Norwegian jazz giant for Grahamstown Jazz Fest

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Norwegian Grammy winner Petter Wettre
Norwegian Grammy winner Petter Wettre

Peter Feldman: Two-time Grammy Award winner Petter Wettre, one of Norway’s most famous jazz musicians, will be at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.

It isn’t widely known that the Standard Bank Grahamstown Jazz Festival, which also includes the vital Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (NYJF), is South Africa’s oldest and longest jazz festival having started in 1988. However, it is recognised as one of the world’s most important jazz festivals – particularly because of its dynamic youth component – and Wettre is thrilled to be making his debut here.

Wettre has made his mark over several decades and is considered one of the most important musicians on the contemporary Norwegian jazz scene.

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Since the ‘90s, he has been performing all over the world and he has good memories of performing in Johannesburg at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz some years ago.

In an interview Wettre said that for his concerts at the Standard Bank Grahamstown Jazz Festival he will be bringing out a great new band consisting of some of the very best young Scandinavian players of today.

“There is Erlend Slettevoll on piano, Julian Haugland on bass and Karl Henrik Ousback on drums. Karl performed here some years in Grahamstown as part of a young talent programme. We will perform music from my album, recorded a few years back, called Fountain of Youth. It is a suite in four parts and I was awarded a Norwegian Grammy for that recording when it came out nine years ago. We will also play some of my contemporary compositions.”

Wettre boasts an impressive body of work. Asked what governed him in his choice of material for South Africa, he said: “I like performing Fountain of Youth. It gets me ‘in the zone’ so to speak. It has a timeless quality to it and my band really lift it off the ground. It is reminiscent of Coltrane’s Love Supreme and I think the Grahamstown audiences will like it. It is a very diverse piece.”

Wettre never tires of performing: “I make sure that I always have another project in the pipeline. Either new music or a new collaboration. I’m always eager to become a better saxophonist, a better musician and a better composer.

“I enjoy music and that probably is the main reason I keep going. There is no feeling comparable to be on the bandstand with a great band and hearing my ideas played out in real time. Having said that, I don’t have any other skills. This is what I know and this is what I do. I love this life and always will.”

After playing sideman for a while, which included a visit to Johannesburg with Manu Katche for Joy of Jazz in 2013, this master sax musician has started composing again.

“I’m ready to get into the ‘band leader mode’ again.”

He plans a new album, his first since 2008, and the re-launch of his first album, Pig Virus, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

His Grammy wins were musical highlights but he still rates travelling around the world, meeting musicians and audiences as “the coolest thing being a musician”.

“I appreciate the opportunity I have as a performer to experience the world and experience the diversity in which we live. I used to think it was important to be well known, to be important, but now I know that being part of the ‘jazz musician legacy’ is the best that I could ever hope for.”

Asked in what musical idiom he felt most at home, he said: “My musical background comes from the time I spent at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the US. I travelled to the States because I love American jazz and I think my music reflects that. Combined with my Norwegian heritage I believe that the fusion of these two styles gives my music a unique sound. I definitely feel more at home in the post-bop era rather than the free jazz era due to the fact that I prefer structure over coincidence.”

So what is his opinion of today’s jazz scene in Europe and America?

“I used to be very opinionated when it came to these types of questions. Today I really only care if the music is good. American or European – it doesn’t matter. Having said that, I tend to prefer American jazz over European. It probably has to do with the fact that I was educated in the US and was exposed more to that type of jazz. I like melody, rhythm and harmony.”

Asked what advice he would give a young musician wanting to enter the industry full time, Wettre replied: “You have to be committed. Nothing happens by accident. Be prepared, be nice and be cool-headed. You will have to prepare for a situation where you are your own booking agent, tour manager and roadie. And most importantly never turn down a gig.”

Taking part at The Standard Bank Grahamstown Jazz Festival, which is part of the National Arts Festival and runs from June 30 to July 9 are Grammy Award winners Trio Corrente from Brazil; Austrian singer and trumpeter Michaela Rabitsch and guitarist Robert Pawlik; Dutch saxophonist Toon Roos and the powerhouse tenor sax duo of Dave O’Higgins (UK) and Per Thornberg (Sweden). Also featured are local South African musicians such as the legendary Caiphus Semenya; Simphiwe Dana; the Afrika Mkhize Big Band; Swing City and Ringo Madlingozi. For more information, check www.standardbankarts.co.za or www.youthjazz.co.za

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