Bugge Wesseltoft is perhaps the very definition of a self-made man: since the mid-1980s when he began working in various projects, through hard work, diligence and a generous spirit, not to mention a huge amount of talent, Bugge has achieved: the set-up of his own label, Jazzland Recordings; leadership of one of the most well-loved crossover jazz ensembles to emerge from Norway, New Conception of Jazz; countless collaborative projects that are regarded by many as producing some of the best albums in jazz anywhere; and numerous awards throughout, including several Norwegian Grammies (Spellemannprisen) and the Buddy Award – Norway’s highest accolade in jazz.
Playing in bands since he was 16 years old, Bugge’s musical education has been one of hands-on experience and self-teaching. Eschewing the conventional paths of piano lessons when very young, and musical conservatories when older, Bugge, to this day, has never received a formal musical education. The freedom that this afforded allowed him to pursue any and all musical avenues that he discovered, not least of which was his early fascination with electronic sounds and equipment.
By the late 1980s in Oslo, Bugge became involved in different projects in the Norwegian pop/rock scene, and in some Norwegian jazz groups like U and Z, Et Cetera, Oslo Groove Company and The Talisman Group (from 1988). It was during these diverse musical excursions that his talent as a pianist was recognized, and soon Bugge was playing with the leading lights of the Norwegian Jazz scene, including Knut Risnæs, Arild Andersen and Jan Garbarek, appearing on some of the best Norwegian Jazz albums of the past 30 years, including Andersen’s “Sagn” and Garbarek’s “I Took Up The Runes” (notably on the piece “Molde Canticle”). He also played with Terje Rypdal’s Quintet, and was part of the legendary Jazzpunk Ensemble (a group that featured many of the best musicians Norway has ever produced).
In 1993, Bugge was commissioned to produce a work for Norway’s renowned Vossa Jazz Festival. Such a prestigious commission afforded Bugge the opportunity to assemble a powerhouse ensemble to perform his composition, entitled “A Little War Story”: Terje Rypdal, Jon Christensen, Bjørn Kjellemyr, Nils Petter Molvær, Vidar Johansen and Rune Arnesen.
That same year, he began his collaboration with Sidsel Endresen, one of Norway’s most respected and revered female vocalists. This collaboration was one that was marked by an experimental nature, with neither boundaries nor unnatural constraints. The musical connection between the two artists has often been remarked upon, and words like “telepathy” and “perfect synchronicity” pepper the critical writing surrounding them. This duo has produced three highly acclaimed albums (“Nightsong”, 1994; “Duplex Ride” 1998; and “Out Here. In There.” 2002), as well as memorable tours for those lucky enough to hear them.
The 1990s also marked the beginning of an era of new crossover experimentalism in Norwegian music. Club DJs and Jazz musicians began interacting to create a brand new kind of fusion, mingling traditional jazz improvisation with beats and turntablism. The appeal of electronics had always been magnetic to Bugge, who soon began working on new material based on this new concept. And indeed, the project’s name emphasised this: “New Conception of Jazz”.
With the release of his first album as a band leader, Bugge also realised that in order to provide the right kind of support for his album, he would need his own label. As such, the year 1996 marks a watershed for both Bugge and the emerging generation of jazz musicians, as Jazzland Recordings was founded that year with the album “New Conception of Jazz” as its first release. The album itself was recorded in 1994 and featured a plethora of talent from different generations of Norwegian Jazz, including Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Anders Engen, Eivind Aarset, Erlend Gjerde, Nils Petter Molvær, Audun Kleive, Björn Kjellemyr and Vidar Johansen. The album was a great success, and the New Conception of Jazz project spawned a further three studio albums (“Sharing”, 1998; “Moving”, 2001; and “Film Ing”, 2004 – this final album was perhaps the most eclectic of the entire output of NCoJ, and featured Norwegian folk singer, Øyonn Groven Myhren, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and Qawwali singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef), one live album (“New Conception of Jazz Live”, 2003, and featuring John Scofield), and later on a highly successful and critically acclaimed Box set (“New Conceptions of Jazz” – which also included a DVD as well as previously unreleased material).
Meanwhile, his label, Jazzland Recordings was growing, giving new and emerging talent a stylish and energetic forum through which to release albums. Many of the albums on the label feature contributions from Bugge both as keyboardists and as producer.
The final studio album under the New Conception of Jazz banner also featured three solo piano tracks by Bugge which hinted at what was to come next. In 2005, Bugge decided that New Conception of Jazz would come to an end, despite a huge international fanbase and the fact that the group’s diverse musical coverage and flexibility seemed like an infinite resource. However, Bugge felt that – for him - the project had been taken as far as it could, and he wanted new and different challenges.
