31 JULY 2004, Page 37

Northern stars

Stuart Nicholson

ry all the BBC television programmes l..../shown on Norwegian TV, I wouldn't mind betting that Ground Force goes down like a lead balloon. I mean, take all the backlots you get to see during the twohour train journey from Oslo Gardermoen to Kongsberg. There's nothing more ambitious than a couple of scrawny roses in any of them. They are all neatly mown. I grant

you, but it would take more than Charlie Dimmock to produce Norwegian green fingers. Maybe it's because the natural countryside is so spectacular. Who needs herbaceous borders and decking when you've got beautiful rolling countryside with mountains clad in huge pine forests dominating your vista?

Taking in these sights as the train winds up the valley of the picturesque River Lagen is an unexpected bonus on a trip to find out why Norway is currently touted as the hotspot in world jazz. 'You'll find out why if you go to the Kongsberg jazz festival,' I was told. So it's on to the stoppen train with some 20-odd stoppens between Oslo and Kongsberg. And while a British train timetable presents a set of theoretical possibilities, in Norway they are cast-iron certainties. So you get surreal entries like Dent: 1526 and, sure enough, the train arrives at 1523 and actually leaves at 1526. No village is too small to be given the dignity of punctuality. Yet there's a strange paradox. For a society so neat and ordered (the crime rate is nil outside Oslo), how come there's so much graffiti? Kilroy has well and truly been here — even a BMW distributor, for all its TV closed-circuitry, had been done over.

Eventually, the Tannoy announces Kongsberg and here, in the crisp, clear air, where it's still light at 2.30 in the morning, they are holding their 40th annual jazz fes tival. A street has been cordoned off, an impressive stage has been erected together with enough seating, it seems, for the town's entire population of 25,000. Banners announcing the festival are everywhere, but it's the spectacular waterfall which splits the town in half that catches the eye. Later on I learn that years ago a local jazz administrator had an argument with his wife when crossing the bridge, and, so legend goes, threw her into the swirling torrent 70 feet below. But women are women in Norway, so she swam to the bank and promptly filed for divorce.

Looking around you, it seems hard to believe that practically all the jazz greats have played in this tiny town, from Charles Mingus to Stan Getz and from Sonny Rollins to Art Blakey. This year, however, there are only two US bands in the fourday festival — one led by the guitarist John Scofield and the other by saxophonist Ornette Coleman. All the rest are Europeans, and mostly from Scandinavia. Interestingly, I discover that Kongsberg's sister jazz festival at Bergen, which has been going for 35 years, booked no American artists this year. Times are indeed changing. One administrator I spoke to believes that European audiences now find American jazz too conservative.

In contrast, Norway has a seemingly inexhaustible line of adventurous jazz musicians. What seems to be happening is that the Norwegians are finally seeing the fruits of a highly sophisticated musicaleducation system — from kindergarten to university level — and an arts infrastructure that gives a significant degree of support to its artists. This autumn, for example, will see the worldwide release of albums by several Norwegian jazz musicians, including Jan Garbarek, Trygve Seim, Jon Balke and Nils Petter Molvaer, who all enjoy a significant international following. And if Kongsberg is anything to go by, then there are plenty of young musicians following closely on their heels.

Solveig Slettahjell is a world-class jazz singer, not just because she has a superb voice but because she reimagines every song she sings in a unique and compelling way that makes you consider even the most familiar material afresh. The group Atomic, a quintet of Norwegian and Swedish musicians, is destined for great things on its showing here, as is the group the Core, with Havard Wiik on piano common to both. He's a young player of flair and genuine creative excitement. But after an evening of excellent jazz, you are in no way prepared for being woken up at 9 a.m. the following day by an excellent student band with an 18-year-old Nordic beauty singing 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square' at the central bandstand. Jazz completely takes over the town and the way Norway has embraced it and made it its own is remarkable. I do have a pet peeve, though: lager costs £7 a pint. Still, you can't have it all.