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Molde International Jazz Festival 2013

Molde International Jazz Festival 2013
John Kelman By

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Molde International Jazz Festival
Molde, Norway
July 15-20, 2013

It may have been his last year as festival director, but Jan Ole Otnæs sure went out on a high, not just because his programming was as impeccable as ever, but because he made it a year with a very specific philosophy. In past years, the festival's artists in residence have included such prestigious names as Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Dave Holland, but with this year's choice, pianist Jason Moran, Otnæs made it clear that the dividing line so often drawn between jazz in America and Europe is nothing but artifice. Of course, this is not a particularly new concept; one need only look at labels like ECM, Hatology and Pirouet to see that there is plenty of interaction between artists from both sides of the Atlantic (and even further abroad, for that matter), but with Moran's program a near-perfect blend of collaborations with American artists and others from Norway and Sweden, the 2013 Molde Jazz Festival was a celebration of jazz as a unifying form—one of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Moran's six shows included two longstanding partnerships: the first, with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, with whom the pianist performed a sublime duo concert to celebrate their 2013 ECM recording, Hagar's Song, at the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival just a couple weeks prior; the second, with his longstanding Bandwagon group, featuring bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Moran opened the festival with his In My Mind project (devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk), expanding his Bandwagon trio to an octet with the addition of five Norwegian brass players, proving there are plenty of Nordic players conversant with the American tradition while, at the same time, bringing their own culture to the mix. Moran also teamed with Andratx, a Scandinavian group stemming from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, while a much anticipated duo with live sampler/Punkt Festival Co-Artist Director Jan Bang met—and exceeded—all possible expectations. It's rare that a show lives up to its hype, but this was one case where it actually did.

Beyond Moran's residence, which also included a closing show at the town's church with his wife, singer Alicia Hall Moran, the festival once again presented a diversity rich program, ranging from young guitar firebrand Hedvig Molestad's hard-rocking instrumental trio to the premiere of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love's aptly titled Large Unit. Guitar hero Stian Westerhus debuted his ear-shattering new group, Pale Horse, while the gentle, Big Sur project from another guitar hero, Bill Frisell, was in rich contrast to another premiere, this time from the guitarist at the core of so many young Norwegian six-stringers, Terje Rypdal. The ever-exploratory Albatrosh duo delivered its first performance of a new suite of music with the renowned Trondheim Jazz Orchestra while, a couple of days later, guitar power trio Bushman's Revenge took a step forward by inviting violinist Ola Kvernberg (who seemed to be everywhere at the festival) and saxophonist Kjetil Møster, and pianist Maria Kannegaard delivered just the second performance of a transportive work for a newly forged sextet, bringing together a virtual supergroup of Norwegian musicians from across the generations.

Beyond the festival itself, a group of 25 delegates, ranging from journalists to club owners and festival presenters, and hailing from countries as nearby as Sweden and Denmark and as far away as Canada, the United States, Japan, Hungary and Germany, were invited to participate in a new initiative, organized by Music Norway, the recently merged organization replacing Music Export Norway with Music Information Center Norway. An extrapolation of Silver City Sounds, which took place for a number of years at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, the Molde Jazz Expo was created out of the desire to make that event—intended to introduce its invitees to Norwegian culture and music, with special trips included to allow folks to see some of the surrounding countryside—less festival-dependent. This year it was in Molde; next year it could easily be held elsewhere.

Running the inaugural; Jazz Expo in Molde for the final year of Otnæs' 13-year run was certainly a great idea, but not just for the festival; surrounded by 222 mountains, Molde is truly one of Norway's most beautiful locales, the town of 24,000 situated on a large fjord about 25 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean...and a short drive from the award-winning Atlantic Road, which was the destination for the group on one of the Expo's three days. That the weather was less than cooperative—raining most of the time, with only the occasional (and temporary) breakthrough of sun—did not ruin the natural beauty, though it was unfortunate that less of the surrounding mountain-scapes were visible; on a clearer day, every time a cloud breaks there's a new mountain to be seen, something that makes the festival not just a great destination for music, but for its natural beauty as well.

A few of the attendees decided to stay for the entire run of the festival, and it was well worth it, inclement weather notwithstanding. Beyond the specific meaning of Jason Moran's six-day residency, there wasn't a single day at Molde Jazz Festival where there wasn't something to command—and demand—attention. With Otnæs heading to Oslo to run the city's Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, the mantle of Molde festival director has been handed over to Anders Eriksson, trumpeter for Ensemble Denada, but also the man responsible for booking the group's tours and acting as road manager, amongst other administrative details. Hiring a professional musician with such skills means that Molde International Jazz Festival remains in good hands, though it will be interesting to see just how Eriksson stamps a festival that's been so strongly defined by Otnæs for the past thirteen years.

