Nordic Jazz: Finland and Norway share the stage

Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity performs at the Nordic Jazz Festival

Photo: John Olsen
Gard Nilssen of Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity (left) plays two instruments at the same time.

Christine Foster Meloni & May Kamalick
Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s 11th annual Nordic Jazz Festival took place in late June with concerts by internationally acclaimed performers from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

The Finnish and Norwegian Embassies co-hosted an exciting program of cool jazz by Ikonostasis from Finland and Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity from Norway on June 29.

The event was held at the Embassy of Finland. When the guests arrived, they descended the stunning spiral staircase into the spacious Finland Hall on the lower level of the embassy, a perfect setting for the music. The chairs were arranged to face a two-story glass wall through which the trees of neighboring Normanstone Park were clearly visible, creating a peaceful view of nature.

Finnish Embassy Cultural Counselor Annina Aalto welcomed the guests and expressed her pleasure at coordinating the evening with her Norwegian colleagues, pointing out that, of the Nordic countries, Finland and Norway are the most similar in size and population. They also share a love for outdoor life and living attuned to nature.

But she was eager to point out that Finland is superior to Norway in two ways. First, Finland is better at ice hockey. Secondly, Finland has more heavy metal bands per capita than Norway—53.2 per 100,000 inhabitants to Norway’s 26.99. (Finland is actually #1 and Norway #5 in the world.)

Then it was time to hear some jazz! Each group played for approximately 45 minutes with a leisurely intermission during which guests could partake of a light reception of Finnish appetizers and desserts.

Photo: John Olsen

Counselor Aalto introduced the members of Ikonostasis: Finnish Kari Ikonen, piano; Norwegian Ole Mathisen, saxophone; and American Ra-Kalam Bob Moses, drums. Jon-Åge Øyslebø, Minister Counselor for Communications and Cultural Affairs at the Norwegian Embassy, introduced the members of Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity (all Norwegians): Gard Nilssen, drums; Ole Morten Vågan, bass; and André Roligheten, saxophone.

Keith Jarrett, the well-known American pianist, composer, and bandleader once said, “While classical music is like a photograph of a clear mountain stream, jazz is the stream.” These two groups performing at the Nordic Jazz Festival invited the audience to experience rather than understand the images that they created and communicated. With varying degrees of improvisation and deliberate distortions of pitch and time, the musicians forced the listeners to invest in emotional attentiveness.

The call and response of the musical instruments provided more than a Nordic character. Some images that Ikonostasis offered borrowed from Arabic music, which made some listeners’ heads nod, bodies sway, and feet tap to the rhythm of the familiar sounds.

With passion and skill, Gard Nilssen layered his intimate, often boisterous, solos with images created in his own mind, using two saxophones simultaneously (yes, at the same time). The standing ovation that the listeners gave him was proof of their appreciation and enjoyment, even their understanding of his art of the spontaneous. The music spoke to their hearts as well as their ears.

This musical event was also an opportunity to educate non-Finns about Finland. Between sessions the guests wandered around the room to observe two interesting displays.

The exhibition, “The Iconic and the Everyday: Creative Finland in America,” highlighted the presence and strength of Finnish design, architecture, and industry in the lives of Americans. To mention just a few of the 60 examples: Marimekko clothing, Finn-Crisps, Louisville Slugger baseball bats, the Finnish Baby Box, Carnival Cruise Lines ships, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

An enormous wall chart presented “100 Fun Facts about Finland.” Here is a very brief sampling:

• Finland has more saunas than cars.

• The literacy rate is 100%.

• Finland has 187,888 lakes.

• Finnish is a non-Indo-European language belonging to the Uralic family.

• Finns are the world’s biggest milk drinkers.

Perhaps the most important fact of all was that Finland is celebrating 100 years of Independence this year after existing as a Grand Duchy of Russia from 1809 to 1917.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.