Molde Jazz: Day 1, July 13, 2009
Arve Henriksen Cartography / Bugge Wesseltoft
July 13, 2009
Descending by plane into Molde airport, it's difficult not to be in awe of the geography surrounding this small town of 25,000 people. Depending on the source, Molde is surrounded by anywhere from 87 to 222 mountains; of course, much of this has to do with the definition of what a mountain is, and where one ends and the next one begins. Regardless, the topography is stunning, a truth made only more compelling on the ground, where a long stretch of coastline reveals more mountains than can easily be counted, in a town that, as is the case with so many small Norwegian locales, possesses the kind of access to culture that would be impossible to support in most (if not all) similarly sized North American towns.
It may not be a festival with the same size and attendance as the recently completed Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, but as Norway's largest jazz festival, Molde Jazz possesses a similar vibe. Like Montreal, streets are closed down, but the party atmosphere is a little different. With kiosks set up down the town's main street selling everything from CDs and food to fur and African percussion instruments, it's a small, self-contained village that attracts people to ticketed and free performances that take place at 14 different venues/sites.
Over the course of six days, Molde Jazz will present over 70 shows featuring some of Norway's most innovative artistsamongst them, trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Mathias Eick, pianists/keyboardists Bugge Wesseltoft, Ståle Storløkken and Christian Wallumrød, and groups Huntsville, Supersilent and Jaga Jazzistas well as an equally significant roster from abroad, including pianists Cecil Taylor and Marilyn Crispell, guitarist Mary Halvorson, singers Jamie Cullum and Melody Gardot, trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Ambrose Akinmusire, and saxophonists Joshua Redman and Tony Malaby. There's even some beyond jazz on offer, including much-anticipated performances by Marianne Faithful and Leonard Cohen.
But it's even more than that. With throngs of people crowding the streets from early in the day to early the next morningwith night only falling fully around midnight and the sun already back on the rise by 4:00 AM, it's easy to keep partying around the clockmusicians even travel to Molde from distant destinations to busk on the street, playing everything from world music to folk music to traditional jazz. And while Norway's international reputation is, perhaps, largely considered for its innovative, forward-thinking approach to jazz, one look at the CD kiosks and one listen to the youth band parading down the street early in the afternoon of the first day of Molde's 49th edition and it becomes crystal clear that the jazz tradition, in its more conventional sense, also remains alive and well.
When the ticketed shows are over, the party continues in the streets, with live performances continuing outdoors until well after 1:00 AM, and bars and clubs packed until well after that. If Montreal is like being on another planet, Molde is like being in a parallel universeone where hotels have stunning performance spaces, mountains can be seen peeking through even the densest cloud cover while walking between venues that are never more than 10 minutes from each other, and fans of the music traverse the broad age range that some (clearly mistakenly) believe is missing in jazz. No jazz festival for grey hairs this; Molde Jazz is proof that it's possible to draw a younger audience without sacrificing the integrity of the music. It's always been more than a little condescending to consider jazz and improvised music as something that needs to be dumbed down for the youth market, and Norway has been proving, for over four decades, that arts funding to performance and education can and will result in a remarkable upsurge of sophisticated young artists.
Molde has its own equivalent of Montreal's By Invitation series, naming an artist in residence each year to bring a series of showssome with existing groups, others representing first time encounters. This year the artist in residence is trumpeter/vocalist Arve Henriksen, and with Cartography (ECM, 2008) being both his most fully realized album to date and one that is expanding his reach to an international audience, it's a strong choice. Henriksen will appear with his Cartography group, the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble and Supersilentthe groundbreaking noise improv group's first appearance as a trio following the departure of drummer Jarle Vespestad. He'll also perform in duet with Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur, and launch a unique performance featuring Cartography band mate/live sampler Jan Bang, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and ECM recording group Trio Mediaeval. And for those with strong constitutions, whether it be after a night of little sleep or none whatsoever, Henriksen will deliver a unique performance at 7:00AM on the last day of the festival, featuring one of Norway's most influential artists, keyboardist/composer Jon Balke, alongside percussionist Terje Isungset, cellist Svante Henryson and dancer Therese Skauge.
