Mathisen and Espen Berg Trio triumph at Trondheim

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There are empty rows in the riverside Dokkhuset during native sax king Marius Neset’s exhilarating finale. Because in a more intimate corner space, Ole Mathisen and the Espen Berg Trio are turning it into the downtown club of your dreams. Mathisen, 51, has been a New York fixture since 1993, and on a rare home gig is hitting escape velocity with countrymen 20 years his junior. With Saturday night lights glowing through the glass behind them, listeners packed tight into every cranny and the bar hubbub rising, it’s a pleasurable pressure cooker, stoked by the pace of intergenerational exchange as Mathisen’s quick, cleanly inevitable lines are met by Berg’s piano cascades. Bassist Bárður Reinert Poulsen blissfully shuts his eyes, and drummer Simon Alderskog Albertsen punches the glass, letting out surplus steaming energy in a moment’s pause. All push each other exhaustedly past their limits, then hang on. It’s the kind of unrepeatable night jazz exists for.

Afterwards, I’m told Trondheim’s two 2014 Nobel prize-winning scientists spurn all offers to move to grander cities because of its jazz, even incorporating it into their acceptance speech. Where many festival bills are part of a movable feast of stars summering in Europe, Trondheim offers music you won’t hear elsewhere. On my recent visit, I felt very much abroad, as Norwegian artists spoke and often played in local dialect to local audiences.

Memorabilia, bassist Mats Eilertsen’s collaboration with female vocalists Trio Mediaeval on Norwegian liturgical music, is at its best an exchange of ritual, ambient beauty. Eilertsen’s amplified boom during the ‘Kyrie Eleison’ is among abrasive, treated sections. His drummer Thomas Strønen (an ECM artist in his own right) clamps a drumstick between his teeth like a cutlass as the singers, though their parts are choppily intercut, maintain ethereal grace. Harmen Franje’s piano reverie of gentle acceptance precedes a steady climb in communal power, before sinking back to a softly thoughtful ‘Agnus Dei’. As so often, it’s the thoughtful beauty, not the diligent harshness, that sticks.

Guitarist Ralph Towner – ECM veteran, leader of the band Oregon and sideman on Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric – pairs with Sardinian trumpeter and flugelhornist Paolo Fresu. The latter’s piercing, lonesome romance on ‘Blue In Green’ emphasises a debt to Miles of distracting size. Towner’s pilgrim’s ascent on baritone guitar during ‘A Sacred Place’, met at the pinnacle by a hushed Freso, is, though, worthwhile.

Crossing a bridge into the atmospheric, sparsely populated old town, the Gothic Nidaros cathedral lends its giant Steinmeyer organ to Jan Magne Førde’s composition ‘Mezzing’. Platoons of brass appear in a pincer movement, bracketing us in our crepuscular pews, and the Steinmeyer’s stalactite-like pipes offer Close Encounters-style sonority. Førde’s over-amped jumble of orchestral rock, African beats and gypsy fiddle doesn’t, though, live up to the setting. The current NTNU Jazzensemble – students at the college which makes Trondheim western Norway’s jazz hotbed – also crash bewilderingly from Albert Ayler punk-shanty cacophony to Marvin Gaye balladry.

Finland’s Katu Kaiku, in an afternoon slot in the Dokkhuset cranny where Mathisen and company later shine, prove worthy winners of 2015’s Young Nordic Jazz Comets prize. Starting slowly, and so quietly birdsong can be heard outside the bar, apparent reticence builds into funk flurries and fiery, post-Coltrane blasts from saxophonist Adele Sauros. She goes dirtily low and siren-high on soprano during ‘Supernova’; bassist Mikael Saastamoinen and drummer Erik Fräki’s quirky, searching rhythm section add to the dreamy melodies, introspection and soaring excitement.

Mambo Companeros, local salsa veterans with Cuban percussionist-singers, here backed by strings, draw a broad crowd with the kitsch-latin repertoires of Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney et al. Lead singer Alexander Fernandez’s louche touch of Antonio Banderas lights the touch-paper for spinning dancers and romantic rivalries at their hotel basement gig. A packed mid-afternoon bar in another hotel hears bluegrass played as if it’s jazz by Open String Department (genres which also recently met through Béla Fleck’s banjo duels with Chick Corea). Though sometimes soporifically introverted, glistening dobros, banjos and bass also achieve urgent, inventive speed.

Doffs Poi’s singer Mia Marien Berg screeches then coquettishly smiles at an upstairs club early Saturday night, giving another taste of newish blood (though they’ve been around town for a while). She drinks water slowly between songs like a fire-eater. Capable of massive volume, discordant collapse and slurring tempi, her band’s jaggedly unpredictable art-pop has jazz attitude.

Marius Neset’s quintet, with guest cellist Svante Henryson, are on fine form. Ivo Neame’s classical piano motifs back Neset as he finds an aching arc of resolution on a ballad’s final note. Henryson’s bow later leaves his strings with a whisper matching Neset’s breathy sax, the band’s heartbeat fading to silence. Soon afterwards, there’s Yiddish melancholy in the cello and Neset’s sinuously lovely soprano. It’s a palate-cleanser for the full band’s storming return, Jim Hart’s four mallets flying over the vibes, and drummer Anton Eger unleashed for headbanging flurries cued by brief Neset phrases. Neset’s solo encore finds his own fullest, high-velocity expression.

The never quite full crowd, though, suggest he’s a prophet not wholly honoured at home. In this festival of fascinatingly local focus, jazz and folk accordionist Asmund Bjørken, a genial, 82-year-old Trondheim mainstay, draws more the following afternoon. Cole Porter is sung in Norwegian and, on Liberation Day from the Nazis, the jazz fraternity toast a career begun in 1946’s glow of freedom.

– Nick Hasted

– Photo by Thor Egil Leirtrø - www.thoregilphoto.com