Norwegian good: the Nils Økland Band in London

While I may have reservations about the sheer size of the London Jazz Festival, I long ago stopped asking myself whether this or that act can really be described as ‘jazz’. What matters for the individual in the audience, after all, is whether he or she enjoys the music, and the organisers’ highly inclusive approach to what they feel is appropriate for a ‘jazz festival’ can offer rich pickings if you choose your gigs carefully. Happily, my choice of a concert yesterday evening – the Nils Økland Band, playing in the smaller of the two halls at King’s Place – proved to be very fruitful indeed. Was the music jazz? Only fitfully, I’d argue – but when a performance is this wonderful, who cares?

Økland, whose music can be found on the ECM and Rune Grammofon labels, is one of Norway’s leading exponents of the Hardanger fiddle, though he also plays the viola d’amore and the violin. Though his music is profoundly influenced by the Norwegian folk tradition, he plays mostly his own compositions, which also find parallels in other styles, from baroque and contemporary concert-hall music to jazz, the blues, nineteenth-century ballads, free improvisation, rock and more besides. Økland has recorded solo, in duet with harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland (on the lovely ‘Lysøen – Hommage à Ole Bull’, in tribute to Norway’s most famous virtuoso violinist), and in various other formats. The band at King’s Place was almost identical to the one featured on last year’s ECM release ‘Kjølvatn’, save that the percussion was provided by Tore Jamne. So in addition to Økland and Apeland, we also had the marvellous and very prolific bassist Mats Eilertsen – a leader in his own right on the recently released ‘Rubicon’ – and saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, a soloist with various symphony orchestras, a composer, and regular collaborator with Frode Haltli and Håkon Thelin in the experimental trio Poing.

I mention such credentials to give some idea not only of the musical expertise of Økland’s band, but of the sheer range of the music on offer. Many of the numbers played sounded echoes of Norwegian folk music; though they were mostly quite simple in terms of melody, often plaintive in the slower tempi, vigorously percussive in the faster, sometimes jig-like tunes, the quintet brought enormous harmonic subtlety and sophistication and a surprisingly broad spectrum of tonal colour into play. Eilertsen’s bass, from the very start, lent a lithe jazz element to the proceedings, whereas Nystrøm’s saxes, only occasionally recalling traditional jazz soloing, summoned up an extraordinary diversity of sounds: not just flutes, whistles and other wind instruments, but stringed instruments, birds, drums, the wind and the waves. Meanwhile, Apeland’s harmonium might provide a rich, almost hymnal solemnity or, here and there, distant echoes of jazz organ, while Jamne’s small but pleasingly varied line-up of instruments meant his contributions could caress, thud, thunder, swing or simply underline.

Nils Økland (photo by Hreinn Gudlaugsson)

At the centre of it all, of course, was Økland himself, master of many different tunings (if memory serves, he explained that there are more than 30 used by Norwegian fiddlers) and holding the whole barely categorisable combination of musical styles gloriously together with his distinctive sweet but slightly scratchy tone. In the quieter moments the delicacy of his playing can be astonishingly poignant; in a boisterous dance he is equally impressive with a more muscularly rhythmic style. He never dominated the performance – all the musicians seemed far too modest, relaxed and downright good-humoured to even consider trying to steal the limelight – but his evident quiet confidence in the music, whether achingly lyrical or exhilaratingly joyful, was wholly justified, and a joy to behold.  Perhaps jazz wasn’t the predominant style of the evening, notwithstanding the high level of improvisation, but when a concert provides music and musicianship that is this good, I’ll go and see it however it’s pigeon-holed. And here’s a slightly embarrassing confession: when I wrote and first published this piece, I was of the erroneous opinion that the gig was part of the London Jazz Festival. I now stand happily corrected: the Festival actually started the following night. Which just goes to show: categories really don’t matter that much – just quality.

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