Norwegian Road Trip, Part 7: Molde Jazz, Days 5-6

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 7: Molde Jazz, Days 5-6
John Kelman By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].

As the rain stopped and the clouds cleared in Molde, Norway, the change in weather wasn't just a relief for not having to run around with an umbrella and coat; it was finally possible to see some of the 222 mountains that surround Molde. Even on a clear day, every turn of the eye seems to yield a new peak, from glorious green to stark and snow-capped. With the weather forecast for the next few days meant to be sunny and clear, it couldn't be better to experience the final days of Molde Jazz 2010, and this extended Norwegian Road Trip. It's been an unforgettable experience for places visited, people met and music heard; but it's also time to get back home to family, as three weeks is a long time to be away.

But meanwhile, in addition to all the good experiences at Molde, some fantastic news. On Friday, July 23, just before Motorpsycho's show with Trondeimsolistene and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, guitarist Stian Westerhus—who has been all over Molde this year, performing with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's Trio, and with his own collective Puma, and will be heard on the festival's final day in duet with vocalist Sidsel Endresen—was awarded the Sparebank 1 JazZtipendiat 2010, a 250,000 NOK commission to write and perform a piece at Molde Jazz 2011, also with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. As his significance becomes increasingly evident, seemingly with every passing day, it's hard to predict what this collaboration will sound like, but there's no doubt that, were it Molde Jazz 2011's only performance, it would be reason enough to make the long trek from Canada, back to this place where stunning landscapes provide the perfect backdrop—and the perfect inspiration—for so much remarkable, cutting-edge music.

There was also an opportunity to visit Molde's art gallery, where an exhibition of the artwork for Rune Grammofon—the festival's first Label in Residence—was in progress. For a label that's about to release its one hundredth release this fall, it stands alone in not only having a very specific artistic design aesthetic, but one that's been delivered by a single artist—Kim Hiorthøy.

With one wall devoted to every single CD cover published to date, another to the actual CDs (which have absolutely nothing written on them; just a unique color to differentiate one from another), a wall with all the vinyl gatefold sleeves the label has released (and it's releasing vinyl with increasing regularity, on top of launching The Last Record Company, a vinyl-only imprint, in 2009), and a room with some additional larger- scale artwork, by collecting of all Hiorthøy's work together in one place it makes clear the significance of his work, and that of label owner Rune Kristoffersen, interviewed the previous week in Oslo. That Rune Grammofon titles are beginning to get greater visibility in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and Stereophile, alongside complete ongoing coverage with AllAboutJazz.com, suggests, perhaps, that the label which broke new ground with the release of Supersilent's three-disc debut in 1997, 1-3, may not be compromising its forward-thinking objectives in any way, but is gradually gaining ground as a label far more visible on the popular radar than ever before.

Chapter Index
  1. July 23: Motorpsycho/Trondheimsolistene/Trondheim Jazz Orchestra
  2. July 24: Nils Petter Molvær , "Break of Day," with Biosphere
  3. July 24: Espen Eriksen Trio
  4. July 24: Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Gerald Cleaver
  5. July 24: Sidsel Endresen/Stian Westerhus
  6. July 25: Ending the Trip with The Atlantic Road

July 23: Motorpsycho/Trondheimsolistene/Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

It was easy to understand why Motorpsycho's Molde Jazz 2010 show was so hotly anticipated. Together for more than 20 years, Motorpsycho is one of Norway's most successful longstanding rock groups, one that's shifted its emphasis organically over the years. While original bassist Bent Sæther and guitarist Hans Magnus Ryan didn't grow up in the days of Rush, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson (well, the original incarnation), Soft Machine or Hatfield and the North, all these groups and more have run as undercurrents to the group at various times. Motorpsycho's latest release, Heavy Metal Fruit (Rune Grammofon, 2010), combines metal-tinged prog, space-rock jams, and passages of reckless abandon, all delivered through epic writing, thunderous grooves, and layered guitars.

And that would have been enough to create a buzz for its Molde performance. But add to that the participation of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (with a bevy of well-known soloists), the Trondheimsolistene (a group of string players) and, even more importantly, the direction of keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, and the group's show at the Romsdalmuseet (Romsdal Museum)—a long walk uphill from the town center—was a recipe for one of the festival's biggest creative successes of 2010. That the members of Motorpsycho can't read music was all the more remarkable for its ability to navigate Storløkken's detailed arrangements—providing plenty of vamp-based solo spots for various members of the collective ensemble, but also leaning heavily on complexity, albeit never with the sense of gravitas that "rock group meets orchestra" projects often demonstrate; a clear but, perhaps, less-than-obvious reference to the British Canterbury scene.

In conversation the afternoon of the performance, Sæther was self- deprecatingly dismissive of the group's actual input to the set list—talking about material that the group had lying around but never fully developed and some vamps that would be good for jazz soloists. But the combination of Motorpsycho—also including relatively recent recruit, drummer Kenneth Kapstad (who Artist in Residence/trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer called "fucking fantastic" from the side of the stage, early in the performance)—and Storløkken, who fleshed out the group's music with stunning diversity, resulted in a set of music that may have had its roots in the rock world, but also easily crossed over into the worlds of jazz and contemporary music.

