It may have seemed that recruiting American saxophonist Joshua Redman for the live premiere of Liarbirda joint commission by the Trondheim and Molde Jazz Festivals in Norwaywas the musical equivalent of a ringer in sports. But it wasn't long into Ola Kvernberg's ambitious Molde Jazz 2010 performance, as the violinist launched into the first of many staggeringly fine solos, that Redman's appreciation for the players around him became clearhis expression, for most of the show, one of sheer amazement. And why wouldn't it be? With a group of exceptional young Norwegians whose collective résumé includes Jaga Jazzist, Shining, Atomic and Mellow Motifin addition to most, like trumpeter Mathias Eick and saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, being leaders in their own rightKvernberg clearly assembled a group with the broad scope necessary to realize a suite of original material, running the gamut from folkloric lyricism to jaggedly organized chaos, and from unfettered freedom to detailed through-composition.
The problem with Norwegian commissions is that there are sometimes long gaps between performance and recordingin this case, nearly a year-and-a-half, but it's been worth the wait. It's not necessarily easy to capture the energy and momentum of a live performance in the studiosometimes it's better to capitalize on the unique qualities studio recording has to offer. With Liarbird, Kvernberg manages to do both, with the studio's more controllable sound facilitating interplay at a level not always possible in less-than-perfect performance spaces.
Kvernberg's solo on "Wintermelon" is as fiery as its underlying support from two bassists (Atomic and The Thing's Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Motif's Ole Morten Vågan) and two drummers (Erik Nylander, back from Kvernberg's equally impressive Folk (Jazzland, 2009) and Shining's Torstein Lofthus), with Zanussi Five's Eirik Hegdal (replacing Redman on this session) turning in one of set set's most nuclear moments, in a three-way with Lofthus and Nylander that's the perfect argument against those who feel compelled to squeeze these Norwegians square pegs in the same Nordic Cool round hole. There's something undeniably distinctindefinably Norwegian, even, perhapsabout the way Kvernberg's nonet approaches contextually directed free play, and yet its roots in the American tradition, in particular what's fanned out from Ornette Coleman's early '60s innovations, are equally unassailable.
But it's not all high energy, high octane: "Vilje" is a brooding tone poem, where Flaten, Vagan, Kvernberg and violist Bergmund Waal Skaslien become a lower-register string quartet to underscore Eick's melancholically lyrical work, before turning the stage over to Kornstad, whose solo incorporates the same approach to looping that made his own Dwell Time (Jazzland) one of the best releases of 2009.
Trimmed from a 100-minute performance into a more concise 65-minutes, Liarbird couldn't succeed without not just players of this caliber, but these specific players. But as much as its success is predicated on the playing, Liarbird also demonstrates significant growth as a writer and leader for Kvernberg. Having just turned thirty this violinist to watch now has the one-two-punch of one of the best live shows of 2010and one of the best recordings of 2011.
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