Molde Jazz: Day 3, July 15, 2009
Christian Wallumrød Ensemble with Arve Henriksen / Kristin Asbjørnsen
July 15, 2009
Located on a large fjord, Molde's weather is moderated by its proximity to the ocean, about 30 kilometers away. There are some dramatic changes, however, with weather systems moving in and out so quickly that the old saying, "you don't like the weather? Wait five minutes," is more than just an adage, it's the truth. Dark clouds can move in quickly, drop rain on the small Norwegian town for ten or fifteen minutes, and then be gone just as fastleaving the sun shining and the dramatic clouds that often cover the tops of the surrounding mountains gradually dissipating.
But weather doesn't seem to be a deterrent for Molde Jazz fans. A long line-up waiting to get into the Molde Domkirke for singer Kristin Asbjørnsen's 6:00 PM showin the town church that was rebuilt after the original wooden structure was destroyed during bombing in World War IIwas a balanced mix of prepared patrons with hoodies and umbrellas, as well as those without any protection at all, standing in the line as if nothing was happening, even as the rainfall intensified.
Earlier, the weather was just fine for the festival's daily kick-off. Jazzlogena 70-piece group of young musicians eager to learn how to play jazz, New Orleans style (and already doing so very well)along with a group of dancers from Studio 1 bringing up the rear, played some terrific old-style jazz. Marching down the street from the Quality Hotel Alexandra to the town center, a large crowd of festival-goers followed them as the various kiosks opened for the day.
And it doesn't take long for the free shows that run in various locations throughout the town to get started either. The ticketed shows typically start at 4:00 PM and run until a little after midnight but, like its larger sister festival in Montreal, Canada, Molde Jazz is a festival where it's also possible to spend the entire week catching some terrific music without spending a penny...or, in this case, a kroner.
As this year's artist in residence, trumpeter Arve Henriksen is putting on some shows where, despite a firmly collaborative nature, he's still the clear leader. In other cases, like tomorrow's Supersilent performance, he's part of an egalitarian collective. But for the third in his series of shows, he turned the reins over completely to pianist/composer Christian Wallumrød. Henriksen is the only constant in Wallumrød's ECM-documented ensembles of the past dozen years, beginning with the trio disc No Birch (1998), followed by the four-piece group responsible for Sofienberg Variations (2003) and A Year from Easter (2005), and, most recently, the sextet heard on The Zoo is Far (2007). For his afternoon show at the Forum, Wallumrød reconvened the quartet, also featuring violinist Nils Økland and percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen
Rather than coming in any direct way from jazz, Wallumrød's music has closer ties to classical chamber music and, in an oblique way, Norwegian traditionalism. Improvisation is an element, to be sure, but it's just as often in the interpretive approach to playing the pianist's scored parts as it is more liberated free play. Still, there were plenty of both in a performance that was largely cerebral in nature and often pensive in tone, yet surprisingly dramaticdue, more often than not, to the ensemble's incredibly nuanced dynamics, making even the slightest shift bear great power.
Wallumrød often used deceptively simple motifs, skewed slightly to provide a more abstruse perspective, and made exceptional use of the piano's sustaining pedal to create ethereal backwashes of color. These washes were often so subtle as to be felt more than heard, providing the perfect subliminal context for Økland, whose roots in contemporary classical music and the folk tradition seemed seamlessly melded; driven by a touch so delicate as to be barely audible, or so aggressive that it dominated the group's larger soundscape. Øklandwhose recent Monograph (ECM, 2009) explores his instruments' broadest possibilities in the spare setting of solo recitalplayed both hardanger fiddle and viola d'amore, violin-like instruments with sympathetic strings positioned underneath those that are played, resonating to create a richer sound. A master of nuance and lyricism, but equally an expert at microtonality, he meshed beautifully with Henriksen's equally broad textural range.
Leaving behind the electronics entirely for this all-acoustic performance (even the miking of the group was minimal), Henriksen used nothing more than his instruments, embouchure and, very occasionally, his voice to contribute colors ranging from his shakuhachi-like tone to those more closely resembling conventional trumpetand yet others resembling neither. By utilizing all kinds of nonconformist techniques that combined with similarly unorthodox approaches from Wallumrød, Økland and Johansen, the resultant group speak expanded beyond the reach of a typical small ensemble into near-orchestral possibilities. Johansen, whose drum kit was augmented with a variety of tuned percussion that he bowed, plucked with his fingers and more, was equally attuned to finding ways to turn this quartet's sound into a larger landscape, all the while using this larger palette in service of Wallumrød's detailed writing.
With the slightest dynamic shift resulting in profound power, when the ensemble actually went at their instruments hard its sound became almost impossibly huge for a group so small. Wallumrød, who used a variety of prepared piano techniques as well as a toy piano, shifted to harmonium twice during the performancemost notably on A Year from Easter's "Lichtblick," where he drew together sonically with Økland and Henriksen for a György Ligeti-informed piece of microtonality that became increasingly potent as the three orbited around each other in close proximity. Henriksen utilized a different mouthpiece on his trumpet, allowing him access to notes so pure and high that the overall sound resembled the shrill, dissonant middle section of Ligeti's 1961 composition, "Atmosphères," made famous in the soundtrack to director Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
l:r: Christian Wallumrød, Nils Økland, Arve Henriksen
A key definer of this group was its avoidance of stereotypical roles. Johansen could be heard contributing melody on a bowed saw while Wallumrød's toy piano created a harmonic context, over which Økland might scrape a string of his viola d'amore with his nail to create an unexpected rhythm as Henriksen did the same thing by tapping the valves of his horn. Almost as sleight of hand, roles shifted as Johansen, moving to xylophone, began to play a delicate "Bo Diddley" rhythm (eliciting a gentle smile from Wallumrød) as the pianist quickly moved to match it, with Henriksen and Økland shifting to more contrapuntal roles.
Though the music could become unexpectedly denseespecially during some of the more boldly improvised segmentsit remained surprisingly delicate for the most part. And with economy and careful attention to space as constant markers, Wallumrød's ensemble may be the closest thing ECM has to a contemporary group that embodies the phrase used to describe its early music: "The most beautiful sound next to silence."