Motvind Festival

Joëlle Léandre

Motvind Festival
Oslo, Norway
June 16-18, 2022

By Ken Waxman
Performance Portraits by Susan O’Connor

Motvind means headwinds in Norwegian. So from its beginning, the idea behind Oslo’s small-scale Motvind Festival has been to present gusty, leading-edge improvisers in an unpretentious setting, free from commercialism and corporate interests. In mid-June the seventh Motvind Festival organized by this music- and-record-label collective more than lived up to these principles. Comprehensively, the first concert that took place in the venerable Grønland Kirke in the ungentrified Grønland area of Oslo, and the subsequent two presented in the basement of the Nasjonal jazzscene Victoria club, offered high-quality music from local, European and American players.

Kjetil Jerve (left) and members of the Harmonic Consciousness ensemble.

Of the Scandinavian contingent, the most accomplished performance was pianist/composer Kjetil Jerve’s hour-long, multi-sectional Harmonic Consciousness at the Grøneland Kirke that slowly unrolled in alternating minimalist and more embellished sequences. Graphically notated with many pauses, the aleatoric score was dependent on individual contributions from members of the 12-piece band for interpretative extensions and embellishment of Jerve’s creation. Group-affiliated and horizontally propelled, solos were more in the form of breaks or coloration than extended statements. Important tinctures were added by the chordal clips and sparkles from Rob Waring’s vibraphone, while blended brass cascades, sighing flutters or portamento whistles arose from trumpeter Erik Kimestad Pedersen’s and tubaist Heida Mobeck’s output. Meanwhile, the ability of dual bassists Erlend Olderskog Albertsen and Christian Meaas Svendsen to alternate between spiccato string plucks and col legno arco pressure provided measured dynamic variety, as did percussionist Andreas Wildhagen’s press rolls or drum-top polishing that intensified the rhythmic flow. Kit Downes sometimes added cello tones to the string wipes from the double basses and violinist Adrian Løseth Waade to maximize lowing timbres; mostly Downes served as the keyboard foil and doppelgänger to Jerve’s piano program. Subtly shifting tempos, the two pianists’ output was often near-silent, with the composer usually adding crucial inner string plucks to propel the exposition. The few melody snatches heard that night also came from Jerve. The composition’s climax arrived after martial drum beats introduced intermittent piano chording that combined with orchestral swells to signal the finale. Overall the space between sound and silence continuously confirmed a genuine sense of representative and inclusive creativity.

Kaja Draksler and Erik K Pedersen

At the opposite end of the spectrum and mid-way through the final night’s program, was an emotional and striking essay in free-form improvising by Berlin-based tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Delius and bassist Antonio Borghini with Copenhagen’s Lotte Anker playing soprano and alto saxophones with London’s Mark Sanders on drums and percussion. Experienced free jazzers all, and specialists in non-hierarchical playing, the bassist’s roaming patterns or thick strums plus the drummer’s metallic paradiddles and pinpointed cymbal strokes provided a perfect backdrop for reed exploration. Taking advantage of the multiple tones available from their four woodwinds, Delius and Anker created different personas for each of their horns, solo or in unison. Projecting mooing tenor saxophone split tones, Delius at points reached gnarly R&B-style overblowing, often in double counterpoint with the alto saxophonist’s strained reflux. On clarinet his sharp whistles easily turned into clarion calls that followed or joined Anker’s oblique soprano saxophone shrills. At the same time, interjections from the rhythm section characterized by Borghini’s ingenious arco stretches, while Sanders’ hammering on miniature unattached cymbals or swiping a small tin box on his snare frequently changed the sonic scenery. Instantly reacting to these dissonant challenges, Delius sometimes introduced tremolo-lowing in a melodic Chu Berry mode, while Anker’s harsh Dolyphesque alto saxophone runs become simultaneously grating and yielding. Eventually the quartet’s snores, stutters, stings and smashes came to an end with the feeling that earlier time suspension engendered had ceased.

Joshua Abrams

Another group whose almost hour-long set seemed to flash by in uncountable seconds was Aki Takase’s trio, whose penultimate set Friday night operated at the height of inspiration. The pianist was joined by fellow Berliner Michael Griener on drums and Swiss bassist Christian Weber. Starting off with keyboard jabs, string thumps and drum smacks, the three stretched the mostly Takase compositions so that they reflected swing as well as extended techniques. Swaying and stopping, the pianist worked her way through individual key-clipping and scuttling glissandi with unabashed insouciance, stomping her high-heeled shoes for added percussiveness, and extending the steady groove with melodic quotes from such tunes as “Caravan”. Slaps, slides and thumps plus spicatto bow thrusts from the bassist added to the fluidity, while the drummer built up the beat with echoing ruffs and powerful bass drum rumbles. Never ignoring the appeal of pseudo-ragtime, the climax of Takase’s set was an exercise in rickety-tick key palming. Slap-bass thumps and sizzling yet carefully measured brush work from the drummer added to the mix. Undulating up and down the keyboard as she piled notes upon notes on top of one another, the pianist maintained a careful balance among tones, switching between stops and extended vibrations, but never going off track. After reaching this apogee of retrogressive modernism, the trio left the stage only to return for an encore of “My Jelly Roll Soul” that with Weber’s popping double-bass interlude and Grenier’s Gene Krupa-like drum break, encapsulated and confirmed the good-timey but serious sounds the trio made during its set.

