Håkon Kornstad Credit: Andreas Ulvo

Norwegian saxophonist Håkon Kornstad has long been a deeply curious musician. Throughout his career, which began in the late 90s, he’s pursued disparate creative ventures with unbending rigor and imagination. I first encountered him in 2000, when he performed at the Empty Bottle as a member of fantastic improvising trio Tri-Dim with Swedish guitarist David Stackenäs and Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach, but at the same time he was creating a vibrant post-Miles Davis fusion with his group Wibutee. Whether exploring electronic and digital or playing purely acoustically, though, he maintains a recognizable improvisational imperative. He led a terrific trio with bassist Mats Eilersten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and he made duo albums with remarkable pianist Håvard Wiik (Wiik and Nilssen-Love are both founding members of Scandinavian quintet Atomic). He also recorded a series of gorgeous duo albums with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (a onetime Chicagoan and another charter member of Atomic).

Toward the middle of the previous decade, Kornstad explored new turf as a solo artist, building gorgeous, meditative performances using only his saxophone and a looping station well before the practice had become commonplace. He went on to make three dazzling albums of almost orchestral richness using this approach, and I was fortunate enough to see him play some of that material live, both on his own and with brilliant Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen. The last time I ran into Kornstad in Norway, he mentioned that he’d been training as an opera singer. Knowing his range and vision it didn’t strike me as odd, but I didn’t give it much more thought at the time.

Then I began hearing about his performances in the current decade, where he’d combine solo saxophone with operatic singing. Just about every commentary I saw was positive. He’s given some U.S. performances of such work, including a 2014 concert at the prestigious Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. But it wasn’t till I heard his latest album, Tenor Battle (Jazzland), that I finally got a taste of what Kornstad’s been working on. The album title is a sly reference to the old jazz practice of the cutting session—often two saxophonists would go head-to-head to test their agility, energy, imagination, and showmanship onstage. But for Kornstad, the battling tenors are his saxophone and his voice.

In his liner-note essay, Kornstad explains that he first became enamored with opera in 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Almost immediately he began studying with retired opera singer Pamela Kucenic on the city’s Upper West Side. He writes, “I know 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 was my goal then—and it still is!” Two years later he enrolled in Oslo’s Operahøgskolen (the Norwegian Academy of Opera) and in 2014 he completed his master’s as an operatic tenor. Well before then he’d put together a new group to help him combine his new interest with his old ones; this fantastic ensemble appears on Tenor Battle, which was released in Europe last year and will finally get proper U.S. distribution beginning next Friday through Forced Exposure. The band includes bassist Per Zanussi, drummer Øyvind Skarbø, and harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland (all versatile players rooted in improvised music) as well as keyboardist Lars Henrik Johansen (a classical player with a strong interest in jazz and improv).

The first time I heard Tenor Battle, I was thrown by the oddness of Kornstad’s alternation between saxophone and voice. It can feel a bit gimmicky initially, but the closer I listened, the clearer it became that he’d invested the album with same discipline and thoughtfulness that’s marked all his projects. He says he purposefully declined to write arrangements, preferring the let the group develop them together as a jazz band would. I don’t know much about opera, but I do know that the eight arias on the recording are all well established, including pieces by Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss, Claudio Monteverdi, and Georges Bizet. Kornstad and his ensemble smartly steered clear of any attempt to jazz up the arias, though there is a clear elasticity in many of the performances—Skarbø deserves special credit for providing subtle propulsion and muscle without giving the pieces a corny rhythmic lift.

Below you can hear the group’s version of “Marechiare,” a popular 1886 Neapolitan song by Francesco Paolo Tosti. This particular arrangement is fascinating, with Johansen playing cimbalom (he sticks to harpsichord on most of the album) and Zanussi delivering a churning arco line; together they suggest Romani village music from Eastern Europe. Kornstad explains that he had to modulate his voice in the studio to fit in with this small combo—a full-volume delivery would obliterate the delicate beauty of his ensemble—but to an admitted novice like me, he sounds pretty convincing. He says he hopes to present the music in solo performances in the U.S. next spring.
Today’s playlist:

Don Pullen, Richard’s Tune (Sackville)
Kim Kashkashian, Stuttgarter Kammerochester, and Dennis Russell Davies, Hindemith/Britten/Penderecki: Lachrymae (ECM)
Lou Blackburn, The Complete Imperial Sessions (Blue Note)
Lesley Flanigan, Hedera (Physical Editions)
Ryoji Ikeda, Mort aux Vaches (Mort aux Vaches)