Birth of the ice cool

They're fashionable, they're challenging and they're everywhere. They're also brilliant. Perhaps that's why the London Jazz Festival is hip-deep in frosty Nordics, says Phil Johnson, as he presents his Good Norwegian Guide
Click to follow

Norway. Population: 4.5 million. Principal exports: oil, gas and fish. Oh, and weird squiggly music. Music that's just south of Bjork, just north of whey-faced Scottish indie-doodlers; off the coast of techno, and west of deep Slavic pentatonic folk. Music that might possibly be jazz, but no one is quite sure. Or, as the slogan for next month's London Jazz Festival has it: "Music From Out There In Here".

Norway. Population: 4.5 million. Principal exports: oil, gas and fish. Oh, and weird squiggly music. Music that's just south of Bjork, just north of whey-faced Scottish indie-doodlers; off the coast of techno, and west of deep Slavic pentatonic folk. Music that might possibly be jazz, but no one is quite sure. Or, as the slogan for next month's London Jazz Festival has it: "Music From Out There In Here".

Not that the LJF is on a specifically Nordic quest, but these days Norwegians are a bit like black Americans: you've got to have at least a few of them or it doesn't seem like a jazz festival any more. This year's complement includes the scene's elder statesman, gnomic sax legend Jan Garbarek; classy torch-singer Silje Nergaard with the Tord Gustavsen Trio; trumpeter and vocalist Arve Henriksen (who's playing in the Norwegian band of Tunisian oud maestro Dhafer Youssef); and exciting newcomers Susanna and the Magical Orchestra and Xploding Plastix.

And yes, it's true: we have been here before. Those icy fingers have been scratching at the record shop window for quite a while now, from the nu-jazz of Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz, Nils Petter Molvaer and Jaga Jazzist, to vocalists Anja Garbarek (electronica-chanteuse daughter of Jan) and Sidsel Endresen, and the nothing-if-not-experimental rosters of the Rune Grammofon and Smalltown Supersound labels. And that's without even mentioning the global success story of Norwegian pop, from A-ha to Royksopp and Kings of Convenience.

So let's get the cliches out of the way now, shall we? Norwegian music is, variously, glacial, frozen, visionary, mythic, riven with stylistic crevasses and fjords, and filled with nostalgia for the pitter-patter of reindeer hooves or the grim fortitude of shamanic Sami Laplanders. Jan Garbarek's soprano sax sound is a keening corncrake wail, a voice crying in the tundra wilderness, Munch's The Scream meets late John Coltrane in the chamber-jazz ante-room of the angst-ridden Nordic soul.

And what's so great is that most of these cliches are true. There is a spirit of place to Norwegian music, just as there is an "idea of the North", as identified by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (who made a celebrated radio programme about it) and the Danish artist Asger Jorn, who called the North "the dream centre" of Europe. While we might regard generalisations about "spirit of place" as fanciful or overly deterministic, perhaps we shouldn't. For at some deep structural level, however mediated, what is art but a reflection of latitude and longitude, of historical climate and emotional weather? And what is music, but, in the poet Rilke's phrase, "audible landscape"?

It's also true that there's an almost limitless sense of space to much contemporary Norwegian music; a willingness to explore and to prolong the acoustic moment, to reach out beyond the norms of song-form and metrical structure in search of, well, the sublime. Of course, this isn't always a good thing. It may also explain that annoying noodlingness, the refusal to attain a satisfactory closure; the need to go on and on and on. This is a tendency that has already been well mapped. "Nordic art is dangerous," said Asger Jorn. "It compresses all its power inside ourselves ... it works on the mood more than on the senses or understanding."

The idea of mood music, and the seductive siren-song it offers the listener, is also one of the most notable reasons for the success of Norwegian squiggly-jazzy-technoid-avant-garde-electronica-wotsit. It's deep, but it's often easy on the ear too. And it's so damn clever. Like the Japanese in the 1950s, taking German Leica cameras apart to see how to make cheap clones of them, Norwegian musicians are unusually adept at studying a style and then reproducing it, like Kings of Convenience's take on Simon and Garfunkel or Nick Drake.

Why Norwegian music should have become so successful, even the Norwegians don't know, although excellent music education and a strong tradition of village brass bands has a lot to do with it. "It's a very good question. I have been trying to work it out myself," says John Petter Opdahl, a minister-counsellor at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London. "I think maybe that it's a combination of two things. There's a lot of good young musicians who are good technically, but who also combine that with being adventurous and being, erm, unpredictable." Meanwhile, we in the past-it soppy South can always console ourselves that learning a musical instrument must be so much easier in Norway, what with the long winters, and all that snow and ice. Hit it, Henryk!

Jan Garbarek

Anyone who wants to understand what's happened to jazz since it ceased being dominated by slouching hepcats needs to find out about Jan Garbarek. In fact, to an alarming degree, Garbarek is what's happened to jazz: the adaptation of John Coltrane's high modernism into new European forms; the switch to Europe as the centre for jazz recording; the links with folk and ethnic music; the revival of jazz/classical crossover; the rise of new technology. Garbarek, 57, has helped bring all this about, and people nostalgic for the hepcats hate his guts.

