Solveig Slettahjell: Girl from the north country

If you think jazz singers are all shiny shoes, finger-clicks and appearances on Parky, then you've probably not heard Solveig Slettahjell. Nick Coleman meets the vocalist who is rewriting the rules
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You can always triangulate your position, at least vaguely, in the world if you know your church architecture. But what about jazz clubs? As with Christianity, jazz has geo-specific beginnings. But then what? What happens after the moment of revelation, when geography becomes a secondary issue, of interest only to hipsters and pilgrims? Everything goes local then. Jazz, like religion, is adaptive by nature. It'll work anywhere, provided you get the basics right - and remember where it came from. That's the theory, anyway.

So where am I tonight? I'm in Munich, Germany, as Americans would say. And even if it didn't say "Unterfahrt" in big letters over the stage, I fancy I might have made an educated guess that this was a Bavarian jazz cellar, not a Harlem or a Hoxton one. For one thing, the beer is almost as tall as I am; for another, everyone is white. Thirdly, the joint is clean and tidy and patrons are comfortably seated in tidy rows.

On stage, a round-faced, black-haired woman with pale-blue almond eyes is addressing the congregation.

"Guten abend," she says. "Wie geht's?" There is a chorus of happy "Sehr gut, danke". Well-heeled Munich is a comfortable place in which to pursue the life of the middle-aged jazzbo. Then, "My German is not so good as my Norwegian or my English. Do you mind if we speak in English?" There is another assenting chorus.

"Of course." "Naturally." "Yes, that would be fine." Another way of telling you're in Bavaria is that the audience is polite, friendly, receptive and speaks idiomatic English. Solveig Slettahjell then sings and everyone shuts up.

Slettahjell is the jazz singer for those who are troubled by jazz singing. If, for you, jazz singing in the 21st century is a mannered anachronism, which refers, in substance as well as in style, to a world chiefly inhabited by finger-clickers in shiny shoes and, wistfully, by Michael Parkinson, then Solveig may be the jazz singer for you. For a start, she is that very rare thing since 1959 and the death of Billie Holiday, a jazz singer with soul. But she is also a jazz singer for whom jazz is only the beginning of what she does. It is by no means the end.

Her band, the Slow Motion Quintet, is one of the wonders of the world. You can buy the (three) records, and they're very lovely, highly original, deeply felt. But what you need to do is see them play live. They comprise a drummer, a pianist, a bass player and a trumpeter. They play a highly improvised, very slow music which aspires to leave more out than it keeps in. It's a music of cadence and space, impact and recess; as much gospel, soul, hymnody, folk and pop as it is jazz and blues and the stark surprises of free improvisation. Those with an ear for the music of Robert Wyatt may well eat it up - here be synthesizers, drum machines and autoharps. And Slettahjell's cottony mezzo is wide open and governed more by the imperatives of melodic shape and granular "feel" than by any of the decorative procedures which have come to define jazz singing as, above all, the art of style.

"I don't know the right word in English," she says over a plateful in the restaurant above the Unterfahrt, before the soundcheck. "But in Norwegian we say 'konkret'. It means getting down to what it is - what the music really consists of." It is not a style, what they do.

Would it be appropriate, then, to suggest that what Slow Motion do is sieve the elements of style in their music - the jazz, the folk, the gospel and so on - for the bits which are most straightforwardly nourishing? "Ha-hah! That is a sweet way of putting it. But yes, I think that's right."

Half way through the first set of the evening, pianist Morten Qvenild is bent over his autoharp, pinging strange little notes out of its odd little body with one hand while chording the piano with the other.

They're playing "Don't Explain", one of the very few jazz standards in the set. The music has almost stopped. Ping! There is a silence. Followed by a chord, followed by another ping! Which is then followed by a gurgle from the bar. An optic has just released a shot of gin. The band, the audience and then the barman all laugh, and Slettahjell mimes a two-clap round of applause. "Don't Explain" proceeds quietly to its conclusion without a pause, a kind of low-trajectory pass through the most konkret elements of the song. With or without the optic gurgle, it is as if the song is being heard by everyone, including the musicians, for the first time.

