One of the downsides – and they are few – of this job is that there are so few surprises. I might get a new CD through the post to review but I’ll have been to a gig, or heard an extract in a clip as part of an electronic press kit, or something. I’ll go to see a band I have never seen in concert before, but I’ll have all their recordings. But surprises do still sometimes happen, and one I will treasure for a very long time came about a month ago.
How I had not consciously come across Norwegian musician Håkon Kornstad before I have no idea. I must have heard him on recordings by Wibutee or Bugge Wesseltoft, and not registered. More importantly I had no knowledge of his more recent music. So when he appeared at the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, the club in central Oslo, on Friday 16 October I had no idea what to expect.
I was there primarily to hear about an excellent book about Norwegian jazz called The Sound Of The North, written by Luca Vitali, which was launched in the club earlier in the evening (review on this site in due course); Kornstad was launching this album, Tenor Battle, in the regular evening session. The two events could not have been a more perfect fit. Here was a volume exploring and enthusing about the extraordinary blossoming of jazz creativity that has been happening in Norway over the last four or five decades written by an Italian, and here was the re-blossoming of one of those Norwegian jazz musicians, a re-blossoming germinated in no small measure by the music of Luca Vitali’s homeland.
Kornstad took to the stage, tenor saxophone in hand, with the four other musicians in his ensemble – Sigbjørn Apeland on harmonium, Lars Henrik Johansen on harpsichord and cimbalom, Per Zanussi on double bass and Øyvind Skarbø on drums. They started instrumentally, Kornstad showing a rich, characterful tone on saxophone. And then he sang – it was an Italian aria and he sang it exquisitely. Of course it went down a storm.
Jazz and operatic tenor are not the most obvious bedfellows. In fact on paper you might think, hmm, this could very easily sound dreadful. But Kornstad has found a way of presenting the unlikely alloy, with perfectly suited band, in such a way that it not only works, it feels like each enhances the other still further. Copper and tin have their own charms, but bronze has a certain lustre that is irresistible.
So, to this album. The title is a play on the old tradition of having two tenor saxophones tussling; there may be two tenors here but I wouldn’t say there is much tussling. Sure, Kornstad sometimes takes a gruffer, more combative tone with his saxophone, whereas his voice is more lyrical and lighter both in tone and attitude, but they are in harmony, supporting and enhancing each other throughout.
Now that I have gone back and listened to the Kornstad I had heard before without registering it, it is striking how not only has his discovery of opera made him a very fine singer, but it has also made him a better saxophonist, I think. His phrasing is more expressive – vocal even! – and his tone broader and more flexible. It sounds like his singing has invigorated all aspects of his music. He is also a most charismatic performer.
The album programme mixes French and Italian arias with German lieder, the composers including Jules Massenet, Francesco Paolo Tosti, Richard Strauss and C.W. Gluck. All the music is from classical composers, a couple are instrumentals.
The sound of the band is perfect for this music, the harmonium capable of being orchestral in a quiet way, the harpsichord and cembalon adding the right classical delicacy but also having a wider, world music sound, the bass can be bowed when classically inclined or striding along jazz style, and the drums are beautifully and subtly supportive. I know Kornstad does live performances of this material solo, using loops, and that is great, but the Ensemble gives him a wider and more sumptuous setting which I am inclined to prefer.
It’s a beautiful album which I can’t recommend highly enough. For me it’s also a full-hearted memory of a delightful surprise.
- Håkon Kornstad is appearing solo at the London Jazz Festival supporting Andy Sheppard’s Surrounded By Sea. One performance is already sold out but there is an added one here.
- You can watch a video of the Kornstad Ensemble’s whole performance at the Victoria on 16 October on Håkon’s website here.
- And if you want to hear the story of how Hakon became an opera singer he tells it in a TED talk here.
Peter Bacon travelled to Oslo courtesy of Music Norway to whom he is most grateful.
Categories: CD review