Friends & Neighbors Audio for the Arts — Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — 8pm

Sponsored by SONS OF NORWAY

  • André Roligheten – Saxophone
  • Thomas Johansson – Trumpet
  • Oscar Grönberg – Piano
  • Jon Rune Strøm – Double Bass
  • Tollef Østvang – Drums


By Michael Brenneis


Interview data: 02/14/2020


The name “Friends & Neighbors” is an homage to inspiration Ornette Coleman, but also describes the members of this Norwegian band themselves. With the classic jazz quintet instrumentation, these players have evolved together over their 11 year history, into a tight unit with a uniquely Scandinavian take on the music that is their heart and passion.

We’ve seen this band in these parts before, and we’ve seen some of its members here in other contexts as well. I caught up with amiable, cogitative, drummer Tollef Østvang at his home in idyllic Os, Norway (pop. 2,034). Here is our conversation:  

MB: Am I reaching you in Os today?

Tollef: That’s correct.

MB: And Os is, say, 200 kilometers from Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, roughly, like a little bit less, and it’s two and a half hours from Trondheim.

MB: And it’s about 400km to Oslo. 

Tollef: Yeah.

MB: So do you find yourself traveling all the time to play?

Tollef: I would say that sort-of is the correct thing to say, and I think that’s the case for most Norweigen musicians, wherever they live in a way. It’s a small country with large distances. Also the population is only 5 million. So it’s a natural consequence of that; people have to travel to play and collaborate with others.

MB: Norway has a fairly robust transit system. Are you able to use transit, or do you have to drive yourself?

Tollef: No I rarely use a car, It’s either the train, or plane, or bus. 

MB: So when you’re playing domestically in Norway, you find the places have drums and pianos and so on?

Tollef: Yeah I think the infrastructure — the last at least, the last 20 years — has sort-of become to a certain standard, or, if not, also you know people in the big cities so if the venue doesn’t have any equipment it’s easy to borrow. But usually the jazz clubs have okay drums, in most cases okay piano.

MB: And when you come to the states how do you travel?

Tollef: We travel by car. We’ve been checking out many options, but time and time again we come back to the rental car option.

MB: There’s almost no other way to do it.

Tollef: Yeah, yeah. We played in Chicago once, I think the first time we were there, and we were going to Detroit. I remember checking all the train options. Yeah, car was not half the price, but almost.

MB: Plus the time involved. The transit system in the US, especially train, is circuitous.

Tollef: Yeah, it seems like it’s based a lot on the layout of the cities and infrastructure. And it’s based upon people having to drive, maybe, I don’t know, how it looks to a tourist or a musician that’s sort-of the impression. Of course the big cities have good public transportation. That’s not always the case in Norway either but I would say the traveling in between cities here is very easy.

MB: In the US, certainly, even at a high-level, most folks in this field are supplementing. They’re playing and doing other types of work, or teaching. Is it similar for you?

Tollef: Yeah, I think it’s – maybe the percentage part of the income that comes from playing is a little bit higher, but most people – most jazz musicians I know — maybe at least half of them maybe less, maybe more — have either a main job or a complimentary job. Most of times it seems to me like it’s teaching. For me last night, this night, I worked the night shift in a home for kids with disabilities. So I went to bed 7 a.m. this morning. So that’s my side gig at the moment. It would be like 20% or something.

MB: Well, at least the schedule is consistent with music.

Tollef: Yeah, but I think it’s – for me – or I could also teach once a week instead, but it’s a bit more flexible to put yourself available for a night shift in this case and to work something different. And also it’s a nice balance to do something else, maybe. It feels like a good balance you – you are always hungry for the music stuff when you get to do that. And I also do a lot of other – I have a couple of like, what do you call it, in a couple of boards – Union stuff. And maybe I have like one month’s income of different administrative things related to culture. So I have a lot of different stuff going on, but I don’t know, maybe sixty, seventy percent playing of the income. Probably hundred and fifty percent of the time [Laughing].

