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Nils Petter Molvaer: Colors, Noises and Moods

Adriana Carcu By

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We are a small community in Norway. There is a quite strong musical tradition that doesn't have anything to do with the American music. We improvise from quite different platforms; we come from a different place.
Trumpeter/composer Nils Petter Molvær is one of the main exponents of Nordic Jazz—a geographic ramification that has acquired, especially during the last decade, the status of an independent genre. He has created his own style by combining traditional instrumental elements with electronic sound processing: a fusion characterized by pregnant rhythmical patterns and a meditative mood.

Molvær performed recently at the 2010 Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, Germany, with FoodThomas Strønen and Iain Ballamy—also featuring Christian Fennesz, and is preparing to record the follow-up to his well-received Hamada (Sula, 2009) with his current trio that also includes guitarist Stian Westerhus.

All About Jazz: How would you define your music, in a single word?

Nils Petter Molvær: I have spent the last 15 years trying to find that word. I would define it as: open.

AAJ: How would you describe it in many words?

NPM: I would describe it as the energy created by the tension between contrasts.

AAJ: There must have been a moment in your evolution when you realized that you are a musician and you would be doing your own thing. Can you identify that moment?

NPM: Sure. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I was working as a bricklayer, building a swimming pool. I remember that at some point I told the guy I was working with: "You know, I think that I am going to be a musician." At that time, I had some private music lessons and I was playing in a band. Shortly after that, I applied for the music school and got admitted. I was in that school for two years, together with very nice musicians. Later I went to Trondheim to the conservatory, but I couldn't get admitted because I didn't have the secondary school certificate, and you cannot do the exams without it. I was supposed to attend the classes on the side, but I never really did, and almost two years later I left for Oslo. After that, things went very fast. Soon the group Masqualero was founded, and from then on I was living from music.

AAJ: When did you start composing music?

NPM: I stared to write quite early. At first, when I was with the band in the school I started writing the instrument parts, and I wrote right from the beginning of the Masqualero. I made a song called "Remembrance," and on the second album I started to write songs, which were kind of leading to what I do now. Then a strange thing happened. One day, a very good friend of mine, [singer] Sidsel Endresen, brought me a cassette I had given her in the late '80s with music I made on the computer—I started doing music on the computer very early. I could recognize quite a few things there, and because she didn't use them I took those songs and developed them into Khmer (ECM, 1997). In those days, I also started making music for ballet shows.

AAJ: Can you follow an evolution course here?

NPM: For me personally, the work I did with a Norwegian traditional singer, who now is almost 80 years old, was very significant. I always liked rhythms and grooves, and I started to hang out in clubs and work with DJs, and then there came a time when I wanted to merge these things together. I was trying to find a form that summed it all up. And the result was Khmer. If you look at the references, you can see that I and Bugge Wesseltoft were working almost on the same thing but separately. We used to have a band in the late 80s, like a quartet, with Audun Kleive and Bjørn Kjellemyr as rhythmical section.

AAJ: And now?

NPM: The way I work now with the band is more open. What you will see tonight is totally improvised. It kind of developed naturally from the way I improvise. Now I try to work more with colors than with chords; I work with noises and moods. I make skeletons which I can interact with. Do you know what I mean?

AAJ: Yes, you can hear it! What factors have defined your style and your choices?

NPM: A significant reference leads back to the beginning of the '80s. In that time, I wasn't listening to much jazz. I was somehow tired of the trumpet, and I was playing kind of hard. Then I heard the duduk players, the shakuhachi players, also Jon Hassell the trumpet player, and that was like a revelation for me. Then I started working with the traditional Norwegian singer I mentioned before, and he told me how he experienced things.

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