To open the festival, Arve Henriksen delivered a performance of material largely culled from Cartography. But by expanding the trio that performed at Natt Jazz in Bergen this past May to a quartet with percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken, there was a broader context that allowed the trumpeter to take considerably greater liberties with the music, and travel to places surprisingly more aggressive than on the album. Still, at the core of the performance was a painfully lyrical beauty that has been a focus for Henriksen throughout his career.
As is the case at Jan Bang's annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, Molde's attention to set design and lighting turns every concert into more than just a musical experience. With a series of large tubes spread across the back of the stage, and assorted computerized lighting peppered throughout it, Henriksen, Norbokken, Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset entered the stage in near darkness, a black light turning Henriksen's trumpet a bright yellow-green. Though the lights gradually came up, the overall ambience was spare, with deep blues and greens the primary colors for the set.
Henriksen's approach to his instrument, heavily influenced by the Japanese shakuhachithough that's really only a starting pointremains an unmistakable identifier. He may occupy similar territory as another influence, trumpeter/Fourth World creator Jon Hassell, and fellow Norwegian Nils Petter Molvaer, but Henriksen's voice is like neither, and his own approach to panculturalism continues to move with its own trajectory. Neither as sensually grooving as Hassell or beat-heavy as Molvær, Henriksen mines sources ranging from contemporary classicism to Norwegian traditionalism, constructing compositions of great depth and sonic breadth. Combining ambient textures with, at times, visceral pulsesboth programmed by Bang and performed by Norbakken on an incredible array of multicultural percussion and found objectsthe music of Cartography continues to evolve. Henriksen's pure singing voice on the sonically expansive "Recording Angel" acted as a melodic focus around which his band mates initially revolved, but as he returned to trumpet, Aarset's understated textures and Bang's astute live sampling choices expanded the aural landscape into something even more profound.
Bang's remarkable ability to grab bits of everything going on about him, and find the precise moment to reintroduce carefully selected segmentsoften heavily processedback into the mix, continues to evolve. Watching his hands move around his gear, and his body move to a rhythm that he may still be building before actually introducing it to the soundscape, was a revelation. Bang lays to waste claims that sampling and processing are not equivalent to playing "real" instruments. His contribution to Henriksen's music, determined in real time and with the kind of intuitive interaction that's at the core of the best improvised music, may appear unorthodoxand certainly the sounds emanating from the stage were far from conventional, with everyone finding ways to stretch and twist the expected into the unexpectedbut they are unequivocally musical.
Aarset continues to be something of an anti-guitaristusing, as he does, an array of pedals, device and a laptop to turn six strings into a virtual orchestra. But as nuanced as much of his playing was, towards the end of the concert's second lengthy piece he adopted a more industrial tone that drove it into far more angular territory than was heard only two months previous in Bergen. Norbakken demonstrated a remarkable ability to make a large bass drum sound small and delicate, while at the same time turning a small percussion instrument into something massive. As much a colorist as a rhythmist, his experience touring with traditional singer Mari Boine and playing an integral role on Jon Balke's masterpiece, Siwan (ECM, 2009), has provided him with a diversity of contexts, the sum total of which he brought to his work with Henriksen.
l:r Eivind Aarset, Helge Andreas Norbakken, Arve Henriksen
The set's two long, continuous performances joined together a number of pieces from Cartography, including the moving, choir-driven album closer "Sorrow and Its Opposite," in addition to some new material. Perhaps most remarkable was how the group moved from piece to piece, seamlessly segueing from more freely improvised segments based on something as simple as a spare melody from Henriksen or a stark pulse from Norbakken. There were times where the quartet built to a feverish climax, only to drop suddenly to near-silence, the effect as profound as that in Godfrey Reggio's landmark 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, where classical composer Philip Glass achieved the same effect. In Henrkisen's performance there were moments where it was possible to feel the tension in the audience release.
Henriksen brought a wealth of techniques to bearmore than his recognizable shakuhachi-informed trumpet toneat times playing two trumpets simultaneously, combining singing with embouchure through his trumpet, and deserting his choir-like falsetto for an overtone-rich vocal delivery influenced by Tuvan throat singing. But whether creating deeply resonant music of melancholy lyricism and soft surfaces or playing with harder textures and sharper edges, Henriksen and his quartet demonstrated that it's possible to combine broad stylistic and cultural references, often hidden but unmistakable virtuosity, sonic innovation and improvisational élan, into a mélange that may be recondite on the surface, but remains powerfully moving on a near-subconscious level.
