Oslo International Jazz Festival 2011
Watching the setup/sound check for trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's late-evening show at Parkteatretthe only venue that's not a quick walk from all the others, but is still just a short tram ride from the city centerit became clear that it's a lot more complicated than simply getting good sound levels onstage and in the hall for this group. It's no surprise that many Norwegian artists like Molvær travel with a sound engineer, rather than using one supplied by the venue or festival. With the amount of electronics onstage, and drummer Erland Dahlen's mix of kit, hand percussion, bowed saw and other devices, it's simply too complicated a process to rely on the uninitiated. Johnny Skallberg, no stranger to fans of the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, may have to deal with an entirely new equipment setup each night, but he knows what Molvær and his trio need, and has years of experience finding ways to make everything from top-notch to barely adequate sound systems work as best as possible for the group.
From left: Erland Dahlen, Nils Petter Molvær
But it's more than just the sound; anyone who has been to a Molvær show in the past 17 years knows there's a strong visual component, but unlike most artists, who either use lighting as a mood-setter or to establish set patterns for the music, Molvær has always viewed it as yet another improvisational layer. Visual artist Tord Knudsen has, in fact, been working with the trumpeter longer than anyone elsethey've been collaborating since 1994and watching him adapt to the Parkteatret's available lighting, and mount projectors that allow him to create shifting patterns and audioscapes intimately connected with the music, it's also clear that he is faced with the same nightly challenge that a pianist has, effectively being forced to work with a new instrument each and every night. Knudsen doesn't make the room fit his lighting demands; he shapes his lighting and visual projections based on the roomone more reason why attending a Molvær show is not just different every night because of the music, it's a completely different visual experience as well.
Molvær's current trio incarnation got an unexpected start at Molde Jazz Festival in 2010, when regular drummer Audun Kleive had to sub out on the gig to Dahlen. Kleive is, of course, an exceptional and tremendously influential drummer, with history in groups ranging from guitar icon Terje Rypdal's Chasers to Jøkleba, the collaboration with Jon Balke and Per Jørgensen that reformed, on very short notice, earlier this year when an unexpected illness created an opening at Vossa Jazz that had to be filled quickly. But when Dahlen substituted for Kleive in Molde, the already incendiary trioalso featuring unorthodox guitarist Stian Westerhus, who replaced longtime guitar anti-hero Eivind Aarset and created a significant paradigm shift in Molvær's music towards a much harder-edged soundwent absolutely nuclear. From that night forward, Molvær decided to continue on with Dahlen and Westerhus, and subsequent gigs in the past year have confirmed that this was, indeed, the new trio for which the trumpeter had been searching since he disbanded his longstanding quintet with Aarset, live sampler Jan Bang, drummer Rune Arnesen and turntablist DJ Strangefruit a few years ago.
Molvær's trio has a new album, Baboon Moon , due out in September in Europe on Molvær's Sula Records, with North American release slated for November on Thirsty Ear, and it absolutely reflects the trio's remarkably broad sonic landscape, infinite energy and hardcore power. But, as the trio's Oslo Jazz Festival performance also demonstrated, this was a group as capable of pin-drop-level quiet as it was ear-shattering intensity, willing to explore unbridled lyricism one moment and jagged, angular abstraction the next.
Westerhuswhose Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010) was a shot across the bow of guitar conservatism, elevating him to a position alongside Aarset as one of contemporary guitar's most profound innovatorscontinued to impress with his ability to not just improvise with melody, harmony and rhythm on the fly, but with sound and color as well. Few countries have as many musicians for whom technology is such an organic extension of their instruments as Norway, but even amidst artists including saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, singer Maja S.K. Ratkje and percussionist Thomas Stronen, Westerhus stands out with his remarkable integration of a vast array of guitar pedals, leaving most guitarists in the dust with his uncannily intimate awareness of each and every device's potential, both alone and together with others. As always, his approach may represent intentional rejection of standard guitar pyrotechnics, but there's never any doubt that his breaking of rules comes from a thorough knowledge of them, and that his virtuosity is simply that of a different kind.
Here, Westerhus' sonic landscape ranged from vividly built arco work to crunching chordal rhythms that locked in seamlessly with Dahlen. Alongside pitch shifting to occupy the lower register electronically, he also used an electric baritone guitar to put his work intrinsically into the range. And while Westerhus rarely took anything that resembled a guitar solo, there were plenty of spots where he elevated above the trio's ensemble work to dominate a landscape of sound where, beyond each player's recognizable instrumentation, it was often almost impossible to determine who was playing what.
Dahlen's main axe is his drum kit, but by augmenting the usual snares, toms and cymbals with woodblock, a steel drum-like instrument, gongs, a saw...even a megaphone that he used more than once during the set to add altered vocalizations...the percussionist managed to be both propulsive and textural. Norway has a disproportionate number of creative percussionistswhy that is so remains a topic for another discussionbut Dahlen, who also plays in Eivind Aarset's Sonic Codex group (heard recently at the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival), also became a melodic foil in a trio that, at times, seemed to work in conventional roles, but more often than not rejected them in favor of an egalitarian philosophyan equilateral triangle defining each musician's participation, but one where the dimensions were in a constant state of flux.
Molvær morphed his instrument's texture through embouchure and electronicsas quick to bring the audience to a silence that was remarkable, given the size of the standing room-only capacity crowd as he was driving it into a frenzy in the higher octane segments, sometimes singing into the microphone attached to his horn, building a network of sounds that were far beyond even the wildest dreams of most trumpeters. With foot pedal-adjustable pitch shifter, he was not just able to deliver long, sinewy lines coupled with simple harmonies, but melodies where the harmonic intervals changed as they evolved. With material culled from Baboon Moon, as well as older material like the David Lynch-meets-Americana-Frisell of "Sebkah," from Hamada (Sula, 2009), Molvær and his trio continued to demonstrate the open-minded experimentation that has kept the trumpeter's music pushing forward with the kind relevance that dogs so many others who struggle to retain the magic of their earlier work.