July 15: Jason Moran In My Mind / Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Albatrosh

A little disclosure: having seen Jason Moran as early as 1998, when he was part of saxophonist Greg Osby's group with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and bassist Taurus Mateen, the feeling has long been that, as talented as the pianist has been, he's invariably been stronger as a sideman to musicians like Osby, Paul Motian and, in particular, Charles Lloyd, rather than as a leader, despite his Bandwagon trio being around for more than a decade now, winning awards and garnering general critical and popular acclaim. However, after hearing the pianist in so many different contexts during his Molde residency, it was clearly time to reassess. Looking back at his discography as the week progressed, such thinking revealed itself as not just unfair but untrue. The pianist's shows throughout the week covering a wide variety of contexts that were truly eye-and ear-opening.

Moran has been performing his In My Mind show for quite a few years now, dating as far back as 2005. Using Bandwagon as the core, Moran picks up local musicians to flesh out a five-piece horn section, and he couldn't have found a better group than alto saxophonist Frode Nymo and tenor saxophonist Atle Nymo (both of Ensemble Denada and many other projects); trumpeter Kåre Nymark; trombonist Kristoffer Kompen (who won an award just a couple years ago at the Oslo Jazz Festival); and tubaist Daniel Herskedal, whose recordings with saxophonist Marius Neset and guitarist Christian Bluhme Hansen have already begun to redefine the role of his unwieldy instrument.

With a projection screen behind the group, Moran entered the stage alone, put on a pair of headphones and began to play along with a Thelonious Monk recording. Soon after, Bandwagon plus Moran's Norwegian recruits came onstage and played the tune a second time, but this time with the kind of commitment and energy that belied this group only rehearsing for a couple of days prior to the performance.

Mateen's solution to increased travel problems with a large double bass was to use the custom-build acoustic bass guitar that a Spanish luthier designed and built for him in the mid-'90s—and which the bassist has used almost exclusively ever since—on recordings as well as in performance. What distinguishes this instrument from typical electric bass guitars with a hollow body is that his instrument sounds uncannily like a double bass; sure, there are differences, but it was remarkable just how closely Mateen's instrument was able to emulate the deep, woody tone of a double bass on an instrument that could easily fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane.

Moran's multimedia performance was a mix of music, spoken word, old recordings, autobiographical information and, at its core, the pianist's clear love of Monk—the man and the musician. "If there was a point after being born that changed my life," his voice spoke over the sound system, "it was hearing Monk." And as Moran moved through the set, taking Monk's music into the 21st century with a kind of freedom that Monk never envisaged, it became obvious just how significant a touchstone the legendary pianist/composer has been for the younger pianist.

A particularly powerful moment occurred when Waits, taking a mid-set solo, punctuated the story of Monk's encounter with police, his snare drum shots matching the sharp cracks of the pianist's hands being beaten. But, as the musicians who had left the stage for this segment (including Moran) returned to the stage, rather than taking their places behind their instruments, they sat on the floor of the stage, watching the video screen as a series of quotes passed by that gave the impression of being at a Monk rehearsal.

As the show neared its end, the phrase "In My Mind" began to repeat, as onstage cameras began to mesh the live performance with the pre-recorded video; just as it seemed the concert was over, however, the group began to play "Crepuscule with Nellie," bringing the full house at Bjørnsenhuset to its feet, clapping its hands and, as the band left the stage (the horn players still with their instruments, Herskedal switching to euphonium), walking past the front row, a line was formed, following Moran and his group out into the Bjørnsenhuset lobby, where the music continued for a good 10 minutes before finally coming to an end.

It was a powerful first performance that set the tone for the whole week, as Moran made clear, in the most immediate way possible that for him, there is no dividing line when it comes to music. The tradition at the core of Bandwagon may be thousands of miles away from the Norwegian horn section that augmented it, but on this night, it was clear that this music was a part of everyone's past.

Having last visited Molde in 2010, it was great to see that what was then a hole in the ground with a lot of construction equipment was now the town's beautiful new Plassen, with two performance spaces, a library, administrative offices and more. The larger of the two rooms at Plassen, the Teatret Vårt Konsert, was especially impressive in the way that the rows of seating could be easily (and automatically) pulled back against the rear wall to turn the venue into a standing-room space, with an overhead balcony providing seating for, perhaps, another 25-30 people (seated).

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