Norwegian Road Trip, Part 6: Molde Jazz, Days 3-4
It's been a year since Eivind Aarset left trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's regular triothe combination of an increasing problem with tinnitus and a desire to spend more time at home, working on his own projects. With such a long history togetherdating right back to Molvær's groundbreaking and seminal Khmer (ECM, 1997)finding a replacement might have been a challenge, were it not for guitarist Stian Westerhus' return to Norway after a few years studying and playing in London. The guitarist was already creating considerable buzz for his work in Monolithic and Puma, but when Molvær rang Westerhus up, while the guitarist was on tour in Italy, the most important expectation was that he would bring his own voice to the trio, and not try to fill Aarset's inestimably large shoes.
Nils Petter Molvær
Molvær, this year's Artist in Residence at Molde Jazz, brought his trio to Kulturhuset Klubb at midnight (seemingly, the trumpeter's preferred time to perform) and, while there were some familiar tunes amongst a set that was weighted heavily towards improvisation, as Westerhus described in an interview the previous week in Oslo, ..." the old stuff doesn't sound anything like the old stuff." Truer words were never spoken, with "Sabkah," from Molvær's most recent release, Hamada (Sula, 2009), retaining some of the song's gentle lyricism. But while Westerhus generally respected the song's Morricone-esque vibe, he also brought a darker challenge to the song, not, as he also described in Oslo, doing "Nils Petter as many musical favors." In fact, if anything best describes the new Nils Petter Molvær Trio, it's these words, also courtesy of Westerhus: "I can force Nils Petter into any corner I want, and he can force me into any corner he wants, which is great."
The set began in the darkness so typical of Molvær performanceswith back projection lighting and processed live webcam imagery courtesy of longtime Light Designer Tord Knutsenit quickly traveled to more jagged and angular territory, with Westerhus on his Dan Electro baritone electric guitar, fed through four amplifiers and an array of foot pedals. Westerhuswhose solo performance at Natt Jazz confirmed the unorthodox techniques he employs on his recent solo disc, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010)began grinding out grungy, distorted, low-end chords that resembled, at times, nothing more than visceral, gut-punching sound rather than any kind of harmonic center.
Molværwhose playing at the opening show for Molde 2010 was its absolute highlightextended the extremes from that performance even furtherstill capable of a personal sense of melodism that made distinctive use of constantly shifting harmonizing but, both encouraged by Westerhus and liberated by the guitarist to find his own new areas of screaming intensity that, in turn, pushed Westerhus to the edge of the precipice...and, occasionally, right over it. It was a whole new kind of dynamic and one where the eye contact between the two was a palpable presence, even when the lighting was so abstract that their faces could only be made out in passing.
But Molvær's trio performance at Molde was notable for more than just the opportunity to experience the new but already deep connection with Westerhus; with regular drummer Audun Kleive unable to come, Molvær recruited Erland Dahlen, last heard at Natt Jazz in May as the thundering presence behind both Eivind Aarset and his Sonic Codex group, and trumpeter Mathias Eick who, like Aarset, was debuting new material, thanks to that festival's commission. Dahlen also brought his saw to Molvær's show, contributing some otherworldly melodies as he bowed it mid-way during the set, during one of its mellower moments. But it was his cathartic drumming that, different than Kleive's but no less impressive, drove the trio towards new directions beyond those to which Molvær and Westerhus are clearly traveling each and every night. As the set drew to a close, Dahlen seemed to loosen up even further, pushing the trio hard, as Westerhusback on his baritone after a short time on his Gibson hollow body electriclocked in with a staggered and staggering pulse, peppering the pulse with brief electronic wails, screams and walls of noise.
The pervading feeling throughout the trio's 90-minute set, was one of three players forming an equilateral triangle where it seemed as though each edge was constantly pushingthreatening, but never quite succeedingat stretching into dominance. This constant push-and-pull and the trio's relentless give-and-take made the 90-minute set as exhilarating as it was dark, dangerous and aggressive.
Molvær's ability to handle shifts in personnelwhile always retaining the ever-evolving stylistic voice that's placed him at the forefront of the Norwegian jazz scenehas never been as readily apparent or impressive as it was at his Molde Jazz 2010 performance, where a relatively new but fervently deep musical relationship with Westerhus was pushed even further with the wildcard of Dahlena player who, along with his band mates, is clearly someone to keep an eye on, and watch very closely at that.