Norwegian Road Trip, Part 6: Molde Jazz, Days 3-4
[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].
With Molde Jazz celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2010, there are even more special projects than usual, and an even richer roster than at the 2009 edition. The festival has long been host to special projects and, as one of five festivalsMolde being the only jazz eventreceiving additional government funding, Molde has been able to commission new works that have been recorded and ultimately released commercially. The festival has also been a part of the Intro Jazz: Årets Unge Jazzmusikere program, where eight groups are selected each year, from a larger collection of applicants, to compete for a prize of several hundred thousand Norwegian Kroners that can be used to help further their careers. The competition began in Kongsberg, just a couple weeks prior, where eight groups were trimmed down to four.
Molde, at 1:30AM
The four finalists competed at Molde, and the winner turned out to be the duo of guitarist Per Arne Ferne and pianist Per Gunnar Juliussona fine choice, as their set in Kongsberg was a combination of appealingly writing and empathic interplay. Ferne and Juliusson were enjoying their win in the Molde Jazz press center during the afternoon of July 21, and were also busy participating in interviews with journalists and a radio broadcast by NRK, from Alexandra Park later that day.
Sadly, the weather in Molde was not as fine as it was in 2009, with clouds settling in the first day of the festival and near-constant rain creating some problems for the festival's outdoor shows. Still, the sun may not have been shining but there was plenty of warmth to go around, as audiences were treated to a fantastic program that combined the best of international jazz with equally impressive Norwegian groupssome well-established, others new and on an upward trajectory. Certainly no amount of inclement weather could stop two of the festival's best performances thus far from taking place during the evening of July 21.
- July 21: Ketil Bjørnstad's Antonioni Project
- July 21: Nils Petter Molvær Trio
- July 22: Ola Kvernberg's "Liarbird," with Joshua Redman
- July 22: Puma
Sometimes everything works out exactly as planned. When pianist Ketil Bjørnstad spoke with ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher about putting together a group for his proposed project, an homage to Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, not only was the line-up decided in a single minute, but everyone on Bjørnstad and Eicher's collaborative "A" list was actually available: bassist Arild Andersen, cellist Anja Lechner, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, guitarist Eivind Aarset and percussionist Marilyn Mazur. Bjørnstad has worked with most of these players before in other contextsnoting enthusiastically, after the ensemble's absolutely stunning performance, that with each member a part of the larger ECM family, the show also demonstrated the remarkable breadth of the label's stylistic purview. What it also proved was just how well these musiciansfrom a broad range of personal stylistic endeavorscould come together to create music that was filled with grace, passion, beauty...and power. Speaking with a single voice, and filtered through Bjørnstad's musical prism, to be sure; but equally, never sounding like anyone other than themselves throughout their 80-minute performance at Bjørnsenhuset.
Introducing the performance to his audience, Bjørnstad spoke of ECM's long historical affiliation with film, and recent musical tributes including French pianist François Couturier's NostalghiaSong for Tarkovsky (2006). Setting the mood for the performance, he left the audience with a few thought-provoking quotes, before returning to the piano:
Everything in life gives you insight. Ketil Bjørnstad
Film is a petrified fountain of thought. Antonioni"
I don't want to describe what I saw; I want to describe what I felt when I saw it. Edvard Munch
Beginning with Mazur's deep gongsso quiet that they commanded the audience's attention far more profoundly than had they been more overtly dramaticBjørnstad and the ensemble wound its way through a suite of twelve untitled pieces; most connecting seamlessly, though there were a couple of brief breaksjust enough time for the enthusiastic applause that continued to build as the performance continued.
Bjørnstad's music has always been a logical outgrowth of his classical background and training, but he's also worked with colors that are rarely heard, even in the neoclassical world; most specifically the soaring and sometimes searing guitar work of Terje Rypdalwho has participated on a number of the pianist's ECM releases including Life in Leipzig (ECM, 2008). Aarset's contributions to non-ECM albums including Before the Light (Universal Music Norway, 2001) have been sonically broader still; in performance, applying warm soundscapes, densely jagged electronic textures and even some twangy, tremelo'd surf-like guitar on the evening's final piece. Aarset's sonic choices were always perfect; more remarkable, still, that they were being made on the fly, with his usual mad scientist's rig of pedals and laptop. It's rare to hear Aarset perform on anything but his customized electric guitar, but early in the set he brought out a gorgeous sounding steel-string acoustic that, at times, possessed the surprising warmth and organic feel of a nylon-stringed classical guitar.
