For the first song of his debut Spoleto show, Norwegian jazz multi-instrumentalist Håkon Kornstad seemed to have laid all his cards on the table. He started by getting every sound possible out of a tenor saxophone, employing staccato slap-tongue blasts and raspy multiphonic chords to push the instrument to its natural limit.
Then he started looping, using a turn-of-the-millennium Electrix Repeater with a foot pedal to pile on at least four layers (by our count) of saxophone tones before flying into a solo over top of his own one-man band. He twisted his body to damp the bell on his thigh, closing out the song to already-thunderous applause.
The opening song, “Sweden,” was remarkable for its range of technique, but the ones that followed made it seem like a mere party trick. He explained afterward that the technology in his looping rig was very basic, with no internal memory that would allow him to pre-record backing riffs. “No cheating,” he joked. Kornstad had to do it all live, and he pulled off the daring feat with the seemingly effortless grace of a tightrope walker.
Kornstad kept his crowd astonished throughout his hour-long set, later adding in a flutonette — that is, a flute with a clarinet mouthpiece — to lay down a base of mellow, undulating tones before leaning back, pursing his lips, and unleashing a toneful whistle that called to mind fellow loopmeister Andrew Bird’s one-man orchestrations.
With his hand fiddling the Repeater’s knobs to adjust pitch and tempo mid-song, Kornstad sometimes looked more like an electronica DJ than a jazz cat — a distinction he probably wouldn’t mind, as he started his career with a band of electro-jazz explorers called Wibutee. About halfway through the set, he shocked the crowd again by playing the one card he had left in his deck: a strong opera tenor voice that sounded more doleful than booming, more confessional than dramatic. After several minutes of loop-building on the saxophone and flute, he stepped back from the instrument microphone and launched into Gluck’s “O del mio dolce ardor.” The first few notes came unexpected and unannounced, and they brought a catch to my throat.
By all rights, no one person should possess as many musical talents at Håkon Kornstad. It isn’t fair to artists who devote their entire lives to a single instrument to see Kornstad picking up instruments and setting them down, producing tones and ideas that aren’t half-baked, but fully formed. Surely a few artists in the audience left the room either stewing with envy or brimming with inspiration. Masterfully trained in all of his disparate disciplines, Kornstad treated each element of his show with utter seriousness — and yet the result didn’t seem like a struggle, but a joy.