Born in Oslo, Norway in 1977, Kornstad took up the clarinet in grammar school and eventually turned to the saxophone and studies at the Trondheim Jazz Conservatory. Known for its emphasis on artistic identity, Kornstad emerged from Trondheim with a distinct voice whose strength was soon manifest in the professional success that followed. But even before leaving the Conservatory, he began putting it to work in the formation of the group Triangle, with two fellow Conservatory students, drummer Wetle Holte and double bassist Per Zanussi. With the addition of pianist Erlend Skomsvoll and singer Live Maria Roggen, Triangle would evolve into the group Wibutee and, by the time Kornstad graduated, the group was embraced by a community of artists centered around the contemporary music club Blå. It was there that pianist Bugge Wesseltoft heard and signed him to the Jazzland Recordings label in 1998, and three recordings Jazzland albums followed: Newborn Thing (1999), Eight Domestic Challenges (2001), and Playmachine (2004).
In parallel to Wibutee, Kornstad organized an acoustic group of formidable artistic ability. Consisting of two more classmates from Trondheim, renowned bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, they made a big impression when they were invited by guitarist Pat Metheny to play with him in 2001 at the Molde International Jazz Festival; and another important festival, the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, selected the trio in 2002 for its annual award for the Norwegian musician or group of the year. Kornstad’s interest in collaboration led to more critically acclaimed creative ventures, including a pair of duo albums with pianist Håvard Wiik entitled Eight Tunes We Like (2005) and The Bad and the Beautiful (2006), the latter nominated in 2006 for the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy – the Spellemannprisen. He also recorded three duo albums with bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten;
After years of strengthening his technique, discovering nuances, and exploring the sonic possibilities of the saxophone in collaborations and as a sideman, Kornstad released his own solo effort in the album Single Engine (2007), an album that showed he had fully come into his own at last. Kornstad was now established in his own right as one of Norway’s leading jazz musicians, and Single Engine helped him gain recognition for his vision, featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Knut Reiersrud and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten as guests. One of Norway’s leading newspapers, Dagbladet, fully understood the quality and significance of this release. The review entitled Absolute Kornstad, with the inserted headline A Definitive Artistic Breakthrough, was itself definitive: “Håkon Kornstad’s ‘Single Engine’ is an extraordinary album. Here all the bits and pieces come together, and loose threads find their place, while the music raises perhaps the most important milestone in an artist’s development: the definitive transition from ‘promising’ to ‘mature and original.’”
His second solo album was released in 2009. Dwell Time (Jazzland) is a purely solo saxophone performance, recorded in Sofienberg Church by legendary engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. In real time, Kornstad recorded short tracks into a looping device that play back and gradually build as he adds more elements, and ultimately became an orchestra that accompanied him as he carried the melodies and improvised. Peter Margasak’s review in Downbeat Magazine was typical of the album’s reception in the press, calling Kornstad “one of Norway’s most original and daring musicians.”
The year 2009 would mark another major moment in Kornstad’s artistic evolution. On a visit to New York, he discovered the world of opera and decided to take lessons with a retired dramatic soprano. This led him to apply and be admitted in 2011 to the Operahøgskolen (The Academy of Opera) at the Kunsthøgskolen I Oslo (Oslo National Academy of the Arts), where he will complete his master studies as operatic tenor in May 2014. His debut at the Oslo Opera House came in February 2012, with the character tenor role Il Podestà in Mozart‘s La Finta Giardiniera.
While still in his first year of opera school, he released his third solo saxophone album, Symphonies in My Head (Jazzland, 2011). In this recording, there were early signs of how his new knowledge of opera would be integrated into his jazz expression, such as his saxophone rendition of an aria from George Bizet‘s opera Les pecheurs des perles. Critical reviews of the work were again outstanding. Eyal Hareuveni wrote in All About Jazz that “he manages to turn his improvisations into small symphonies, arresting in their structure and deep emotional impact.”
Kornstad’s new direction, a meeting of jazz and opera, manifest itself not only in his solo performances, but also took the form of a new ensemble which he named Tenor Battle, a reference to the classic tenor saxophone “battles” among American jazz musicians in the 1940’s and 50’s. In Kornstad’s version, this refers to him singing tenor and playing tenor saxophone in the same group. Seamlessly blending opera arias and jazz, the group features his longtime companion from Wibutee, double bassist Per Zanussi, as well as Sigbjørn Apeland on harmonium, Øyvind Skarbø on percussion, and Lars Henrik Johansen on cembalo.