"I had a feeling that jazz had reached a stage of too many abstractions removed from the source of the original folk music - the blues of Mississippi," Garbarek has said. "I thought it might be time to see what there was in the beginning and find out if there might be other paths to be taken."

Jan Garbarek tours the UK 16-26 November

Kim Hiorthoy

Visual artist Kim Hiorthoy designs the impeccably cool, biomorphic covers for the Rune Grammofon record label (influenced, he says, by Reid Miles's work for Blue Note), but in his spare time he makes music and weird collages of found sound. His latest release, Live Shet, is squiggly techno with an old-school beat.

Hiorthoy, who lives in Berlin, isn't convinced by this Norway zeitgeist thing. "I don't really think of myself as attached to Norway culturally or as a musician," he says. "I also feel that Rune Grammofon and Smalltown Supersound are characterised more by being themselves than by being Norwegian. Maybe there are incredible things going on in the Czech Republic, but no one knows about them?"

'Live Shet' is released on 8 November on Smalltown Supersound

Arve Henriksen

Of all the new wave of Norwegian artists, it's probably the trumpeter and voice-as-instrument singer Henriksen who most closely resembles Garbarek in his search for a new aesthetic drawn from a synthesis of sources. This also takes him a long way from conventional notions of jazz, into what unsympathetic listeners no doubt feel is insufferable plinky-plonk. "I've moved to the idea of just creating music, improvised music definitely, but not necessarily to do with the rhythms and sounds of jazz," he says. "Now, I want to play more melodies, and on my own albums I want to give an idea of a minimalistic quietness."

Henriksen is the musician with the most obvious debt to the idea of the North. "I grew up on the west coast, with mountains and fjords, and there is certainly an input from nature in what I do. It took going away to study in Trondheim and Oslo to realise how much the country means to me. I'm also influenced by music from Africa and Japan, and I don't try to project an idea of Norway in my work, but it would be wrong to pretend that I am not part of where I come from."

Arve Henriksen plays the QEH, London SE1, on 18 November with Dhafer Youssef. His latest album, 'Chiaroscuro' is on Rune Grammofon

Silje Nergaard

In jazz, female vocalists are a genre to themselves: a bit like the Western only not so much fun. But despite being pushed hard by her record company, mega-corp Universal, in a bid to rival Diana, Norah, Jane and co, Sije (say "Celia" and you're almost there) gives a definite twist to the Queens of the Great American Songbook stereotype. She writes her own music for a start, and has the sheer good taste to choose as her backing band perhaps the best young jazz group in Norway, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, whose own album, Changing Places (ECM) is a classic.

And while Nergaard's songs aspire to an international style, with English lyrics by Mike McGirk, the spacious settings could be seen as reflecting their country of origin. "I grew up in a land with beautiful and colourful nature, and cold, long, dark winters," she says. "We have the possibility to be alone whenever we want, and I think that this has somehow coloured the way I think about music and perform my songs. There is a lot of space in my music, and I really try to invite my listeners in."

Silje Nergaard and the Tord Gustavsen Trio play Pizza Express Jazz Club, London W1, 20-21 November

Jaga Jazzist

The 10-piece prog-jazz band Jaga Jazzist are the Bash Street Kids of the Norwegian new wave: an odd-looking assortment of Nordic hippy-types, including three siblings - Martin, Lars and Line Horntveth - whose intense live performances reject all notions of recessive ambient wheedling (see Arve Henriksen, above) in favour of wild, and wildly ambitious, blowing on fiendishly complex compositions. The members, who've been together for 10 years, also have various side-projects, with Lars Horntveth recently releasing the critically-acclaimed solo album Pooka.

"I'm trying to combine my huge inspiration from soundtracks with electronics and Disney-like romantic strings," says Horntveth of his solo work. "I guess the bass clarinet stuff sets some kind of jazz mood, but there are few improvised sections in the music. I really do not want to sound Norwegian, but my inspiration from people like Jon Balke [the jazz pianist and bandleader] does make the music sound Nordic."

'Pooka' is on Smalltown Supersound. Jaga Jazzist's latest release is 'Magazine', also on Smalltown Supersound. They also record for Ninjatune and will be touring next year

Susanna & the Magical Orchestra

If Silje Nergaard aspires to mainstream acceptance, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra are defiantly leftfield, an experimental duo (there's no real orchestra) of vocalist Susanna Wallumrod and keyboardist Morten Qvenild, who both come from the small Norwegian town of Konsgberg, where there's a famous jazz festival. Their debut album, List of Lights and Buoys, is an astonishingly vivid collection that encapsulates quite perfectly the wide-open spaces of the new Norwegian wave.

"I guess I want to tell some stories that relate to a personal musical sound," says Qvenild, who used to be a member of Jaga Jazzist. "Jazz for me is the freedom to do what you want to do; it's more a feeling than an object. Of course, where you come from will be an influence, but I think this is more subconscious and implicit. Whether there is something typically Norwegian about my music, I don't know."

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra play The Spitz, London E1, with Acoustic Ladyland and Hanne Hukkelberg, on 19 November. 'List of Lights and Buoys' is on Rune Grammofon