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Words and drawings from Oslo Jazz Festival 2017

01 September 2017, 14:30

Oslo Jazz Festival as seen through the drawings of Hannah Burrough and words of Robbie Wojciechowski.

Something has been happening to jazz in recent years. It’s going through what you might call a boom period. Exposure of jazz and hip-hop sampling from a young age is pushing progressively towards younger and younger musicians engaging with the art. Having access to all music at all times has made the resource of jazz open and accessible, rather than locked off by knowledge.

The effects on how the genre is seen and understood have been profound. Where once the genre may have struggled with issues of engagement, it’s not uncommon now to see a venue full of under-30s, shaking their thing, really feeling the sounds of jazz music.

As the message of the music has been handed to younger musicians, its principles have shifted too. Jazz music is beginning to become party music again, music that makes us dance, into which we unfold new shapes. The academic shades of jazz music are disappearing, replaced by a respect for concentration and liberation. More recently, this separation of nu-school jazz has been seen to be an underground movement, a movement of jazz music from the ground up.

Visit any jazz festival across America of Europe now, and you’ll see the profound effects of this in action. The weekend just gone, saw Afro Punk in New York, hosting Jazz Re:freshed, the London-based community that has worked so hard to challenge elitism and prejudice within the jazz community. Back home in London, and two weeks previous the Southbank Centre was filled with 2000 people throwing their hands into the air for all different shades of modal music.

But would this hold true as Oslo Jazz Festival? A festival that last year celebrated its 30th birthday, making it one of the old guard when it comes to European jazz festivals. We visited Oslo, to see how the festival was matching up to this future vision of jazz music’s purpose and place.


Introducing the Oslo Jazz Festival

For the last three years, I’ve been visiting the Oslo Jazz Festival. Taking place in Mid-August, the festival has always aimed to move and adapt with the genre. But is also comfortable embracing all of the shapes and contortions of the musical form, respecting and appreciating all turns and trajectories in jazz music’s story.

It is here that you’ll find free jazz and spiritual jazz and lounge jazz alongside blues music, and scat music, and music from the Broadway songbook.

But Oslo is a place that holds an interesting history, and for me, it’s become a fascinating place to write about and research. In a way, the social discourse Oslo as a town makes it a perfect place for reading jazz’s influence.

Where a couple of years ago the Oslo Jazz program might have been booked to reflect the older image of jazz music, with concerts from classic blues musicians, retrospective pieces from early jazz-icons, and classic players from all over the world, their focus has more recently moved to the developing jazz scene within the country.

Oslo Jazz

In Oslo, there will always be an old guard who is happy to embrace the music that feels comfortable, but coming through are new younger musicians and an audience who are happy to pay for their shows, and embrace their music.

The festival has benefited from giving the first exposure to a number of young musicians, and its foreign office and jazz associations put in a lot of work to give these artists exposure. At lunches across the weekend, we’re given pamphlets and promotional material, as agents aim to push their bands forward. There are speeches by officials from the minister promoting music exports at the Foreign Office, and a sense that the diplomacy of jazz music, is always in reach if you know the right places to look.

Similar to the way Jazz Re:freshed are working in the UK, to bring younger jazz musicians to bigger audiences, much of the industry around jazz here, from the Jazz Federation, associations, and touring office, reflect that part of the focus here is to bring the music to foreign audiences.

But it’s not to say all the music on here is reflects new-school playing. Highlights otherwise include music from the exceptional Geir Sundstøl and Erland Dahlen, and James Morrison and the Brazz Brothers.

Taking a new direction

This year the festival has seemed to make a move into new directions. This years program spans seven days (longer than ever before) and is branching out to encompass music, art, and film. Oslo Jazz 2017 will also be the first time the festival has run an open-air family friendly concert, within the Kontraskjæret complex, a park-like area once used as a naval base, down by the seafront.

The major attention of this year, though as been the focus of the festival's programming on a two-day residency at Sentralen, a cultural centre a couple of streets away from Oslo’s town centre. The gigs at Sentralen take place over 5 rooms, with 10+ concerts a night and are broadly about giving agency rise to more contemporary ideas of jazz. With the whole idea to create something of a jazz-house, for discovery and exposure.

Inside the venue is a vast array of spaces. The building itself is the old headquarters of a bank, now converted into a kind of cultural space for arts organisations in Oslo. It’s split by a major partition wall, with each side reflecting a different era of architectural planning. On the left-hand side, there’s the fabric of the old bank. A great marble staircase runs up the hall, to a bank vault, and a private bar. On the right-hand side of the partition, there are the carvings out of modern office space. Metal girder staircases painted red and black, leading neatly off into open plan offices.

At the bottom is a foyer, which for the purposes of Oslo Jazz has been turned into a gig venue for the Nordic showcase. It’s the most open space in the whole venue, and curiously, the only free concert available for people to watch in the space (how they police this across the weekend, I am unsure, but it feels important that this space is like this). The music from the foyer beams up through the whole building, meaning that when passing between venues, it’s easy to catch an ear of what’s happening downstairs. It’s how we end up making most of our discoveries over the weekend, joining to watch whatever sounds good.

