Oval Space, 29-32 The Oval, London E2 9DT
“My ‘new concept’ will always splice technology with real instruments,” says Bugge Wesseltoft. Two decades have passed since the Norwegian keyboard wizard introduced the world to his ‘New Conception of Jazz’ – the band and eponymously titled 1996 album that earned Bugge the first of his three Spellmenprisen. The concept driving the music was one that, in typical Norwegian style, found a way to blend the organic with the mechanical. Melding together club beats, live looping and jazz improvisation, Bugge drew on the extended forms first explored by Miles Davis when he made the shift from acoustic jazz to rough-hewn electronics on Bitches Brew back in the late 1960s. (Wesseltoft’s approach was echoed by fellow Norwegian Nils Petter Molvaer, with the trumpeter adding crushing drum and bass beats to his icy soundscapes.)
Bugge’s work drew on the Nordic tone, which naturally emphasises space and sparseness – a consistent characteristic of Scandinavian music. Since this pivotal mid-1990s moment, however, Bugge has crossed much musical terrain. Alongside sound designer/producer Henrik Schwarz, he blended acoustic piano with delicate live electronics, then formed a trio with Schwarz and former EST bassist Dan Berglund, creating a digitally driven ‘piano trio’. Meanwhile, Bugge’s own Jazzland label continues to track the newest Norwegian jazz sounds. Despite the many intriguing turns his work has taken over the last 20 years, there are many Bugge fans who have been nurturing a hope that he’d one day return to the heady dance-floor days of the New Conception albums. They’re the ones who will be happiest to hear that his latest work, Bugge & Friends, is exactly that, but with a new line-up and a definite jazz sensibility front and centre.
So what inspired this return to the larger group set-up? “That was an idea for some years,” he explains. “To join friends and heroes I had met and worked with in the electronic jazz period between 1996 and 2006. I got the chance to put it together at the 2011 Oslo Jazz Festival.”
For Wesseltoft, Bugge & Friends was an opportunity to revisit his New Conception days with a fresh contemporary perspective – one in which using real musicians, rather than simply letting machines do all the work (as so many producers do today) actually seems rather radical: “The album is a tribute to that period where jazz met club music,” he says. “My fascination is both the blend of sound and the interplay between electronic and acoustic instruments.” And does he still enjoy using technology as part of a live performance? “I love it! From my solo concerts mixing laptop and piano to larger bands – today, compared to 15 years ago you can really improvise in real time and fully use a laptop as an instrument in a concert setting.”
Having helped usher in a new generation of artists on his label, he’s optimistic about the current state of music: “Despite the huge changes we see in music distribution, I’m glad to see there’s still so much talent popping up almost every day. My record label Jazzland has a 20th anniversary next year (along with New Conception of Jazz) and we have some amazing new artists such as Chilli Vanilla and Moksha, to name a few.” Having spent the last four years building up the buzz around his new & Friends group, Bugge makes a much-anticipated return to London on 26 October at Oval Space in Bethnal Green. What can listeners expect? “Bugge & Friends is a very lively and groovy band with New York DJ Joe Claussell as the beatmaker of the group, mixed with jazzy sounds from saxophone, trumpet, acoustic bass and piano. I love working with that band and those amazing guys!”
It’s a truly international ensemble, including French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, Swedish-Turkish saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin and Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican beat maestro Joe Claussell, and not forgetting the Norwegian new-keyboard conceptualist, Bugge himself. It may have been 20 years since he introduced his new concept, but just because the decades have passed, that doesn’t mean it has got old – it just keeps evolving.