For the past several years, keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoftwho first came to international attention for his series of New Conception of Jazz albums that, along with releases like Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer (ECM, 1997) and Supersilent's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1998), signaled the beginning of a new phase of remarkable creativity and invention coming out of Norwayhas been honing solo performance to meld both his improvisational abilities on piano with the same technology he brought to bear with his more groove-centric NCOJ groups. As far back as his performance at Punkt Festival '06, he was positing how pianist Keith Jarrett might approach pulling music from the ether, were he not so technology averse. Still, while improvisation and interpretation are key comparison points between Jarrett and Wesseltoft, the Norwegian pianist does work with formal structures in performance, something Jarrett has long deserted.
Wesseltoft's IM (Jazzland, 2007) wasn't his first solo piano album (1998's It's Snowing on My Piano, on ACT, was), but it was his first to document a growing approach to seamless integration of real-time sampling, processing and looping with increasingly virtuosic but never excessive pianism. Playing (Jazzland, 2009), from which much of his Molde performance was culled alongside IM, further evolved the approach, with an even stronger link to the jazz tradition and improvisation, even as Wesseltoft dispensed with so many of its conventions.
Beginning, as he usually does, with a pure piano piece evocative of the kind of solo piano music that ECM made famous in the early 1970s with albums by Jarrett, Chick Corea, Paul Bley and Steve Kuhn, Wesseltoft demonstrated his ability to mine even the sparest of ideas and use silence and the decaying note as equal partners to his more overt lyricism. There may have been form driving much of Wesseltoft's set, but equally there was a kind of spontaneity and free flowing ideation that made it a similar but ultimately different performance than his Mai Jazz show in Stavanger, Norway in 2008, and his brief solo spot that opened the Jazzland Community performance in Montreal, Canada in 2007.
When Wesseltoft first introduced in-the-moment processing towards the end of his opening pieceand it was only for a moment, taking a just-played chord and sending it to the ether with a heavily reverbed color similar to that of ambient innovators Harold Budd and Brian Eno on Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (EG, 1980)it only hinted at what was to come. With a table containing a laptop and keyboard behind him, and foot pedals situated both near the piano and the table, Wesseltoft began to gradually introduce greater sonics, not only looping small piano fragments, but sounds obtained inside the piano, from tambourines that, when processed, sounded like massive frame drums, clapping and his own voice.
Driven by that frame drum-sounding tambourine, Wesseltoft recreated the synth chord-diven "Singing," leaning into and away from the piano as he began to solo over the looped changes, he then added a gentle vocal line that was supported by the words to US President Barack Obama's presidential nomination acceptance speech on the projection screen behind him. As with Henriksen's performance, Wesseltoft's show was equally driven by imagesshifting in real-time thanks to his sound and lighting technicianranging from concentric circles expanding outward in time with the music to effected shots of the pianist from three different webcams, rich colors and more.
Wesseltoft also utilized speakers in the back of the hall to create a sonic landscape that enveloped the audience on songs like "Hands," one of two encores. This began with Wesseltoft creating moving harmonics over dampened notes from inside the piano, but ultimately shifting into a catchy, gospel-driven section bolstered by the pianist's clapping hands, and comical, raunchy utterance of "Ooooh, yeah."
Wesseltoft also demonstrated his clear respect for the American jazz traditionsomething he also alluded to clearly in his interview segment on The Documentary Channel's four-part series, Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense (Paradigm Studio, 2009)but this time, rather than twisting the Dave Brubeck hit, Paul Desmond's "Take Five" on its side, he took Miles Davis' classic from Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), "All Blues," and gave it a treatment that began reverentially but gradually took on an altered state. And while one of Wesseltoft's many roots are undeniably in jazz, so too is the Norwegian tradition a part of who he is, closing his set with a piece evocative of tranquil landscapes and stark imagery.
Where Wesseltoft will go next is anybody's guess, but as he continues to evolve his solo performances to more seamlessly integrate form, freedom, sound and vision, he continues to posit his undeniable importance, not just on the Norwegian scene where he is a clear heavyweight, but internationally, where his visibility continues to grow.
Tomorrow: Arve Henriksen/Marilyn Mazur, and Tomasz Stańko 's Dark Eyes Quintet.
All Photos: John Kelman