“His band is called Tenor Battle, and in Kornstad the battle is raging between singing and playing – he sings an Italian aria much better than any other tenor saxophonist you’ve heard of, before grabbing his horn – and with the world’s strangest constellation plays an aria in a jazz fashion that Björling, Caruso or Pavarotti would never have dreamed about.”
If one were to choose only one among Kornstad’s many talents and accomplishments that would represent his work, it would be the fearlessness with which he has followed his muse, time and again, into extraordinary artistic territory. Still a relatively young man in his 30s, the promise of what is yet to come is truly exciting.
Fellow artists have been taking notice. In 2012, the Oslo International Church Music Festival invited Norwegian writer, composer and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad to “write a Passion for our times.” He responded with a work entitled A Passion for John Donne which was composed, in part, with Kornstad’s saxophone playing and singing in mind. Featuring the Oslo Chamber Choir under the director of Håkon Daniel Nystedt, percussionist and drummer Birger Mistereggen, and Bjørnstad himself on the piano, the concert performance of Passion for John Donne was recorded, will be released on the prestigious ECM label in November 2014, and be Kornstad’s debut on the label.
In September 2013 Kornstad was invited by American jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman to perform solo and duo in London’s Wigmore Hall. Same year, he did extensive touring in Europe alongside Bugge Wesseltoft and Ola Kvernberg among others, playing his concert of solo saxophone and song on the famous Karsten Jahnke Jazz Nights tour in Germany.
Another collaboration with Bjørnstad was presented in the summer of 2014 with a commissioned work for one of Norway’s largest music festivals, Olavsfestdagene (St. Olav Festival) in Trondheim. Once again written music for the ensemble that performed Passion for John Donne. He and Kornstad was joined by soprano Tora Augestad and percussionist Birger Mistereggen. The work was performed in the Nidaros dome.
The summer of 2014 also brought Kornstad to yet another role in a newly composed and commissioned work, this by ECM artist Sinikka Langeland. Her new work, Mysticeti – Mass for the blue whale was premiered at two of Norway’s leading festivals in tandem, Festspillene I Nord-Norge (Festival of North Norway) and Vestfold Festspillene (Vestfold International Festival). The new work featured Kornstad on saxophones, looping and tenor singing, along with renowned opera baritone Johannes Weisser, mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and jazz musicians Trygve Seim and Jon Christensen.
Following a solo tour in Russia for the JazzProvince festival in November, as well as solo concerts in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bucharest, Romania – in December 2014, Kornstad’s Tenor battle, now named Kornstad Ensemble performed for two full houses in St-Martin-in-the-fields in London. Spencer Grady in Jazzwise wrote: “Håkon Kornstad and his Tenor Battle troupe have fashioned a triumphant Bartók-reversal, the successful contextualising of high-end tropes into the folk firmament.” In March 2015 Kornstad returned to London for a solo concert at the King’s Place. Legendary jazz critic in The Guardian, John Fordham was in the audience: “It could have been a virtuosic circus act, but in Kornstad’s hands was a musical tour de force.” He credited the concert four stars.
Another UK solo concert followed suit—this time at the prestigious Sage Gateshead festival in Newcastle upon Tyne. William Brown in Newcastle’s biggest paper The Journal wrote very enthusiastically about the concert:
“That such an incredible talent has not reached the ears of a wider audience is truly astonishing. To anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz and opera, Kornstad is a musician who simply must be heard, for there is no one else like him! A modern legend in jazz? No doubt about it!”
In May 2015, Kornstad will feature in the newly commissioned opera “Adam & Eve – A divine comedy” by composer Cecilie Ore, alongside among others the acclaimed singers Tora Augestad, Eir Inderhaug and Ingebjørg Kosmo. The opera will have its premiere at the Bergen Festspiele, and then continue to the Ultima Festival in Oslo in the autumn.
Summer 2015, Kornstad will perform solo concerts on the Norwegian festival circuit both in jazz festivals and chamber music festivals, as well as several festivals in Europe.