Across the rest of the building is a diverse spread of spaces. Downstairs, the old trading hall has been turned into a large main gig space. Upstairs, there’s a concert space in the old bank vault (this, by the way, is surreal to be in, upon entry through the bolted thick-metal clad doors, you enter a little cocoon of sheet metal). Up again, and there’s an auditorium room, that’s more compact and spread out. While in the foremost reaches of the building, a little tucked away venues sees bands play two shows a night (an early, and a late show). Disappointingly this last venue struggles to receive strong crowds, leaving artists like Henry Wu, who despite selling out shows in the UK, finds himself playing to a half-full room.

But this is their first year running an event like this, and there will always be teething problems. The day after, this upstairs space is transformed into one of intimacy as the nights draw anwards.

Oslo Jazz Festival

The age of distance in jazz

“Some fight because they hate what confronts them, others because they have taken the measure of their lives and wish to give meaning to their existence.” – John Berger

Those are words I came across in an Oslo bookshop, written by John Berger in 1978. They’re from an essay called ‘Revolutionary Undoing’, reflecting on the need for artists (and musicians alike) to stew the line between seeing what they do as a commodity or a practice.

I wonder how pertinent this is to musicians just bringing into the field now. Whether the music they make is one of industry, or music that is inherently there to challenge the assumption of the assumed hierarchies in jazz. It’s something we find a lot of the musicians reflecting on during the weekend, the most profound of which, we find in an understated group of musicians, called Dr. Kay and his Interstellar Tone Scientists.

Building on the work and influence of Sun Ra, the band started out as a Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra cover band. But as they’ve grown, their take and understanding of jazz is something that has become a direct part of their performances. Not only do they throw out any ideas that jazz should be hierarchical, but they play to challenge any assumption that jazz should be music should be an activity to stroke your chin too.

“How can music travel through the universe without air, without an atmosphere? Do I fill your head with astral questions that do not have answers? I am Dr. Kay, astral traveler, and devout believer in the idea of spiritual unity through music,” Dr. Kay says, challenging us.

Using satire, they push fun back into the picture. One particularly brilliant on stage gag includes printing out sheet music, on stage, before it’s distributed to the band. Minutes later and it’s ripped up and thrown back into the audience before the musicians descend back into a torrent of free jazz.

It’s what confounds so many of the young musicians here. Not all of them. But for most, their sets are about challenging the assumption of hierarchies within the music, aiming to deconstruct the social conventions of jazz music, through their playing.

oslo Jazz

With such raw feeling often overpowering these spaces, it’s just so wonderful to see so many young artists enjoying the experience of playing and having packed out a room full of intent listeners to play to.

United Vibrations are another of these artists who wear this openly on their sleeve. They aren’t scared to make the music they play politically charged and socially motivated. “We are the 99% / we can no longer blame the one percent / we can no longer let them rule us / we have to take responsibility.”

Their set as Oslo Jazz is long and intense. But it’s one of the few moments over the weekend where people genuinely open up and dance. It does take its time though, and it’s not until thirty minutes into the set that people really start shifting their feet around and nodding to the messages of their music.

Not all the music here is trying to challenge conventions.

Oslo Jazz

Balvig, Bülow, Christensen (above) one of the Nordic showcase fans, express surprise that so many people are prepared to listen so hard, and for so long on a Friday night. “In between all the songs we could feel this presence. That’s rare on a Friday night with so many people, so thank you so much,” one of the band members says, ending the show.

It feels as if this renaissance in jazz music is just settling here. But the taken aback feeling felt by so many of the younger artists, when they are received so warmly is gratifying. The hope is that the exposure of these artists will spread the social ideas in which they share their music, further into the consciousness.I feel we are starting to see a change in the way jazz is received and listened to, and I argue that this is for the better for the genre.

“It's clear that this new audience has no preconceptions about jazz, roaring on solos and sweating on the dance floor in a way hardly seen since the 1980s,” said one reviewer, from Jazz wise Magazine, writing about another of Norway’s leading jazz festivals.

Before us, we are seeing a generation of icons being made. Their playing is charged, fun, holistic, and contributes to a positive mindset for the genre. The challenge now will be for how best to support so much young talent.

The following were recorded live from the Oslo Jazz Festival 2017

Highlights from Oslo Jazz

Balvig, Bülow, Christensen

Who are they: A jazz trio, based in Denmark

They are: Christian Balvig, Frederik Bülow, Adrian Christensen

What they’re about: Exploring jazz through improvisation, bringing together styles from jazz, to classical, and folk.

Track to listen to: "Fictitious Conversations"


Who are they: Four-female voices and a double-bass from Finland

They are: Riikka Keränen, Kaisa Mäensivu, Selma Savolainen, Josefiina Vannesluoma

What they’re about: Exploring Finnish-Swedish folk songs, and bringing them to new audiences

Track to listen to: None recorded yet but an album on the way

Geir Sundstøl and Erland Dahlen

Who are they: Two legendary Norwegian musicians who’ve combined to make music together

They are: That’s obvious

What they’re about: Creating sound pieces with unusual instruments, that sounds a little like Pink Floyd’s last album

Track to listen to: "Blossom Bells"

Artwork by Hannah Burrough

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