MB: [Laughs, knowingly]

Tollef: So that’s fairly similar to all other places in the world, I think. So we don’t have to work a lot, but it’s passion and lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle, I would say. But if you asked a random Norweigen jazz musician “what is your – do you have a sidegig?” – most people would say yes. The big names, of course, doesn’t have that. But I would say it’s more common than uncommon. So there are possible ways to – music is subsidized in some ways. The venues have some sort-of public support, in many cases, and the fees are maybe a little bit higher. But you also have to think about that the cost of living is also higher, so it feels like it’s quite similar to many other countries just like, yeah, that’s my impression. I know also it’s – it’s a well functioning system in many ways. We have a lot of good festivals and promoters. And a very robust jazz organization; it’s called the Norweigen Jazzforum. And that works politically towards politicians to make them see the point of supporting culture. So I would say the organized cultural life in Norway is quite good. It’s a strong musician’s union that also supports freelance musicians as much as those playing in the symphony orchestra.

MB: I know some Europeans get tour support or grants from their governments to do tours in the states. Does Norway do a similar thing?

Tollef: Yeah, for instance this tour would not be possible if we didn’t have any form of travel support. So, it’s sort-of a gamble. You have to book the gigs before you know – often you have to book the gigs before you know the financial situation in terms of support. So it’s always a gamble. That said, I think it’s also getting harder. For me, the impression is it’s harder to get support to do stuff outside of Norway, for some reason. Or if you’re playing with Norwegians in Norway it feels a little bit easier than if you play with a multinational group outside of Norway. I think that has to do with the – it’s a lot of cuts been coming to the foreign ministry part. 

It’s not the cultural budget, it’s a different budget — and we have a right-wing government at the moment, for six years now. Yeah, it’s been a lot of cuts but we have the musician’s union and jazz organisations – it’s been quite sort-of strong, and trying to prevent and reverse those cuts. Part of the music export support goes through the foreign ministry budget, not all of it but parts of it. And that is sort-of easier to sort-of “Ah! We don’t need this” So it’s easier to sort-of keep the politicians focus on the cultural budget because they know what they’re talking about. It’s quite clear in a way. But culture spans across many parts of the government, like education, foreign ministry, and partly health care. And then we have a separate culture budget. It’s sort-of complicated, but sort-of not complicated.

MB: It’s always complicated.

Tollef: But I find if I travel in the states with only musicians, it’s hard to get anything at the moment.

MB: In terms of this band, and yourself too, what influences are the most important?

Tollef: I mean the name states some influence in a way. There is an Ornette Coleman reference, but I would say the way we think about it is much more than that. It comes from a quite clearly free jazz aesthetical reference, in many ways. But we love so much different styles of music within the band so it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. It’s some of what you call free jazz and contemporary music. It’s a lot of stuff, but I think that the band’s sound acoustic – traditional playing acoustic instruments the way we [do] is sort-of a clear free jazz school reference in that matter, I would say more than a contemporary way of interacting with each other. but I don’t try to sort-of label the playing that way but I guess it’s sort-of free jazz, you could also say avant-garde, modern, yeah whatever.

MB: Right, there seems to be as much time based playing as not.

Tollef: Yeah, and we don’t – we don’t have any like, not rules but – a song can be beautiful with harmonies and the next thing you can be like an eclectic free impro stretch. It’s not that dogmatic. We are open to a lot of things – the possibilities of this band can stretch to, like, an ultimately broad spectrum of music. And we don’t talk so much about it, it’s just like it – it comes natural. “Hey, this song didn’t work so well” so we take this one instead. So I think it’s a lot of unspoken common knowledge and references, maybe that’s a good way of putting it.

MB: Friends and Neighbors formed about 11 years ago in Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, late 2008 and we were a quartet first and then the piano player joined in 2010, I think.

MB: And for most of that time has the lineup been consistent throughout?

Tollef: Yeah we had a couple of subs for a couple of tours, but yeah it’s been the same lineup, yeah.

MB: So do you feel like you’ve evolved together in this group?

Tollef: Yeah, that’s the interesting – we’ve sort-of grown up musically together. Three of us, André on saxophone and Jon Rune on bass, and me, we met already – it’s sort-of – In Norway it’s often common that you do something called “folk high school” the year before – it’s like a pre-university year. So we met already there, so we’ve been in class for five years. And we’ve sort-of watched each other grow in many different ways and take many turns through many different parts of the jazz tradition. It’s sort-of interesting to look back in at the path we sort-of crossed. We go a little bit back and forth and we’ve grown together, and we are so similar but also so different. So I would say there is a strong social thing sort-of binding the group together. We really appreciate each other’s artistic differences, I would say that’s one of the strong sides in the band’s point of view.