Toby Delius, Lotte Anker, Antonio Borghini, Mark Sanders

If Ellington’s “Caravan” and Mingus’ “My Jelly Roll Soul” were obliquely referred to by the Takase trio, then Motvind’s final set on Saturday night was given over to a copiously cultivated showcase of Thelonious Monk’s compositions by Monk’s Casino from Berlin, with trumpeter Axel Dörner, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, bassist Jan Roder and Griener again on drums. The quintet moved quickly through more than a dozen Monk tunes, some as familiar as “Misteriso” “Bemsha Swing” and “Evidence”, and those as quasi-obscure as “Sixteen” and “Locomotive”. As the set evolved, the crowd pleasing improvisations pivoted to suggestions of Bop, Swing, Stride and even a touch of Dixieland. It was difficult to recall that at one point Monk music was deemed so difficult that it was supposed to be beyond the jazz canon. That would seem unfathomable judging from the two encores the enthusiastic audience demanded from this band. Mahall was the most animated in his response to the music as he wiggled his legs and shook his hips while outputting reed bites, smears and as close an approximation to Monk’s saxophonists’ style as could be replicated on bass clarinet. His animated mein also confirmed the broad humor needed for a project such as this.
Putting aside for the most part his usual microtonal explorations, Dörner soloed with straightforward open-horn lyricism, while Von Schlippenbach stretched each theme to its breaking point, emphasizing each one’s solid adaptability. Continuing to express the syncopated beat he adopted for Takase, Grenier’s drum ruffs, pops and cymbal sizzles added to the narratives with a maximum of rhythmic smarts and a minimum of showiness. As for Roder, his thumping pulse was as rock solid as it was unobtrusive. With Mahall’s reed bites and Dörner’s inflating half-valve textures emphasizing new approaches to the tunes, it was Von Schlippenbach’s acknowledgment of the composer’s sometime Bop-affiliated heads which preserved links to the Jazz tradition. At the same time, the improvising also proved that a compromise with the Monk canon could be achieved using new techniques.

Alexander von Schlippenbach, Axel Dörner, Rudy Mahall, Jan Roder

Some of those new techniques were presented on the first night at the Nasjonal jazzscene Victoria during the Natural Information Society’s performance. Chicago-based, and featuring bass clarinetist Jason Stein and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, the music’s connective thread was projected by Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium drone and the original patterns repeated by Joshua Abrams’ guembri or three-string horizontal Gnawa bass. The traditional instruments produced the equivalent of programmed oscillations over which sailed Stein’s clarion flutters and split tone peeps. Adding to the hypnotic effect were Avery’s drum accents, which also advanced rocksteady swing beats despite individual kit parts being draped with cloth. Key to the performance was noting how the harmonium’s pointillist sighs and the guembri’s fixed tempo strokes created the continuum that cemented together individual segments. Adding melody snatches with Stein’s tremolo clarinet extensions, the group sound always maintained a distinctive consistency which confirmed its individuality.

Another younger musician who brought a novel concept to the festival was Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, who played a solo set on the final night. Using recordings of poems read in Polish, Slovenian and English as leitmotifs, the pianist reflected the moods of the mostly sombre lyrics in her playing or appeared to be creating a separate more lyrical response to the pre-recorded sounds. Building geometric patterns, she used key clips and clicks for speed and advancement, with darker clusters for more sonorous asides. Although her sometimes flying fingers emphasized every part of the keyboard, her interpretations were slower and stronger when using her left hand to reflect mood changes. Combining prestissimo keyboard slaps and slides with occasional lagging and harsher vibrations, her performance was true both to the poetic contents and her own assertive piano stylings.

Michael Griener

Still, it was a veteran musician whose performance opened the Nasjonal jazzscene Victoria segment of the festival and consolidated many of the musical strands which defined the Motvind Festival itself: French double bassist Jöelle Léandre, who has been active in creative music for many years. Playing solo, her set touched on Jazz, improv, notated music and rhythmic sounds while her verbal detours into basso profundo retching and bel canto scat-singing projected the humor needed for free association music which too many players ignore. Projecting a full, rounded bass tone that was apparent whether created with pizzicato pulses or arco slices, she wiped the strings with her bow to create maximum baying tones with the same facility she brought to showcasing vivacissimo adornments. Voicing pseudo-operatic nonsense syllables she mocked musical solemnity at the same time as she created flamenco-styled taps on her instrument’s wood with her bow or propelled strident notes whose arching melancholy was as profound as any composed elegy. Finally she slid into a pseudo-Blues theme, but its elaboration was still rife with Europeanized twists. Improvising at largo or staccato tempos and many in between, Léandre consistently established her unique musical identity. It’s this acceptance and projection of individualism and the superior musicianship of many of its performers that made Motvind 2022 such a notable edition.