Molde Jazz: Day 3, July 15, 2009
In sharp contrast to Wallumrød's more obscure but obliquely beautiful music, singer/songwriter Kristin Asbjørnsen's 90-minute set was considerably less challenging, but no less appealing for it. Asbjørnsen has been on the Norwegian scene for over a decade, with groups including the all-vocal Kvitretten and pop group Dadafon. She was also a guest of the Nymark Collectivewhich featured pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose three albums for ECM including Being There (2008) have brought him international attentionfor Bessie Smith Revisited: Live in Concert (Independent, 2008), an album which demonstrated her not inconsiderable diversity. But it was her 2006 release Wayfaring Stranger: A Spiritual Songbook (Univeral Norway) that not only solidified her hold in Norway, but garnered her greater acclaim abroad as well.
Asbjørnsen's performance in front of a capacity crowd of over 700 at Molde drew from Wayfaring Stranger and her recently released The Night Shines Like the Day (Universal, 2009). Bringing the same group as The Night ShinesGustavsen (who also sang backup), guitarist/vocalist Olav Torget, whose Urban Jive (Echofisk, 2008) was a very promising debut, cellist/bassist Svante Henryson, lap steel guitarist/vocalist Jostein Ansnes and percussionist Knut AalefjærAsbjørnsen established the tone early on. A beautifully paced set that may have focused on Asbjørnsen's rich, ever-so-slightly raspy voice which possessed just a hint of world-weariness, it also provided plenty of opportunity for everyone in the band to shine.
Asbjørnsen's predilection for soulful delivery was perfectly matched by Gustavsen, whose own albums have eschewed conventional Nordic cool for a warmer approach that possesses an unmistakable affection for the gospel music of the American south. Despite a considerably distanced musical context, Gustavsen's performance with Asbjørnsen was most impressive for just how much in evidence the voice that has gradually emerged on his own recordings remained. With a touch, at times, as delicate as a whisper but elsewhere bolder in keeping with some of the material's more energetic demands, Gustavsen was working within strong frameworks, yet clearly had the freedom to interpret within them. Ansnes' lap steel added a defining color to the group, but he was an even more impressive acoustic guitarist and particularly striking backup singer, leaving Asbjørnsen free to be more liberal, while empathically synching with her languid, behind-the-beat phrasing.
Torget was also striking, playing the African konting on songs that, with Aalefjær's hybridized kit of drums and assorted percussion playable by sticks or hands, often demonstrated at least a hint of African polyrhythmic influence. A sympathetic ensemble player, Torget rarely soloed, but his few features demonstrated no shortage of invention within a pop/folk context. Henryson, who'll be appearing with Arve Henriksen, Jon Balke, Terje Isungset and dancer Therese Skauge on Molde Jazz's final day at a curious early morning outdoor performance, was a charismatic cellist, possessing a singing arco and pizzicato style that reached deep into the instrument's lower register to substitute for bass on many of the songs. He was also a lithe electric bassist, with a robust fretless tone and loose way of working the pulse that didn't just anchor the more up-tempo songs, but made them dance.
While Asbjørnsen stuck with many of her album arrangements, she did extend some of the materialand not just by adding solos, although Henryson did deliver one of prodigious technique at the beginning of the waltz-time and, on record, exceedingly brief "I'm Too Heavy Now," where he punctuated his appealing melodic lines with visceral glissandi.
l:r: Svante Henryson, Jostein Ansnes , Kristin Asbjørnsen, Knut Aalefjær, Olav Torget
But as impressive as the musicians with whom she chose to surround herself were, attention remained largely focused on Asbjørnsen. Avoiding the excessive trappings of post-American Idol melisma, she chose her moments carefully to turn more expressive, the result being expanded and more dramatic versions of "Trying to Get Home," "Ride Up in the Chariot" and the graceful encore, "There's a Balm in Gilead." Well-established in Norway and with a star already on the ascendance in Europe, based on her albums and Molde performance, Asbjørnsen's personal approach to working both original and cover material makes her as an artist deserving of exposure on North American shores as well.
Tomorrow: Supersilent, Huntsville.
All Photos: John Kelman