MB: This next question is probably poorly formed but I’m just kind of curious about sort-of being a Norwegian group and being influenced by American jazz, a music that originated in the African-American community in the U.S. Do you feel there’s a geographic isolation to overcome or is that not a thing?

Tollef: I’m not sure if we think about it that much. It’s – for us the music – I mean – the African-American jazz tradition – it’s the music we love, like, that’s our passion. But we live in Europe and we have our own social structures and way of – not living, but just the way people – the way the society works makes you a different person, and we have our own music to listen and things that influence us to go in a different direction, hopefully. There is strong folk music tradition in Norway. Jazz became known at first, like big-time, in the 70s with ECM so that sort-of had a great impact on the jazz scene in Norway — Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. That’s not the only thing but that’s apparently a big sort-of pin point historical mark, in a way. I think that – I think for me Denmark and Sweden has a different – a little bit different view and take on the history because there were much more American – it seems to me like there was much more musicians living there partly, playing in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen, Stan Getz travelled a lot to Stockholm. Count Basie recorded with the Swedish radio big band. So I think they had a much bigger and earlier exposure to the mainstream form of jazz. So maybe that sort-of allowed the whole ECM thing to happen in the way that it did. I’m not sure but that’s sort-of things we can think about.

I think, also, the jazz education and how it’s been formed – school’s are quite liberal and it is historically oriented. All the jazz conservatories are focused on individual artistic expression and you have to develop that sort-of at the same time as learning history. It’s a high focus on individual artistic search in a way. It’s hard to sort-of answer the question. It’s not like you think that music is made in a different part of the world in a different time. I don’t think about it like that, for me jazz music is just – that’s just where my heart belongs in a way. So like when I discovered – there were some doors that opened to me when I discovered Coltrane, and Archie Shepp, Ornette, Don Cherry, John Carter, Bobby Bradford. That’s like – it was some things that – it was some bricks that fell into place, like, “ok this makes sense” that way of communicating in a band resonates to me – it makes – it makes sense in my head. So I would rather describe it that way, that I discovered something and I clicked to it. 

And I think music is able to be universal in that matter. But of course we have our – if we sit around the table and discuss music and politics, of course, we sometimes touch into the historical parts that – things that we can’t relate to – understanding completely, of course, in the African-American perspective. Civil rights movements – there are stuff that we can try to understand that we can’t understand it and feel it in the same way. But I don’t think that sort-of limits the ability to love one form of music.

MB: Right, and you have your own lived experience as a Scandinavian that we may not understand, so that enriches the music too, I would think.

Tollef: Yeah, but it’s not so clearly linked into the music we play now. It’s not like “ok, we were occupied by Germany during the war” and that affects my jazz music, it’s not – [laughs] – we don’t have those kind of direct – [laughs] . So it’s in a different way. In Scandinavian societies now it’s very common – yeah, things that happened only 45 to 50, 60, 70 years ago too. So it’s a lot of similarities in some ways but, yeah, every parts of the world have their own issues and conflicts, good sides and bad sides, that sort-of makes arts and artists to act in one way or another, but it’s more unconscious and way of doing – it’s more subtle. It’s not like ”now I’m going to write a tune about the Cold War” [Laughs]. Because I live one hour away from the flight from the Russian border, it’s not like, yeah, I guess you see what I get.

MB: Tollef it’s been a real pleasure talking with you, thank you for taking the time.

Tollef: Thank you for calling.

MB: We’re looking forward to the show coming up in Madison.

Tollef: We do too. It’s our second time with this group – I think most of us have been, yeah, around with different projects. I played with Mars Williams and Paal Nissen-Love played there with some of the other members of the group. And I think maybe Cortex, maybe with Thomas Johansson on trumpet maybe passed through, I’m not sure.

The trumpeter and saxophone player André and Thomas come from a town in Norway called Skien, and there is a guy from that town living in Sturgeon Bay, so that’s why we go there. There is a connection! Ok we go to Sturgeon Bay and we come from Chicago, we have to stop in Madison. When I first went there with Mars Williams – it’s a great town to visit – it’s a great town to play in – it’s a good vibe. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just a very nice place to stay.