Album Title: Geir Bøhren / Bent Åserud: Quiet Winter Night
Performers: Jan Gunnar Hoff and The Hoff Ensemble
: 2L 2L-087-PABD
Playing time: 50’58"
Recorded: Aug 2011

I’m a total idiot when it comes to Jazz. No wonder I’ve never dared to write one word on this topic. But this new Jazz album from 2L cast a spell over me. It hit me so bad that I decided to violate my music review ethics (if any are left) and plunge into the forbidden topic. When the first line popped into my head, it was sobering. This is no Jazz? At least not the kind I fear most. Really, fourteen tracks plus one bonus all got me helplessly hooked. For someone who can’t survive a single track of a normal Jazz album, this came as quite a shock.

My uneducated gut feel tells me this is more of a collection of folk and lyrical songs with even some movie themes all delivered with perhaps a touch of... well, Jazz? As I found out later, the truth is that composers Geir Bøhren and Bent Åserud are famous Norwegian composers for the silver screen. Arranger Jan Gunnar Hoff is the founding leader and pianist of The Hoff Ensemble which is the core performing group here. Probably that’s where it began to turn jazzy.

Okay, music is show business and I suppose especially for Jazz the ensemble is all that matters. No offense but I bet nine out of ten Jazz fans wouldn’t have known or heard of The Hoff Ensemble. It won’t mean much even if I told you how popular they are in Norway. (The fact is I don’t know much about them either.) So I'll simply explain to the best of my ability how a Jazz-immune knuckle head like me suddenly succumbed.

First and foremost I was galvanized by the diversity and unity in perfect harmony. The music flows from one track to the next imbued with stylistic individualism that never gets repetitive. That’s diversity. Yet no matter how much they twist and turn, there is a distinctive thematic cohesiveness that is unmistakably picturesque and Scandinavian. That’s unity. Secondly the arrangement is greater than the sum of its parts. Jan Gunnar Hoff and his ensemble are one basic Jazz group established in 1993 with Hoff at the piano, Mathias Eick on trumpet, Børge Petersen-Øverleir on guitar, Arild Andersen on bass and Rune Arnesen on percussion. Hoff is an arranger with vision. Not only did he expand the scope of his ensemble by inviting musicians of great characters to collaborate, Hoff knew exactly how and when to let each shine, thus giving each song real character. Instead of jamming together in every song, the arrangements remain simple and of crystalline transparency yet there’s not one stagnant moment. If I may quote one example of effective instrumentation it is the nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle played by Annbjørg Lien - not real Jazz instruments if you ask me.

The third winning card are the vocals. Of the album’s 15 tracks, 5 are instrumental and 10 mostly solo vocals with just a few duets. Yet there aren't merely two singers but nine, ranging from youthful to worldly, from carefree to venerable, from romantic to paternal, from antiquated to modernistic. If you wove in some storyline it could well be sold as a mini Scandinavian Broadway show. My favourite 'theme songs' include "Vesle, rare bygdeunge" on which a sensual female vocalises with just piano, guitar, bass and very delicate percussion. "Kveldslokk for små unger" features a piano backdrop for male singer Sondre Bratland’s fatherly soft and cuddly love. "Lys i Desember" has female vocalist Helene Bøksle soothe every soul with her tender feather-light crooning. "Ved bålet" is my favourite love duet sung by Cecilia Vennersten and Bjørn Eidsvåg which reminded me of 70s' oldie "Stay Awhile" by The Bells only more pure and innocent. (Although I don’t have the lyrics, I don’t seem to get the feeling of "she drops her robe on the floor".)

2L has never stopped pioneering high-resolution recording techniques and has firmly established the leading standard. This Pure Audio Blu-ray is a perfectionist’s dream come true. This time recording engineer Morten Lindberg restrained himself from unorthodox stage layouts for multi-channel. He only put the percussionist in the rear and kept everyone else front stage to definitely widen the appeal. It suits the music so splendidly that stereophonic ears melt away.

The album booklet sports beautiful art direction as always but surprisingly there’s not much text to chew on. To my disappointment there’s not even an English translation of the song titles, let alone detailed program notes or English translations of the Norwegian lyrics. My inquisitive nature prompted me to go after Morten who kindly provided a simple introduction to the project followed by the titles in English: "The setting for all these melodies is a mythical landscape created as a Christmas calendar for kids back in 1991. The audience who grew up with these Norwegian Broadcasting TV series are now adults. All the musicians in the band have backgrounds tied to Jazz but in this project the supporting vocals are famous artists wandering freely between pop, folk and Jazz."  (As I found out, Bjørn Eidsvåg for instance is quite popular on YouTube.)

1. Dronning Fjellrose = Queen Fjellrose (her name means "Mountain Rose")
2. Stille, stille kommer vi = Quiet, quiet, here we come
3. Dele alle ord og tanker = Share all words and thoughts
4. Redd Mamma = Save Mother
5. Sulla, sulla krekling = Hush, hush, little one
6. Blågutten = The Blue Boy
7. Ville fjellgutt = Wild Mountain Boy
8. Hva skal hende nå? = What shall happen now?
9. Ved bålet = By the camp fire
10. Tufsa danser = Tufsa dancing (Tufsa is the name of one of the characters)
11. Vesle, rare bygdeunge = Little sweet village boy
12. En blånissekveld = A night for the blue hobgoblins (The word "nisse" is a mythical figure that could translate to either hobgoblin, brownie or pixie in the English language. These characters are good spirited.)
13. Kveldslokk for små unger = A lullaby for little kids
14. Lys i desember = Light in December

When a Jazz bonehead like yours truly has no option but to endorse this Jazz album wholeheartedly with a Blue Moon award, there can only be one of two explanations. This is no Jazz. Or, this is absolutely awesome Jazz.