It was also a rare opportunity to hear Aarset performing with a more decidedly guitaristic bent; sometimes mirroring Bjørnstad's lyrical melodies, other times doubling Andersen's powerful bass lines. Andersen was, as ever, a powerful anchor at the low end of the sound spectrum, but was also an engaging melodic foil for Bjørnstad, Sheppard and Lechner. Most impressive was an early improvisational segment, beginning with Bjørnstad and Lechner pairing in spontaneous melodism, but then moving to a more energized duet between the cellist and AndersenLechner playing arco, while the bassist layered lightning fast but always thematically focused pizzicato lines.
Mazur then took over for Lechner, and turned the temperature up even further in duet with Andersen. That Mazur appeared to have complete and utter command of her massive percussion rig was belied by a conversation after the performance, where she explained that, many times, her working with percussion instruments provided by festivals allows for the sound of surprise that gives her playing such marvelous unpredictability, unfailing power, and delicate strength. And she'd not have it any other way.
There's a compelling physicality about the way that Mazur approaches her instrumentsdrum kit, gongs, bells, wood blocks, gourds, a huge bass drum and more. It's made her a unique percussion voice in the jazz world, able to groove and swing with the best of them, but with an infusion of ethnic percussion and a lifetime study of rhythms throughout the world that have turned her into a player as comfortable with the fusion of Miles Davis in the 1980s and the world music-centric albums of Jan Garbarek in the 1990s, all leading to her own discography with groups including the cross-cultural and forward-thinking Future Songs, and a more recent improvised duo record with Garbarek, Elixir (ECM, 2008).
Sheppard is relatively new to ECM as a leader, releasing Movements in Colour in 2009, but he's familiar to fans of Carla Bley for his longstanding relationship, heard most recently on the pianist's smaller group recording, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (WATT/ECM, 2007). Here, in the context of Bjørnstad's new score, he contributed a vital combination of gentle lyricism on soprano, and visceral power on tenor, as he moved from deep, almost growling phrases to soaring screams in the upper register. A tenor solo late in the set engendered a resonant group energy, with Andersen, Lechner and Bjørnstad smiling amongst one another as they pushed and pulled with his pliant lines, creating an unexpected and sheer in-the-moment excitement rarely heard from the pianistnot, at least, on record.
It was that very dynamism that made the performance so special. Bjørnstad is known for his compelling writing, the kind of music that's as much a spiritual journey as it is a sonic one. And being a published poet and writer of both fiction and non-fictionsometimes blurring the two on his The Story of Edvard Munch (Arcadia, 1993), or embedding the autobiographical within the fictional on To Music (MAIA, 2004)it's no surprise that his music often possesses a strong narrative arc, despite often being without words, as was the case with his "Antonioni Project." Bjørnstad combined the familiar and the new: familiar, in the kinds of serpentine yet singable melodies he has always written; new, in the breadth of dynamic of a performance that ranged from near-silence to thunderous power and maelstrom-like turbulence, as Mazur, in particular, propelled the group with effortless energy and intuitive color. The pacing of the set couldn't have been better either, with each leap into exhilarating dramatism matched by subtler interludes, including a soft, poignant piano solo, mid-set, that was written for one of Norway's biggest musical advocates, England's Fiona Talkington, of BBC Radio 3.
As the set drew to a close, there was a tangible sense, from both Bjørnstad's group and the audience, of coming to the end of a long journey, a feeling of returning home. That this group had only two rehearsals before it hit the stage was impressive; that it didn't demonstrate any of the nervous energy of a first-time performance even more so. While Mazur confirmed this feeling in conversation after the show, it wasn't actually necessary; there was a constant and palpable sense of comfort, togetherness and trust that made Bjørnstad's "Antonioni Project" not just one of the best shows of Molde 2010, or one of the best projects in the pianist's long career. It was, quite simply, one of the most profoundly moving performances in recent memory; a show that touched on a myriad of feelings and imagesperfect, then, in its homage to the great Italian film director.
From left: Anja Lechner, Arild Andersen
That the performancewhich sounded terrific throughout the hall, but most impressively even in the very front row, where the sound of the room is often lost amidst music coming directly from the stagewas being recorded for future release by ECM was very good news. But while the album will, no doubt, be a terrific oneperhaps, even, the best recording of Bjørnstad's careerit will be no small challenge to replicate the feeling of having been there, making it incredibly good fortune for each and every member of the nearly full house to have been in this very specific place, at this very particular point in time. While there was no encore material for the group to play, that didn't stop the audience from giving it a well-deserved standing ovation, continuing thunderous applause long after the group had left the stage.