Slettahjell is a daughter of the church. She grew up in a small town outside Trondheim, "not right out in the country but not suburban either". Her father is a Protestant minister. The family all went in for music.

"It was a nice, normal childhood," she says. "It felt innocent. Next door was the dentist and next door to him was the doctor and next door to him again was the teacher at the school, and then a man who worked on an oil platform and then the hairdresser. There was a basic feel to it. We lived close to the school. I was a very serious student, very committed to the bigger things in life." Was this out of duty, given Dad's job? "Possibly. That might be. But I didn't reflect on it at the time. I certainly didn't think of it as a problem, and I don't now. I was just a bit of a loner.

"Well, not a loner, but me being a minister's daughter, I had to prove myself. I was definitely not cool. But I was good at skiing and I learned how to play the piano and blah blah... it worked out. There were a few years when I had to stand up for myself." Music started at home, expanded into choirs at church and then school, but rock 'n' roll rebellion did not impinge. "No, not really. In Norway in the Seventies there was a big movement in the churches and Christian societies, where pop music was brought into the youth choirs and so on. But being born in 1971 I came a bit late for that. And I didn't like the hard stuff. I liked Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston - my taste was very soft and nice. I started a choir when I was 17, just to do something for the younger people - because everything was so boring. There were something like 70 people in it when we started..." Would you say you were bossy? "I like having things the way I want them." Where does that come from then? "My mother. Definitely. Without a doubt. But I think it's not about being bossy but having faith in your own solutions." She laughs. That's what all bossy people say, I say. She cackles this time. "It wasn't ALL me, this choir. There were other leaders. I was only the musical leader - I chose the songs and decided how to solve the musical questions..."

She is very bright and very self-possessed. It's easy to see how she took herself from small-town vicar's daughter to the top academy in Oslo and the tutelage of Sidsel Endresen, the most eminent of all Norway's contemporary voices. And she has an easy way with her place in Norway's recent musical history, which, in jazz terms, is the most interesting in the world.

I refer, of course, to the way things have gone in Norway since the Seventies: Jan Garbarek, ECM, Arild Andresen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Bugge Wesseltoft, Rune Grammofon... all those artful coves parlaying the cliches of fjord, folk, icicle and pine into a music which extracts the konkret nuggets from the shallows of received jazz style, frequently not sounding like jazz at all.

"I did not grow up with the American version of jazz," she says. "Not at all. We learnt that at the academy, of course, but I never really broke the code - it took two years to even become interested in that. Only Billie Holiday was there from early on. Ella and Sinatra and standard American songbook did not come until I was doing my Masters. No, the Norwegian version is incredibly strong; more so than anywhere else I know. Denmark, for instance, is a totally different world. They have a completely different idea of what jazz is; much more American. Sweden too..."

So what does Solveig look for in a song? Tom Waits's "Take It With Me", for instance, which is about as jazzy as a Victorian parlour ballad, and which Slow Motion turn into a long and very beautiful hymn to mortality - spun out and out into the thinnest strings of its constituent parts.

"I don't know - the nourishment maybe? I like things when they are simple but very precise, not pretentious in any way. Really, really precise. Like spot on. And the lyrics and music must have complete symbiosis - where they couldn't be any other way. I'm fascinated by the friction of things being straight and unstraight together. And in lyrics, I like being able to have two thoughts in your head at once, of things being good and bad at the same time. I think that's a real cornerstone. That kind of complexity feels true to me - the world is a good place even as it's a bad place. Yes, it has to be..."

Solveig will be playing the London Jazz Festival this week without Slow Motion, save for her magnificent trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig. That's how she performed her third encore at the Unterfahrt, at the piano, as quietly as a lullaby. At the end, as the final chord died, she whispered "Gute nacht" into the microphone and there was absolute silence, ruptured only slightly by a long, withdrawing Bavarian sigh.

* Solveig Slettahjell plays Pizza Express, Dean St, London on 17 November. The new album 'Good Rain' is out on ACT Records