Born in Oslo, Norway in 1977, Kornstad took up the clarinet in grammar school and eventually turned to the saxophone and studies at the Trondheim Jazz Conservatory. Known for its emphasis on artistic identity, Kornstad emerged from Trondheim with a distinct voice whose strength was soon manifest in the professional success that followed. But even before leaving the Conservatory, he began putting it to work in the formation of the group Triangle, with two fellow Conservatory students, drummer Wetle Holte and double bassist Per Zanussi. With the addition of pianist Erlend Skomsvoll and singer Live Maria Roggen, Triangle would evolve into the group Wibutee and, by the time Kornstad graduated, the group was embraced by a community of artists centered around the contemporary music club Blå. It was there that pianist Bugge Wesseltoft heard and signed him to the Jazzland Recordings label in 1998, and three Jazzland albums followed: Newborn Thing (1999), Eight Domestic Challenges (2001), and Playmachine (2004).
In parallel to Wibutee, Kornstad organized an acoustic group of formidable artistic ability, the Kornstad Trio. Consisting of two more classmates from Trondheim, renowned bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, they made a big impression when they were invited by guitarist Pat Metheny to play with him in 2001 at the Molde International Jazz Festival; and another important festival, the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, selected the trio in 2002 for its annual award for the Norwegian musician or group of the year. Kornstad's interest in collaboration led to more critically acclaimed creative ventures, including a pair of duo albums with pianist Håvard Wiik entitled Eight Tunes We Like (2005) and The Bad and the Beautiful (2006), the latter nominated in 2006 for the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy – the Spellemannprisen. He also later recorded three duo albums with bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten;
After years of strengthening his technique, discovering nuances, and exploring the sonic possibilities of the saxophone in collaborations and as a sideman, Kornstad released his own solo effort in the album Single Engine (2007), an album that showed he had fully come into his own at last. Kornstad was now established in his own right as one of Norway's leading jazz musicians, and Single Engine helped him gain recognition for his vision, featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Knut Reiersrud and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten as guests. One of Norway's leading newspapers, Dagbladet, fully understood the quality and significance of this release. The review entitled Absolute Kornstad, with the inserted headline A Definitive Artistic Breakthrough, was itself definitive: “Håkon Kornstad’s 'Single Engine' is an extraordinary album. Here all the bits and pieces come together, and loose threads find their place, while the music raises perhaps the most important milestone in an artist’s development: the definitive transition from 'promising' to 'mature and original.'”
His second solo album was released in 2009. Dwell Time (Jazzland) is a purely solo saxophone performance, recorded in Sofienberg Church by legendary engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. In real time, Kornstad recorded short tracks into a looping device that play back and gradually build as he adds more elements, and ultimately became an orchestra that accompanied him as he carried the melodies and improvised. Peter Margasak's review in Downbeat Magazine was typical of the album's reception in the press, calling Kornstad “one of Norway's most original and daring musicians.”
The year 2009 would mark another major moment in Kornstad's artistic evolution. On a visit to New York, he discovered opera and decided to take lessons with a retired dramatic soprano. This led him to apply and be admitted in 2011 to the Operahøgskolen (The Norwegian Academy of Opera), where he completed his master studies as operatic tenor in May 2014. At the Oslo Opera House he performed several roles as part of his education.
While still in his first year of opera school, he released his third solo saxophone album, Symphonies in My Head (Jazzland, 2011). In this recording, there were early signs of how his new knowledge of opera would be integrated into his jazz expression, such as his saxophone rendition of an aria from George Bizet's opera Les pecheurs des perles. Critical reviews of the work were again outstanding. Eyal Hareuveni wrote in All About Jazz that “he manages to turn his improvisations into small symphonies, arresting in their structure and deep emotional impact.”
Kornstad's new direction, a meeting of jazz and opera, manifest itself not only in his solo performances, but also took the form of Kornstad Ensemble. Seamlessly blending opera arias and jazz, the group features his longtime companion from Wibutee, double bassist Per Zanussi, as well as Sigbjørn Apeland on harmonium, Øyvind Skarbø on percussion, and Lars Henrik Johansen on harpsichord.
