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Songs Of The Fjords: Jazz From Norway

Buerbrae Glacier, Odde, Hardanger Fjord, Norway.
Library of Congress via flickr.com
Buerbrae Glacier, Odde, Hardanger Fjord, Norway.

It didn't take long for jazz to migrate to Europe, but uniquely European improvisational music is a much later development. In the 1960s, European musicians began to reinvent the occasionally strident sounds of American avant-garde jazz to suit their own ideas. The eventual result was a blooming of scenes and styles sharing only common ancestry with their U.S. counterparts.

Given that we're all stuck in the dead of winter, Take Five checks in with one of the coldest places on the map: Norway. A country with fewer than five million inhabitants, Norway has produced some of the freshest improvising voices making music today. Thank the government for investing money in the arts, sure, but the country's musicians have clearly worked hard to create an individual and regional aesthetic.

Given its limited size, this list is bound to leave out some of the greatest Norwegian artists — here's looking at you, Nils Petter Molvaer and Bugge Wesseltoft — so readers are invited to stick up for their own favorites in the comments section below. For now, Take Five presents a sampler of the finest records to define the modern Norwegian jazz scene in all its snowbound glory.

For more entries in the Take Five series, click here. And don't forget to subscribe to the Jazz Notes newsletter.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Songs Of The Fjords: Jazz From Norway

Jan Garbarek

"Afric Pepperbird"

From 'Afric Pepperbird'

One of the forefathers of the modern Scandinavian jazz "sound," saxophonist Jan Garbarek is equally loved and reviled. Throughout the bulk of his career, he's surrounded his icy tone with ideas and production values that verge on New Age and smooth jazz. But when he first began making records, he was obviously listening to free jazz (a la Albert Ayler) and electric fusion (a la Miles Davis). Afric Pepperbird, his 1970 debut for a then-juvenile ECM Records, features Garbarek as a young, aggressive honker. You can hear what he would become in his liberal use of space and his ear for creating rhythmic atmospheres, but you also get a bit of hungry squawk and muscle alongside it. Credit, too, to guitarist Terje Rypdal, whose electric attacks ratchet up the driving rock undertones. It makes for a fascinating document of Norwegian jazz in its early stages of reinventing itself. --Patrick Jarenwattananon

Mathias Eick


From 'Door'

Mathias Eick has clearly studied his Nordic forebears. He plays the trumpet with a clean, almost vibrato-less tone, and his phrasing tends toward the slow and spacious. And the way his ECM debut album is produced, full of reverb when it's not emphasizing silence, places him firmly within a certain Northern European tradition. But 2008's The Door still conveys unexpected warmth and humanity. It's the way Eick, not yet 30, writes tunes and solos with melody in mind, even when he emphasizes his point with a breathy puff or high-pitched gasp. (Having pianists like Jon Balke alongside him doesn't hurt, either.) The record may sound like a distillation of all that has come before in Norwegian jazz. But mostly just the good parts. --Patrick Jarenwattananon



From '6'

If one group has distilled the icy Norwegian aesthetic into something new, it's Supersilent. When the band began in 1997, it was as if Aphex Twin had met the wilder side of King Crimson, pitting dark electronics against ferocious free-jazz. But after lineup changes and a new direction some years later, 6 solidified Supersilent and the all-Norwegian roster at Rune Grammofon as the figureheads of a new Nordic sound. The music often moves at a glacial pace, skimming the Aurora Borealis for alien textures. In particular, "6.2" reveals Supersilent's admiration for Miles Davis' electric period, but almost becomes an alternate world where smooth jazz is cool in a dark, dangerous way. --Lars Gotrich

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten / Håkon Kornstad

"Ak, mon jeg staar i naade"

From 'Elise'

When so many Norwegian jazz musicians spend their time translating the cold of winter into music, you'd think at least a few of them would like to warm up. Both double-bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and saxophonist Håkon Kornstad are relatively young guns, turning the heads of avant-garde jazz heavyweights like Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. On their first disc together, Elise, Flaten and Kornstad use Norwegian hymns as a point of improvisation, with beautifully intricate folk melodies stretched and re-examined. "Ak, mon jeg staar i naade" seems to simulate the crackle of a slow-burning fire. It starts with the tinder: Kornstad's saxophone whistles up from the leftover ashes and soon leaps into flickering melodic patterns while clicking the keys percussively. Flaten then sweeps through like a lethargic draft, his bass strings moaning. After a brief struggle, the fire suddenly comes to life, pulsing the melody of the Norwegian hymn. --Lars Gotrich


"ABC 101 B"

From 'Happy New Ears'

The typical "Scandinavian sound" can make for a warm, slow-burning salve on a winter's day. But if executed poorly, it can also make for some of most dreadfully boring sonic pablum on record. The three Norwegians and two Swedes of the quintet Atomic set out to resolve this image crisis: They liberally mix from the first wave of U.S. free jazz, the fiery first wave of European free improvisation, and a bit of the noisy rock that has followed since. The result is an energetic breed of lunatic yet compositionally sound post-bop, anchored by the bruising back line of Norwegians Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums). It's not designed to be a folkloric evocation of the stark Norwegian countryside; Atomic's sound was borne of the cosmopolitan cities of Stockholm and Oslo. Perhaps that's why it shares the raucous, urbane aesthetic of its generation around the world. --Patrick Jarenwattananon

Patrick Jarenwattananon
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Lars Gotrich
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