REVIEW ‌ Solveig Slettahjell & The Slow Motion Quintet 

Swinging Norwegian jazz cools down the sultry, Southern night

There’s something mysterious about Scandinavian musicians rendering their own take on American-styled jazz music … something curious and murky that seems to lure American music listeners. At the opening night of Spoleto Festival USA’s Wachovia Jazz Series on Friday, May 26 — a balmy, breezy evening under the moss-draped oaks at The Cistern — Norwegian jazz combo Solveig Slettahjell & The Slow Motion Quintet captivated the audience with a cool and confident set of tunes and unpredictable explorations that only added to the mysteries.

After a gracious introduction from Wachovia Jazz director/producer Michael Grofsorean, the band stepped on stage, Slettahjell clad in a sharp, jet-black suit and the four bandmates in corduroy outfits and neckties. Things started very softly with an a capella love song that gradually incorporated one instrument after another. The group lived up to their moniker, moving very slowly around one verse after another, collectively building up in volume well into each piece.

Slettahjell’s voice was amazing. Her warm, raspy delivery (in perfectly pronounced English) and deep vibrato captivated the audience. Her style was subtle, unlike so many modern jazz vocalists who can easily send it way over the top. She held her audience through the entire program.

Slettahjell’s band weaved in and out the perfect middle ground — from a slow-swingin’ torch song and lounge vibe to a drum-machine-driven (quietly, though) modern soul/pop sound reminiscent of Björk or Sade’s recent efforts.

Looking an awful lot like Benny or Björn from ABBA, trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig strode in and out of the tunes with feathery Miles Davis-style embellishments and low-rolling single-notes. Keyboardist Morten Qvenild switched from chiming electric organ to piano during the set and often took control of a tune with improvised runs and powerful solos.

The rhythm section — double-bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen — moved carefully through the songs as well, adding dynamic flourishes and accents while maintaining a perfect pace. Johansen, in particular, added a variety of unexpected blend of electronica (by way of digital samples, mostly simple snare and kick drum beats thumping along like a metronome) and acoustic battery. His polyrhythmic cymbal and hi-hat work seemed almost random at times, which only played into the group’s unusual swingin style.

Highlights included a pepper but slow-burning rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (almost unrecognizable from the traditional version known best by Blind Willie Johnson … or was it Jimmy Page and Zep?), an energetic version of “Don’t Look Back,” and several beauties off their latest LP, Pixiedust “Hope is the Thing Feathers,” “Faith, Trust, and Pixiedust,” and “Have a Little Faith in Me”)

The timbre and strength of Slettahjell’s unique voice stood as the highlight of the night and an elegant kick-off to Spoleto Festival USA’s jazz series.

SOLVEIG SLETTAHJELL & THE SLOW MOTION QUINTET • Spoleto Festival USA’s Wachovia Jazz Series • Fri. May 26 • The Cistern, 66 George St.

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