We sat down with Petter Wettre, Norwegian Grammy Award winning saxophonist, ahead of his performances at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown from 30 June to 9 July. He fills us in on what to expect at Jazztown this year, what inspires him and why jazz can be experienced and enjoyed and doesn’t always require audiences to understand it.
What can Jazztown audiences expect from your show?
I'm looking forward to performing again in South Africa. I have a great new band comprising some of the very best young Scandinavian players of today - a Swede and two Norwegians. We will perform music from my album Fountain of Youth. It is a suite in four parts and I was awarded a Norwegian Grammy for that recording when it came out nine years ago. We will also play some of my contemporary compositions.
You have an enormous body of work, how did you choose the material that you’ll perform at Jazztown?
I like performing Fountain of Youth. It gets me 'in the zone' so to speak. It has a timeless quality to it and my band really lift it off the ground. It is reminiscent of Coltrane's Love Supreme and I think the Grahamstown audience will like it. It is a very diverse piece.
Who are the musicians you will be bringing out with you?
They are Erlend Slettevoll on piano, Julian Haugland on bass and Karl Henrik Ousback on drums.
Karl Henrik has actually visited the Standard Bank Jazz Festival once before. He was part of a young talent programme that won him a spot at the festival a couple of years back. This festival is known for encouraging and uncovering young talent.
You have been in music for many years, to what would you attribute your longevity in the industry?
I make sure that I always have another project that I want to do. I enjoy music very much and that probably is the main reason I keep going. There is no feeling comparable to being on the bandstand with a great band, and hear my ideas played out in real time. Having said that I don't have any other skills. This is what I know and this is what I do. I love this life and I always will.
What have you been doing recently?
Lately I have started composing again. After a break of several years, I enjoy this now more than ever. This autumn I'm also releasing a new physical product for the first time since 2008 - a re-launch of my first album Pig Virus, which celebrates its 20th anniversary. We're recording the same music with the same band as we did 20 years ago.
What have been you career highlights so far? Your Grammy wins must be among the top.
Well, a Grammy is always fun. My two Grammy's are hugely appreciated and have made me somewhat exotic among my children’s friends. Having said that, I will always rate travelling around the world, meeting musicians and audiences as the coolest thing of being a musician. I appreciate the opportunity I have as a performer to experience the world, and experience the diversity in which we live. I used to think it was important to be well known, to be "important", but now I know that being part of the "jazz musician legacy" is the best that I could ever hope for.
What inspires you when composing?
I try to listen to a lot of music and keep the flame of interest burning. It's hard to inspire yourself everyday considering I have no one who requires anything from me. Listening to music I will say is the most important factor. I can hear something and think, "Ah, I wonder how that looks like on paper?" So I transcribe it, write it down, and then, and (this is the most important thing), I try to make it in to my own. Fountain of Youth is inspired by Chic Corea's Three Quartets with its piano voicings, its structure and the melody. But still with my identity intact. You'll hear it when we're performing it.
You are associated with post-bop and free jazz expressions. In what musical idiom do you feel most at home and why?
My musical background comes from the time I spent at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the US. I travelled to the States because I love American jazz and I think my music reflects that. Combined with my Norwegian heritage I believe that the fusion of these two styles gives my music a unique touch. I definitely feel more at home in the post-bop era rather than the free jazz era. This is due to the fact that I prefer structure over coincidences.
What is your opinion of today's jazz scene in Europe and America?
I used to be very opinionated when it came to these types of questions. Today I really only care if the music is good. American or European – it doesn't matter. Having said that, I tend to prefer American jazz over European. It probably has to do with the fact that I was educated in the US. I like melody, rhythm and harmony.
Do you get much time to relax, and if so what are your hobbies or passions away from music?
Playing music is all the relaxation I need. Having said that, I love to travel and experience new things. I strongly believe travelling provides me with the inspiration I need to fuel my inner drive.
What advice would you give a young musician wanting to enter the industry full time?
You have to be committed. Nothing happens by accident. Be prepared, be nice, and be cool-headed. You will have to prepare for a situation where you are your own booking agent, tour manager and roadie. And most importantly never turn down a gig.
Is there a message for audiences who will come to see you at the festival?
I think in many cases jazz suffers from the audience trying to be intellectual because there is a notion that jazz has to be “understood”. I strongly believe in the audience just showing up and experiencing us on stage. As soon as you see us play, you'll understand our music.