Born in Oslo, Norway in 1977, Håkon 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. 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 albums followed: Newborn Things (1999), Eight Domestic Challenges (2001), and Playmachine (2004). With the addition of pianist Erlend Skomsvoll and singer Live Maria Roggen, Wibutee evolved into a quintet that debuted at the 2005 Oslo Jazz Festival.
In parallel to Wibutee, Kornstad organized an acoustic group of formidable ability. Consisting of two more classmates from Trondheim, renowned bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, they made a big impression in 2001 at one of the world's most important festivals, 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 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 Spellmannprisen.
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), a work that showed he had come fully into his own at last. Now established as one of Norway's leading jazz musicians, Single Engine helped him gain recognition for his vision. 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 is a purely solo saxophone performance, recorded in Sofienberg Church by legendary engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. In real time, Kornstad records short tracks into a looping device that plays them back and, as he adds more, becomes an orchestra that accompanies him. 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 Podestrà 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 (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. One of the group's first performances was given in 2012 at the Molde Jazz Festival and stirred tremendous interest. Dagbladet's headline read, “The Two Tenors Hit the Note,” and reported that the Festival could have sold out the concert three times over. About a year later, Dagbladet checked in with Kornstad again, now in his final year of opera study, and published a feature article about his work. Entitled The Two Tenors by One of Them, its subtitle underlined Kornstad's essential viewpoint, Jazz on the tenor saxophone or opera arias as lyric tenor? For Håkon Kornstad (36) the choice was clear: yes please, both. The article begins by spelling out Kornstad's ever more unique artistic profile:
“There is something about tenors. Regents in the big, mighty middle ground, between the baritonal darkness and the soprano's unnerving proximity to a howl. Are we talking jazz, it's about saxophonists – and the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Jan Garbarek – and others. In opera, names like Jussi Björling, Enrico Caruso, Benjamino Gigli, Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo instantly come to mind. But when talking about jazz tenor and opera tenor in one body and soul, there is only one name: Håkon Kornstad.
“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 at the piano, the concert performance of Passion for John Donne was recorded, will be released on the prestigious ECM label in November 2014, and will be Kornstad's debut on the label.
Another collaboration with Bjørnstad will be presented in the summer of 2014 in a commissioned work for one of Norway's largest music festivals, Olavsfestdagene (St. Olav Festival) in Trondheim. Bjørnstad is writing music again for the ensemble that performed Passion for John Donne. He and Kornstad will be joined by soprano Tora Augestad and percussionist Birger Mistereggen. The work will be performed in the Nidaros dome.
The summer of 2014 brings 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 will be 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 features Kornstad on saxophones and voice, along with renowned opera baritone Johannes Weisser and jazz musicians Trygve Seim and Jon Christensen. Kornstad's growing reputation as a singer has also landed him the lead role in a new opera entitled Simon, written by German composer Gerhard Stäbler, and with libretto by Norwegian writer Christopher Grøndahl. The work will have its premiere in February 2015 in Oslo at the new opera house of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. After having heard Kornstad in Cosi fan tutte, the production team asked him to create the role of Simon, in an opera that will make extensive use of improvisation as well as audio visual elements. The opera will go on tour in autumn 2015 in Norway.