One of the group's first performances was given in 2012 at the Molde Jazz Festival and stirred tremendous interest. Dagbladet's headline read, “The Two Tenors Hit the Note,” and reported that the festival could have sold out the concert three times over. About a year later, Dagbladet checked in with Kornstad again, now in his final year of opera study, and published a feature article about his work. Entitled The Two Tenors by One of Them, its subtitle underlined Kornstad's essential viewpoint, Jazz on the tenor saxophone or opera arias as lyric tenor? For Håkon Kornstad (36) the choice was clear: yes please, both. The article begins by spelling out Kornstad's ever more unique artistic profile:
“He sings an Italian aria much better than any other tenor saxophonist you've heard of, before grabbing his horn – and with the world's strangest constellation plays an aria in a jazz fashion that Björling, Caruso or Pavarotti would never have dreamed about.” (Dagbladet)
If one were to choose only one among Kornstad's many talents and accomplishments that would represent his work, it would be the fearlessness with which he has followed his muse, time and again, into extraordinary artistic territory. Still a relatively young man in his 30s, the promise of what is yet to come is truly exciting.
Fellow artists have been taking notice. In 2012, the Oslo International Church Music Festival invited Norwegian writer, composer and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad to write A Passion for John Donne which was composed, in part, with Kornstad's saxophone playing and singing in mind. Featuring the Oslo Chamber Choir under the director of Håkon Daniel Nystedt, percussionist and drummer Birger Mistereggen, and Bjørnstad himself on the piano, the concert performance of Passion for John Donne was recorded, was released on the ECM label in November 2014 (Kornstad's debut on the label).
In September 2013 Kornstad was invited by American jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman to perform solo and duo in London’s Wigmore Hall. Same year, he did extensive touring in Europe alongside Bugge Wesseltoft and Ola Kvernberg among others, playing his concert of solo saxophone and song on the famous Karsten Jahnke Jazz Nights tour in Germany.
Another collaboration with Bjørnstad was presented in the summer of 2014 with a commissioned work for one of Norway's largest music festivals, Olavsfestdagene (St. Olav Festival) in Trondheim. Once again written music for the ensemble that performed Passion for John Donne. He and Kornstad was joined by soprano Tora Augestad and cellist Anja Lechner. The work was performed in the Nidaros dome and will be released in January 2016.
The summer of 2014 also brought Kornstad to yet another role in a newly composed and commissioned work, this by Sinikka Langeland. Her new work, Mysticeti - Mass for the blue whale was premiered at two of Norway's leading festivals in tandem, Festspillene I Nord-Norge (Festival of North Norway) and Vestfold Festspillene (Vestfold International Festival). The new work featured Kornstad on saxophones, looping and tenor singing, along with renowned opera baritone Johannes Weisser, mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and jazz musicians Tore Brunborg and Jon Christensen. An album recording will take place in 2016.
Following a solo tour in Russia for the JazzProvince festival in November, as well as solo concerts in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bucharest, Romania – in December 2014, Kornstad Ensemble performed for two full houses in St-Martin-in-the-fields in London. Spencer Grady in Jazzwise wrote: “Håkon Kornstad and his Tenor Battle troupe have fashioned a triumphant Bartók-reversal, the successful contextualising of high-end tropes into the folk firmament.” In March 2015 Kornstad returned to London for a solo concert at the King’s Place. Legendary jazz critic in The Guardian, John Fordham was in the audience: “It could have been a virtuosic circus act, but in Kornstad’s hands was a musical tour de force.” He credited the concert four stars.
Another UK solo concert followed suit—this time at the prestigious Sage Gateshead festival in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In April 2015, the concert at Sarajevo Jazz Festival was released digitally as the album Live in Sarajevo, the first album to fully feature Kornstad’s combination of jazz saxophone and operatic singing.
In May 2015, Kornstad sang in the newly commissioned opera “Adam & Eve – A divine comedy” by composer Cecilie Ore. The opera had its world premiere at the Bergen Festspiele, and then continued to the Ultima Festival in Oslo in September 2015.
The first studio album with his ensemble was released in October 2015 on the Jazzland label, with the title Tenor Battle. The critics were very enthusiastic – Norway’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten reviewed it first and gave it four stars: “His project is a musical enrichment for everyone who loves classical music as well as those who like it when musicians yearn for the unknown. There is something magical, almost timeless and yet innovative and challenging in the way they treat these songs".
The Kornstad Ensemble has played from Tenor Battle in Oslo, Bergen, Salzburg, Bremen, Berlin, Tampere, Voss and Fredrikstad for sold out and full houses in 2016, alongside Kornstad’s own extensive solo touring.
In January 2017 Kornstad was invited to play at the RC4 festival in Rio de Janeiro, and in March 2017 he will do the first of a series of Symphonic concerts with the Tenor Battle repertoire. In the first concert, recorded for the Norwegian national TV with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, he will present traditional and new arrangements of opera arias and art songs, featuring both Kornstad the singer, the saxophonist and the orchestra arranger. He will also debut as composer with his symphonic arrangements of four of the tracks from his 2011 album Symphonies in my head.