Håkon Kornstad—tenor, tenor saxophone, flute, live looping
Lars Henrik Johansen—harpsichord, cimbalon
Per Zanussi—double bass, saw
I am delighted to present to you the first album of the Kornstad Ensemble. The group was formed in 2011, as I was in the master’s programme at the Norwegian Opera Academy in Oslo. Two years prior, I had discovered opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and started taking singing lessons with Pamela Kucenic—a retired dramatic soprano on Upper West Side. I now wanted to throw myself all into the world of opera, learning how to sing to my tenor instrument’s full potential. Singing classic opera roles in acoustic theatres was my goal then—and it still is!
Once you discover something major that brings you onto a new journey in life, it’s so easy to forget what you already can do... For many months, I didn’t practice the sax anymore, as I wanted to establish a basic singing technique before messing it all up with saxophone. After a while, though, I got the urge to form a small ensemble where I could mix my jazz playing with my newfound tenor.
Bassist Per Zanussi and I had worked together since we were both jazz students in Trondheim back in 1996, and he was the first musician who came to my mind for this ensemble. He writes great music for his own group Zanussi Five, and he has also arranged music for theatre and film. In addition, I had played some concerts with a great, young drummer, Øyvind Skarbø. He is an open-minded improviser—and one of his strengths is his subtle colouring with all types of drums. Then, finally, I needed an instrument and a player that would be a good bridge between classical and jazz. I had listened to Sigbjørn Apeland’s fantastic solo recordings earlier, and his harmonium playing sounds like a mix between strings, wind instruments and organ—it instantly brought my mind back to the old world 78 rpm opera albums I had been listening to.
Our first rehearsal was in Bergen in August 2011. I had already picked some arias, and basically, they are the ones that are featured on this album. Stylistically, I wanted to start from a very wide angle, but shying away from baroque music. It would be too easy to resort to the old “trick” of adding walking bass to a baroque aria with “Hit the road, Jack”-changes. Nor did I want to do the typical hit parade of tenor arias. “La donna è mobile” to swing accompaniment—or “Nessun dorma” as bossa nova? No, not in this project. It’s hard to describe what makes an aria fit into our sound. During this process we have tried and discarded many...
This is also why I didn’t write any arrangements. I wanted us to create the group sound together, as we would in a jazz band. Everyone’s style of playing along with musical references is the key to our common musical language. We listened a lot to old opera recordings, and tried to learn the pieces from the original scores. Then came the process of breaking up the original forms and carving out our own versions. How do you add percussion to opera arias when you have no references to listen back to, neither in jazz nor opera? Drummer Øyvind must have had the most difficult job. He kept on trying out different approaches along the way, until he would ﬁnd something we could all nod our heads to.
One of the first arias we did was “O del mio dolce ardor” by C.W. Gluck, which in fact is a baroque piece. It is also one of the very first Italian antique arias I ever worked on in Pamela’s magical studio in New York. “Je crois entendre encore” from Bizet’s Les pecheurs des perles was the next one. We also quickly found versions for the Tosti-songs, and Strauss’ “Morgen”. We basically set a concert repertoire in two days. French and Italian arias and a German lied. Not exactly the typical classical programme. But nonetheless, songs that we thought fit together, and that we all liked to play.
The next step for a jazz group is taking the music to stage. Playing before an audience is the best rehearsal there is—especially when it comes to spontaneous arranging. Scores blowing away in the wind or a nervous, inexperienced tenor without high notes? We did 5-6 concerts with Tenor Battle in Norway. Every night something new would happen—and we still want to keep it this way, even though we now had found a common language together.
Then, one morning at the opera academy while waiting for a singing lesson in the corridor, I heard someone playing beautiful jazz piano. Could it really be one of the opera coaches improvising in a Keith Jarrett-inspired way? I opened the door out of pure curiosity, and met Lars Henrik Johansen, the guest continuum player in a school production of a baroque opera. Harpsichord—what a perfect “final touch” for our group! It added percussiveness, almost like pizzicato strings, and a new dimension to the sound. But most important Lars is a unique musician with his roots in classical music. He soon told me that he was once thrown out of a classical masterclass because he was improvising too much when playing Bach... In other words—a perfect member of this ensemble!
We now added “En fermant les yeux” from Manon, as well as instrumental versions of Rimsky Korsakov’s “Song of India” and Monteverdi’s “Lasciatemi morire”. Then we did some more concerts together—now as a quintet. One of our early challenges was that opera arias usually have highly varying tempi in facilitating the singer. This is one of the reasons there are conductors... As jazz musicians we strive for a common and steady beat or swing. Now we also had to watch out for long high notes coming from the tenor (myself), depending on my day form...
I am so proud of what we have achieved as a group for this first album. I also want to thank Ole Marius Sandberg and Mats Eilertsen who also have been alternating on the bass chair for the concerts, and had significant input in these arrangements. And Jazzland Recordings, who are releasing this album, and let me follow my own musical path. And Pamela—if we had not met in April 2009, there would be no singing, I am sure.
As a musician and now singer, I strive for those moments when my spine tingles and time stands still. I have had quite a few of them with this group. Now I hope you will have them, too. Enjoy!