. The importance of folk music cannot be underestimated. There are rich traditions on hand that have turned out to provide extremely fertile breeding grounds. Sometimes the fusion is already encapsulated in them. For example, folk music from Norway has something in common with that from India and the Arab world. Viewed in that light, it makes complete sense that the Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim has been so intensively involved with music from India, but in his own music he clearly expresses the Norwegian tradition. Seim plays in, among others, Rubicon, the septet of bassist Mats Eilertsen. There, too, you hear non-western influences in a naturally sounding yet very exciting way combined with elements from other sources. No surprise therefore that the group takes its name from the river made famous because Julius Caesar once dared to cross it. That name is a motto: go beyond your boundaries, and let nothing stand in your way.

Incidentally, I think that Eilertsen has the finest bass sound in Europe, perhaps even the world.

Just as it is difficult to find anybody who can play warmer bass than Eilertsen, you will have difficulty finding someone who can evoke such a gentle world full of filmic images the way that Matthias Eick can. With Eick you often hear that frequently mentioned spaciousness, except that he is referring to the American Midwest. In any case, the Norwegian trumpet player has a tendency to wrong-foot his listener. His singalong melodies are so agreeably accessible that whoever hears them thinks they know them, but at a crucial moment, Eick always gives it an unexpected twist. 

Doing the obvious thing and respecting boundaries: the best Nordic musicians pay no heed. In her band Pixel, for example, bassist Ellen Andrea Wang demonstrated that she makes no distinction between jazz and pop, and the strong Finnish trumpet player Verneri Pohjola turns up in the band of Dutch pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, who has been exploring a fusion of old music, jazz and Arab music for some time. Then we see Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje turning up in the Mats Eilertsen’s band. Had I mentioned that Nordic musicians enjoy collaborating? 

Mischa Andriessen
More info on Rotterdam's Festival Jazz International Rotterdam 2017 (27-28-29 October)>​