Vidar Johansen sax
Magnus Aannestad Oseth trumpet
Rune Klakegg piano
Tine Asmundsen bass
Terje Engen drums
Release No: LOS 253-2
All compositions by Vidar Johansen
Recorded January 8, 2020 by George Helmke at Oslo Konserthus, Oslo, Norway
Mixed September 11, 2020, at Musikkloftet, Asker, Norway
Produced by Tine Amundsen & Vidar Johansen
Front cover photo by Mari Rognerud
The art of the composer is often overlooked in the history of jazz music. Improvisations, technical facility, the virtuoso aspect of the music is more revered and noticed by critics and audience. But without the structure of a composition, very little is left of the music. Even the free jazz depended on a strong musical line as a starting point for delving into and exploring the outer reach of the instrument, the melodic line, the rhythm.
Vidar Johansen has been one of the finest composers and arrangers in Norwegian jazz since he broke into the jazz scene while still in his teens as a tenor sax player (with an occasional stint at the soprano and the bass clarinet). He has never promoted himself much, but often been part of larger musical unities with other people at the head. And at these setting he has always seized the opportunity to contribute creatively. His creativity also extends to the titles of his songs, which are often quite mysterious and evocative.
With this recording, some of the hidden gems of Norwegian jazz composition have come to the surface, songs that have been lost in stacks of handwritten manuscript paper for decades, kept alive only in the memory of a few affectionados. I feel a certain pride in being part of this process.
Vidar Johansen and I have known each other since we both played in the Kongsberg Jazz Festival Big Band Workshop in 1973, him on lead tenor sax, me on second. He was 20, I was 18. Well, I soon found my place on the piano bench, and have stayed there. Since then we have played together in many different musical formations, several of them lasting for a long time.
Vidar´s breakthrough band was a pianoless quartet, Balke-Johansen Quartet, with alto saxophonist Erik Balke, bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and drummer Eyvind Olsen. The composition My Boy was premiered by this outfit. When Erik Balke left for studies at Berklee School of Music in Boston, I snuck into the band, which reformed as Busken Smoul (named after an obscure Danish nursery rhyme). Two of the songs on this album stem from the repertoire of Busken Smoul: Her (aner ikke) [Here ( Clueless)]and Busken Smoul. In my humble opinion Her (Aner ikke)is among the greatest Norwegian jazz ballads of all time. For a couple of years I was the happiest of musicians, playing in a band that gave me so much of what I had longed for. But as bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr left for Bergen symphony orchestra, the quartet disbanded.
When Tine Asmundsen decided to do an album of Vidar´s compositions, I had one demand: that we played a song that I remembered hearing at Malla Jazzhouse around 1980. Vidar played with drummer Espen Rud´s Kråbøl alongside Calle Neumann on alto sax, Jon Balke on piano and Geir Holmsen on bass. I did not know the name of the song, but it had made such an impression on me that I could hum it credibly 40 years later (except that the melodic line in the second part is so convoluted and unbelievable that any effort to sing it correctly is doomed). Vidar understood immediately which tune I meant. It bears the name Gnus.
Lille Frøen Saksofonkvartett (A friendly nod to the World Saxophone Quartet) consisted of Erik Balke, Tore Brunborg, Arne Frang and Vidar Johansen (on barytone sax). Again Vidar´s compositional strength shone in his arrangements for the Saxophone Quartet. 7 out of 11 tracks on their 4-MENNLP are Vidar´s compositions. (It´s great. Get hold of it if you can!)
1985 on Vidar and I played together in the quintet Out to Lunch (with brother Bjørn Klakegg on guitar, Knerten Kamfjord on bass and Svein «Chrico» Christiansen on drums.) From this repertoire stem Song for an Absent Piano Playerand Oscars drøm. The former was later arranged for big band at the request of Mercer Ellington, for use in his band. He had heard the song in Copenhagen, and immediately fell for it. The process of handing over the arrangement consisted of a bottle of Scotch and ample stories about the musicians in his father´s orchestra.
Out to Lunch recorded two albums, one simply namedOut to Lunch, the other Kullboksrytter. The latter album featured the Norwegian String Quartet and also the voice of Sidsel Endresen. Once again Vidar contributed some wonderful compositions for the project, in which we tried to make the string quartet an essential part of the compositions, not just icing on the cake.
Anne Marie Giørtz quintet was another band where Vidar put his creativity to use, and the composition In a Dreamoriginated from that repertoire. In the 1990´s Vidar was a part of the composers collective Søyr, led by Torgrim Sollid, a large and many headed monster of a band, full of ideas and inventiveness caught in the crossfire between jazz and contemporary music.
For some time Vidar also was a part of Bugge Wesseltoft´s New Conception of Jazz.
From the early 2000´s Vidar has been playing in Tine Asmundsen´s Lonely Woman, resulting in quite a few albums on Tines Hazellabel. Among them is Demons Diversions, a work commissioned by the Norwegian Cultural Commission. And the collaboration is continuing in Asmundsen & Co.
In addition to all these accomplishments, he leads his own band: Vidar Johansen trio/quartet, which has released two albums: Lopsided (1997) and Lost Animals(2009), and regularly performs at the Herr Nilsen jazz pub in Oslo.
But all of this is just for the record. Vidar´s true greatness lies in his personality, the originality of his thoughts and the sheer beauty and warmth of his playing. It is instantly recognisable: the big tone, the phrasing, the necessity of communicating with the audience, the earnestness, crazyness, humor and humanity. And likewise his compositions show a deep connection with the great names of the jazz history: Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter. And a lot of others. Vidar is also a fan of 20th century classical music, and has composed several pieces for classical musicians.
So where does all this leave us?
It certainly leaves us with a legacy of great music, and a continuing story of great sound pouring out of Vidar´s saxophones and great ideas forming on his manuscript paper. And it leaves us, his fellow players, with thankfulness for being allowed to contribute to that same magnificent sound!
Skien, september 2020