Norwegian Road Trip, Part 5: Molde Jazz, Days 1-2
Since releasing its sublimely beautiful debut, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (Rune Grammofon, 2005), In the Country has continued to evolve. Rune Grammofon's first piano trio, it has defied all convention as its memberspianist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pål Hauskenhave continued to evolve a concept that's often pop-like in structure, but profound in interpretive delivery and a kind of improvisational acumen that's all about the song, rather than the musicians who are playing it.
What better group, then, to open a series of performances by Rune Grammofon, in celebration of it being Molde Jazz's first Label in Residence? In many ways, In the Country exemplify all that is great about the label: creatively pushing the boundaries of whatever context it finds itself in, and allowing its artists complete and utter freedom to fashion their own sound and approach, and with a commitment that allows them to evolve at their own pace.
In the County doesn't perform that often, and what might be a disadvantage for some clearly becomes an advantage for this group, as its playing retains unequivocal freshness and sense of surprise that could be seen on the faces of its members, as they explored music from all three of their albums, including the sophomore Losing Stones, Collecting Bones (Rune Grammofon, 2007), and their most recent and most ambitious Whiteout (Rune Grammofon, 2009).
Elements of Keith Jarrettby way of Tord Gustavsencould be heard in Qvenild's playing, with a very subtle tinge of gospel running through it at times. But he also went to far darker places, as on the opening to Losing Bones's "Can I Come Home Now," its angular melody leading to more dynamic middle section that developed in a different way than the original, which featured at tart guest spot by guitarist Marc Ribot. Arntzen played with spare economy, often repeating phrases with the subtlest variations, as he used harmonics and glissandi in unique ways to both anchor the music and act as a contrapuntal foil for Qvenild. Hausken, more often than not, used large mallets rater than traditional hard-pointed drumsticks, and thisalong with towels placed on top of most of his drumscreated a denser sound as he built the music, at times, to tumultuous climax, only to drop instantly to a near-whisper.
The group's set ranged from dark and stark to quietly propulsive and thematically compelling; at its most accessible, perhaps, on the soft, brush-driven "Doves Dance," a song that hinted at folk and country but, with its more sophisticated changes and a winding melody which was at the same time oblique yet singable. But its best moments came with the lengthy encore, "Mother," which closed both the evening and Whiteout. The most obvious example of Qvenild's use of electronics to softly morph the sound of his grand piano, he used his laptop to turn his instrument into a thing of shimmering beauty, as he sang the songs lyrics with a kind of understated vulnerability.
A group that's getting better with each passing year, its Molde Jazz 2010 performance was a significant improvement over its show at Mai Jazz 2008. Not that there was anything wrong with its show in Stavanger, but while the venuea 1,000 year-old monasterywas profound if for no other reason than its age, its all-stone construction meant too many reflective surfaces and, consequently, a less-than-ideal sound. Here in Molde, the sound at Kulturhuset was fabulous, and gave the group a head start at the kind of interaction and soft nuance on which its sound has been built.
July 19: Farmers Market
It's hard to imagine dancing in 9/8, much less clapping along, but that's exactly what Farmers Market leader/multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstesen did-or, at least, tried to doat one point during the first of two late night sets at the Alexandra Park. Situated across from the Quality Hotel Alexandra, it's an all-day party atmosphere, with the beer taps flowing, sausages grilling and crowds of people coming and going from morning 'til night.
From left: Trifon Trifonov, Stian Carstensen, Jarle Vespestad Finn Guttormsen, Nils Olav Johansen
Along with Carstensen, Farmers Market features guitarist/vocalist Nils Olav Johansenheard recently in Bergen with Element: Special Edition, bassist Finn Guttormsen, Bulgarian saxophonist Trifon Trifonov and drummer Jarle Vespestadlast heard in a far more serious environs with pianist Tord Gustavsen at the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. That the group managed to wind its way through a largely continuous set thatwith Carstensen switching between electric guitar, pedal steel and accordiontraversed more music per second than John Zorn in his cartoon heyday. Polka, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, film themes (and, at one point, the iconic 20th Century Fox theme), folk, rock and more were twisted, turned, subverted and perverted to Carstensen's agenda, which was about humor, engagement and complete and utter fun.
That the group's four albumsstarting with Speed Balkan Boogie (Kirkelig, 1995) and through three more albums up to the most recent Surfin' USSR (Ipecac, 2008)are fantastic trips through serious playing of music most absurd, but can't capture the full spirit of Farmers Market live. Fortunately there will be a second chance to catch the group on the following day, as Carstensen and the group will, no doubt, deliver more madness and mayhem, in the most fun way possible, taking Molde Jazz 2010 into the wee hours of the morning.