Not so grim up north

The Caspian has been replaced by the fjords, the nodding donkeys by fir trees and the Manat by the Kroner: greetings from Oslo.  Norway may not be as far away from England as Azerbaijan and people may not confuse its name with that of a war zone quite so easily but it is proving to be an equally intriguing country to live in.

True to form, I will start with the food and drink and first thing that strikes me is the overwhelming abundance of fish here.  England, the island nation of fish and chips fame, looks as good as land-locked in comparison.  The SAS flight that brought me here served salmon fillet; each morning’s hotel breakfast buffet offers herring and smoked salmon by the kilo; a single portion of cod in an Oslo restaurant is equivalent to four people’s worth in London terms; it is remarkable.

Mention must also be made of the excellent bread.  Friends who have travelled to many corners of the globe say they have yet to taste better and I can believe it.  So far there has not been the slightest sign of a square-tin medium sliced, just loaves and buns of extensive variety and absolute freshness with texture and flavour to truly savour.  Indeed, all foodstuffs appear to be of a very high quality here.

Countless people warned me about the price of beer before I came and I have not been disappointed.  Bars in the middle of town average at about six pounds a pint.  The lowest I have found so far was four-ish in a community centre in Tøyen, a district a couple of miles east of centre.

That particular pint was the last of a couple that accompanied a most unusual evening’s jazz.  A colleague and I had popped into what we thought was a jazz venue on Saturday night to find that it was a jazz record shop with a café/bar upstairs, it did not have a gig on that evening and it had to close at midnight.  We enjoyed a pleasant visit nonetheless and noted a poster for a Sunday night gig elsewhere on our way out.

The search for that Sunday gig took us to a quiet corner of Tøyen, to a most unassuming doorway, up some stairs to a near-hidden café and through that to a back room with a stage, some lights, a PA system and seating for about thirty people.

Our entertainment for the evening was to be provided by a piano and saxophone duo; that much we had worked out from the poster.  The piano on stage was a polished black upright with its front panel removed and its top propped open on a side hinge as if imitating a concert grand; a curious combination.

When the performers walked on, the saxophonist was carrying not one but three instruments – soprano, alto and baritone.  His starting position was soprano in hand, alto hanging from neck-strap and baritone lying on stage; also curious.  What followed was ninety minutes of very inventive and largely engrossing music.

Both musicians had evidently worked long and hard to extract as much tonal and textural variety from their chosen instruments as possible.  The front had been removed from the piano so that the pianist could mute strings with his hands as required.  The saxophonist’s techniques included percussive staccato that sounded just like a muted electric guitar, saxophone beat-boxing, playing what sounded like chords (harmonics perhaps?) and playing without the reed, trumpet-style.

Ranging from classical structures to anarchic free-form, from fragile restraint to brutal strength, the performance was engaging, challenging and ultimately very rewarding to listen to.  It might most easily be likened to hearing the combined music and soundtrack of a film with the voices removed; not everyday listening but an experience to savour on occasion.  I look forward to hearing what else the local music scene has to offer.