Norwegian Road Trip, Part 6: Molde Jazz, Days 3-4
In an interview in Oslo the previous week, guitarist Stian Westerhus described his latest album with post-rock free improvising group PumaHalf Nelson Courtship (Rune Grammofon, 2010)as "more melodic than we've ever been." There were certainly undeniable moments of thematic construction during Puma's 90-minute set at the small but sold out Forum Kveld, as the usually completely improvised trio, for the first time, actually performed material from its album. There were moments of abstruse beauty, too; but beauty for Puma, not unlike Supersilentan unmistakable touchstone for the group's exploration of sound's outer limitsis a significantly different beast.
The spirit of Supersilent may continue to loom large over many groups that fall into the category of noise improv, but Puma has developed its own voice, with a combination of Øystein Moen's orchestral keys, drummer Gard Nilssen's blend of pulse and color, and guitarist Westerhus' intrepid unorthodoxy. Beginning in darkness, with smoke billowing from the back of the stage, Puma delivered a set that despiteor, perhaps more accurately, as a consequence ofits oblique and often aggressive nature, will go down as one of Molde Jazz 2010's best, if not one of the its best ever.
As prone to angular bursts of screaming, feedback-laden sonics as he was greater subtlety and surprisingly haunting beauty, Westerhus began the set by rapidly tapping his guitar pick against the strings of his guitar; broadening the soundscape with his wide array of effects pedals. That he was often able to adjust settings with the toe of his boot, or by quickly crouching down to use his handseven as he appeared totally lost in the momentwas evidence of a player for whom these devices were a natural extension of his hands and his guitar.
Visually, Westerhus delivered everything with charismatic, rock-like posturing, but it was always all about complete and utter immersion. With his face reflecting everything from pain to pleasure, it was a cathartic performance thatalong with his Nils Petter Molvaer Trio show the previous evening, his solo set at Natt Jazz 2010, and his recent Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010)continues to position Westerhus as a guitarist of no small significance, even as he largely eschewed all common guitar techniques and, instead, used his guitar, array of pedals and wall of amplifiers as a direct emotional conduit. From strange, undulating lines that sounded like Robert Fripp on steroids, to piercing howls of feedback that would have surprised Jimi Hendrix, Westerhus' emergence in the world of improvised guitar continues on a rapid upward trajectory.
Puma is no less a cathartic experience for Moen, who often jumped back from his keyboards as if he'd received an electric shock, only to then attack them with dramatic gestures. Combining vibrating, otherworldly synth tones, in-the-gut bass sonics and skewed, Messiaen-like chords, Moen's connection to both Nilssen and Westerhus reflected the deep trust shared by everyone in Puma. As a member of Jaga Jazzist, Moen is intimate with detailed composition and rigorous structural demands; as a member of the more egalitarian Puma, he is given free rein to explore the more outer regions of spontaneous composition. A ubiquitous player on the Norwegian scenewith groups occupying distant reaches of the musical spectrum such as the post-bop Zanussi Five and modern guitar power trio Bushman's RevengeNilssen's own reach is as broad as that of his trio mates. Here, in Puma, it was more about creating jagged rhythms, turbulent colors and orchestral textures, as he used sophisticated stick work to augment the power and potential of his drum kit.
While there was a certain relentless nature to Puma's set, it also possessed a clear arc; a narrative that went from softer plateaus to ear-crunching heights, where communication was a fundamental, as Moen, Nilssen and Westerhus relied on eye contact to move from unexpected landscapes to those on Half Nelson Courtship. But even when the trio moved into familiar territory, its approach was always open-ended, with particular harmonics or melodies providing the context for even greater exploration, as on the inevitable build of "Hachioji Silk Blues."
The lighting was just as diverse. At times in almost complete darkness, a series of bright lights created near-blinding bursts that reflected the near-nuclear extremes of Puma's music, while periodic strobe-lighting added the curiously unsettled yet unerringly focused nature of the performance.
Gard Nilssen and Stian Westerhus
By the end of its late-night set, Puma was clearly exhausted but happy; a feeling shared by the audience, which clapped and screamed enthusiastically throughout the performance, but was so sated by its end that there was none of the usual screams and rhythmic clapping to call for an encore. It wasn't that Puma didn't deserve it; it was becauseafter 90-minutes of visceral, cathartic music that touched on a plethora of emotions and evoked plenty of abstract imageryanything more would have been anti-climactic.
Coming Up: Molde Part 3, Rune Grammofon's Label in Residence series concludes with performances by Motorpsycho (a special event with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Trondheim Solistene and Sula Art Ensemble), Bushman's Revenge and Espen Eriksen Trio, while label mate Stian Westerhus performs in duo with singer Sidsel Endresen. Also coming are performances by post-bop group The Core; a trio performance by guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Gerald Cleaver; an early morning, Break of Day performance by Nils Petter Molvær with Biosphere; and the trumpeter's closing show, featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset, percussionist Adam Rudolph and Norwegian folksinger Sondre Bratland.
All Photos: John Kelman