Bugge began working on his solo piano project in 2004 amid working on numerous other projects and winding up the New Conception of Jazz. He had released a solo piano album before, of course – 2007’s “It’s Snowing On My Piano”, an album of interpretations of Christmas music that has sold countless copies since its release, and Bugge still performs on an annual basis with additional material. However, his first album of original material was “IM”, released in 2007. The skills he had developed throughout the preceding decade with samplers, loopers and other electronic devices were now given a less foregrounded role. The playing is superlative, melancholic, evocative and sometimes dark. Snatches of news reports, political speeches by world politicians and others, are sampled and layered into the compositions, creating a feeling of “seriousness” that never appeared under the New Conception of Jazz banner. And while tracks like “YOYK” (featuring Sami vocalist Mari Boine) may feel like they share DNA with the previous decade of Bugge’s music, they are only distant cousins.
The next album, “Playing” (2009), saw Bugge move in a different direction, while remaining grounded in his solo piano ambitions. The mood for this album was somewhat lighter, with Bugge’s wit and good humour shining through both in his original pieces and interpretations of music by others, creating unexpected juxtapositions and electronic left turns, as well as referencing most of the history of jazz along the way. This album also contains his famous interpretation of the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five”, but it is an interpretation quite unlike any other. By contrast, his interpretation of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” is a placid meditation on a musical piece, and given greater and richer depths than one might expect.
These interpretations were a hint of what was to come with his next album “Songs” (2012). However, unlike the interpretation of “Take Five”, Bugge instead chose to reduce his solo performance ethic to its absolute bare bones: this is literally solo piano – no electronics, no trickery. The decision to cover material so familiar to Jazz listeners, and material that has received so many interpretations over the years was a brave one; but not an ill-considered one. Rather than use these beautiful songs as a basis for a demonstration of every skill in his musical arsenal (as so many musicians unfortunately do), Bugge instead chose to maintain the focus upon the songs themselves. These pieces were some of the most influential in his musical education, and his treatment is certainly one of love and respect. His playing is lyrical, meditative and at time plaintive while others seemingly blissful. It is a masterclass in restraint.
Bugge continued to work in his solo oeuvre, while simultaneously working on several other projects, including a duo album with Henrik Schwarz (“Duo” 2011) – a return to a similar aesthetic to New Conception of Jazz, while remaining utterly different from it. By contrast, his work with Henning Kraggerud, a classical violinist, could not be further removed from that soundworld, and is captured on the magnificent 2012 album “Last Spring”. Additionally, he performed regularly at Oslo's Cosmopolité in "The Organ Club", a diverse collection of keyboard players improvising in various line-ups and permutations with the organ at the centre of things.
In 2014 Bugge brought forward his first band since his legendary New Conception of Jazz:
Bugge Wesseltoft's OK World!
OK World featured the exceptional talents of flamenco guitarist Josemi Carmona (Spain), multi-instrumentalist Shrikant Shriram (India/UK), percussionists Vivek Rajagopalan (India), Khaled Yassine (Lebanon), and Amadeu Cossa (Mozambique), and guest vocalists Martam Saleh (Egypt) and Georges Nehme (Lebanon), all musicians Bugge had met during his travels and tours around the world.
With his growing fascination with the diverse musical cultures the world had to offer, it was inevitable that the temptation to go beyond occasional collaborations would be powerful enough to generate a band with members from across the world. The geographical and cultural diversity of OK World does not obscure the common elements in the different dialects of musical exchange. When listening to OK World, one becomes very aware of the synchronicity of the musicians. The key reason for this is its unforced nature: the music is organic, springing forth intuitively from the participants, each bringing themselves and their unique idioms and accents to the musical table. The album abounds with moments of surprise, moments of beauty, moments of whimsy, moments of gravity. The music of OK World is a banner example of the universality of the human spirit as evoked through music, regardless of its origin.
Bugge's restless musical spirit continued its curious and extensive peregrinations across new sonic landscapes, discovering new textures, moods, and treasures. Accompanied by his friends Erik Truffaz, Ilhan Ersahin, Joe Claussell, Beady Belle, and Torun Eriksen, each expedition uncovered new combinations of classic jazz, club, funk, latin, soul with fresh energies. The album "Bugge & Friends" (2015) was released to great acclaim, and once again satisfied the full gamut of Bugge's fanbase.
With the arrival of Jazzland Recordings' 20th Anniversary – which, of course, was also the 20th anniversary of his album "New Conception of Jazz", Bugge decided to reform the New Conception of Jazz, but with an entirely new line-up. Featuring Marthe Lea (Saxophone, Electronics, Voice), Oddrun Lilja Jonsdottir (Guitar), Sanskriti Shrestha (Tablas) and Siv Øyunn Kjenstad (Drums and Vocals), the New Conception of Jazz 2016 represented a complete reimagining of Bugge's classic band and its music, and also represented a positive endorsement of female jazz musicians beyond the realm of the vocalist.
Additionally, Bugge assembled a special 20 track compilation of classic and previously unreleased material taken from his 20 years with his label Jazzland Recordings. "Somewhere In Between" represents a perfect overview of a career that has sought to erase boundaries and borders.
If there is anything that defines Bugge Wesseltoft as a human being, it is his generosity of spirit. The creation of new friendships and working relationships through music has been paramount in all of his endeavours, even where commercial enterprises are concerned. The music has always, and continues to be, first and foremost. Long may this continue!