Review: Ketil Bjørnstad/Kari Bremnes at LJF

Michael Tucker revels in the dynamic range offered by Bjørnstad and Bremnes' Munch-inspired material at the Purcell Room as part of the London Jazz Festival

In 1993 the Norwegians Bjørnstad and Bremnes released Løsrivelse (Separation) on their country’s Kirkelig Kulturverksted label: composed by Bjørnstad, it was a jazz-flecked instrumental quintet setting of poetic aphorisms and extended reflections by Edvard Munch, Norway’s most famous artist of modern times, and met with both critical and commercial success. Early next year, the release on ECM of Sunrise, a further Munch project from the pianist and vocalist, is scheduled and this time the quintet setting is enhanced by a choir.

Sponsored in part by The Royal Norwegian Embassy, their well-attended and very well-received hour-and-a-half duo concert at the Purcell Room as part of the London Jazz Festival drew most of its material from the earlier release, with The Mother and Open Window taken from the latest project. As Bremnes made clear in her various helpful introductions to and English paraphrases of the lyrics (all of which she sang in Norwegian), few people think of the painter of The Scream as a writer but at his death Munch (1863-1944) left thousands of pages of both carefully considered and improvised written manuscripts. While the material turned into songs by Bjørnstad (pictured) tends to reinforce the familiar image of Munch as an angst-ridden soul, a number like the gently lilting Your Eyes countered such preconceptions with a refreshingly upbeat, albeit still yearning note.

The pair perform this sort of programme once in a while in both Norway and Germany and clearly have a great deal of mutual empathy with and for the material. Beautifully measured, Bjørnstad’s classical touch and adagio-tinged phrasing served many a lyrically turned open-voiced melody but there were also some thunderous passages of clustered improvisation deep in the bass register, during a violently expressive reading of The Scream. Throughout, Bremnes’ lucid, soulfully pitched phrasing delivered the direct and often very moving lyrics of love and death, longing, belonging and loss with consummate poetic understanding – and, where needed, controlled drama. Warmly acknowledged by the two participants at one point, sound man Sven Persson was very much the (unseen) third person of the performance, his excellent work throughout enabling the audience to relish a consistently arresting yet never overforced blend of voice, lyric and piano in a thought-provoking programme of considerable dynamic range.

Photography courtesy ECM

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