Norwegian Road Trip, Part 5: Molde Jazz, Days 1-2
Amongst the characteristics that differentiate so many of the Norwegian festivals is the creation of unique, one-time groupings. In Kongsberg, a couple weeks back, it was the collaboration of poet Jan Erik Vold with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Arild Andersen. The Norwegian bassist was back at Molde on its second day, but this time in a more straight-ahead group with vibraphone master Gary Burton, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, and Danish drummer Alex Riel. The four have met and played in various permutations and combinations before but, as Burton explained at the start of the show, never together in one group. Trading music in the time leading up to the show, but with only one rehearsal under its belt, the arrangements were generally simple, but the playing stellar.
And it was a blowing session from start to finish, as the group wound its way through a number of standards, ranging from pianist Oscar Peterson's "Wheat Land," an easygoing but nevertheless energetic opener that set the bar for the rest of the performance, to the set-closer, Carla Bley's fiery "Syndrome," a tune that Burton has covered repeatedly (along with other Bley compositions), as recently as on Quartet Live (Concord, 2009), his most recent reunion with guitarist Pat Metheny. Smith and Andersen contributed the most unusual material to the set: Andersen a lovely version of the Brazilian-influenced "Backé," first heard on If You Look Far Enough (ECM, 1992); Smith, an adaptation of a Yemenite traditional song that translates as "Tomorrow, Tomorrow." Smithwho brought levity to the set with his introductions-including a quick lesson in dialectic pronunciation of the phrase "how now, brown cow" that had the audience in stitchesalso contributed an arrangement of a traditional Irish tune that began with Andersen creating sweeping loops of arco bass.
Andersen's sound has always been big, but at this particular performance it was huge, and he demonstrated no shortage of virtuosity on his own "Commander Schmuck's Earflap Hat," first heard on his classic A Molde Concert (ECM, 1982), with Frisell, pianist John Taylor and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Smithwho has become the figurehead for jazz advocacy in Scotland with his Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, describing its players, in conversation after the performance, as more than just kids in a big band, but sophisticated soloists in their own righthas come a long way since his Berklee days in Boston during the mid-1980s, where he first emerged as a kind of stylistic blend of Jan Garbarek and Michael Brecker. Those influences remain, of course, but proved more completely subsumed in a style that favored substance over style; where when he did take off with more rapid-fire lines rather than thoughtful melodism, it felt absolutely in context rather than being an unnecessary display of Smith's undeniable technical acumen.
Riel, a legendary drummer who worked with Dexter Gordon when the saxophonist relocated to Copenhagen in the 1960s, was the perfect confluence of power and delicacy; his light cymbal work and gentle brushes especially noteworthy on Keith Jarrett's balladic "Coral," another Burton choice that the vibraphonist has covered many times over the years. The entire group delivered in a set that was enthusiastically received by the capacity crowd at Bjørnsenhuset, but the most immediate chemistry was between Andersen and Smith, who have been working in a trio with drummer Paolo Vinaccia for the past several years, most recently heard on the outstanding ECM disc, Live at Belleville (2008) but in desperate need of a follow-up.
From left: Tommy Smith, Alex Riel, Gary Burton, Arild Andersen
Burton delivered solo-after-solo of characteristic perfection, with the kind of stunning four-mallet work that continues to inspire younger vibraphonists, and a harmonic voice that has, over the years, honed to absolute distinction and instantaneous recognition. It was a set that may not have rattled any cages in terms of innovation or forward-thinking music, but with four players this strongwhose shared history and relaxed friendship was in evidence throughout the set and afterwards in the dressing roomthe playing was absolutely more than enough.
All Photos: John Kelman