If Soft Machine had worked with a five-piece horn section, nine-piece string section and violin soloist, it might have sounded something like Motorpsycho's 90- minute set. Sæther, playing an atypical Guild semi-hollow body electric bass, delivered fuzz-toned lines reminiscent of Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper. And while Storløkken didn't have Soft Machine's defining Lowry organ (using, instead, a Hammond), he did have a Fender Rhodes electric piano and Mini Moog to create a sound that was, at least, in the ballpark. Between Sæther's relentless, irregular-metered riffs, Kapstad's fluid yet powerful drumming, and Storløkken's imaginative horn and string arrangements, the excitement continued to build, even as the group vamped for long periods of time as a foundation for solos from violinist Ola Kvernberg, trombonist Mats Äleklint and Albatrosh saxophonist André Roligheten that lifted the performance to some of its greatest heights.

Storløkken—best known for his work with Supersilent, Terje Rypdal's Skywards trio and his own Elephant9—created an overriding arc that created dramatic climaxes and unexpected respites. After a visceral build where Sæther and Kapstad created a grungy but unshakable underpinning for a screaming solo from Ryan, everything suddenly stopped, leaving the Trondheim Solistene on its own for a scored section of amorphous string work that gradually took shape as the horns—two saxophones, two trombones (including The Source's Øyvind Brække) and two trumpets (including Mathias Eick—ultimately entered for another sonic build of contrapuntal surprises and unexpected textures. There was a time when the idea of a rock group working with strings either meant saccharine or dysfunction, but here the integration was as seamless and natural as could be. Heavily scored sections suddenly broke into headbanging, hard rock, and yet the two never seemed out of context with each other, as even the string section—largely dressed more reservedly than Motorpsycho's long-haired guitarist and bassist—could be seen bobbing their heads in time with Sæther and Kapstad's thundering pulse.

Kvernberg—whose show the previous night at Kulturhuset was another festival high point—was a featured soloist throughout the set, delivering time after time with the kind of reckless abandon that's positioning him one of the most exciting young violinists on this, or any, scene. Eick's feature was equally compelling, as was Äleklint's- -a Swedish ringer for Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, but someone who is definitely worth keeping an eye on. And while he was, more often than not, occupied conducting the large ensemble and contributing accompaniment that fleshed Motorpsycho out to a powerhouse quartet, Storløkken did manage to squeeze in a couple of set-defining solos, including a lengthy turn towards the main set's end that was as good as he's ever been...and that's saying something.

The show ended with a funkified encore that featured a driving, contrapuntal horn arrangement, as members of the group gradually left the stage, still playing. Even after they walked down the stairs behind the stage to the backstage area, they continued to play and modulate; a group that clearly was having a great time and didn't want it to end. That enthusiasm—which carried over to a backstage after-show party fueled by food and drink—was impossible to miss by the enthusiastic crowd, making for a final show at Romsdalmuseet that may not have had the star power of some of its earlier shows, including Missy Elliott, Sonny Rollins, Jeff Beck and Herbie Hancock, but will surely go down as the venue's most memorable set of Molde Jazz 2010.

July 24: Nils Petter Molvær , "Break of Day," with Biosphere

With Molde Jazz a festival that always runs into the wee hours of the morning—looking nowhere else than Alexandra Park, across the street from the festival hotel, where dance and party music continues at high volume until well after 2AM each morning—it's hard to believe that approximately 1,200 people made the trek up the road towards Romsdalmuseet to an open air amphitheatre, where Nils Petter Molvær delivered his "Break of Day" concert at 7:00AM. Last year, Artist in Residence Arve Henriksen had a crowd of about 1,000 people doing their morning exercises, as part of a show that included keyboardist Jon Balke, cellist Svante Henryson, percussionist Terje Isungset and a dancer; for Molde Jazz 2010, Molvær's approach was more meditative, contemplative and, ultimately, transcendent. There was free coffee and a variety of other items for sale; one more event that has made Molde Jazz into a festival unlike any other.

The stage was much sparser than Henriksen's, with only Molvær's small rig of laptop and footpedals, and a table with another laptop and keyboard for Biosphere, the name used by Tromsø electronic musician Geir Jenssen on albums including Dropsonde (Touch, 2006) and Nordheim Transformed (Rune Grammofon, 1998), where the he collaborated with Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) on some innovative remixes of the work of groundbreaking Norwegian electronic composer Arne Nordheim.

With the sun up, but not yet over the trees in the amphitheatre, Molvær and Biosphere took to the stage, with Molvær looking up at the full house, shaking his head in amazement—most there had only a very few hours' sleep, if any at all—and simply said, "Good morning." Beginning in electric stasis, with Biosphere creating a gentle wash of sound that somehow evoked imagery of a dawn yet to come, Molvær began weaving slow, gentle lines, harmonized via a pitch shifter, with the harmonic interval adjusted via a foot pedal that raised it a semi-tone when the pedal was depressed, and dropped it again when it was raised. With a view of the fjord poking through the trees, the music was hypnotic, but absolutely compelling; lulling many into a transcendent state that worked perfectly with the early morning hour.

With Molvær's horn being sampled, Biosphere created loops from small phrasal fragments, as the music gradually began to grow, coalesce and assume a pulse, with Molvær's distinctive embouchure creating a timbre that worked well both acoustically and as a source for additional processing. While the overall ambience was easy on the ears, there were brief passages of a more oblique and angular nature, with Molvær eschewing the more extreme work of his trio performance a couple nights' previous, but nevertheless finding ways to work greater freedom into the mix. Still, his playing was relaxed and melodic, even as those melodies were unmistakable with a kind of resonant melancholy. Biosphere took the music into the stratosphere with more otherworldly textures as he sampled long notes played on trumpet, pulled them down to a much lower pitch and then, gradually raising the pitch again, mining interference beats as the notes converged.

As the sun finally rose up over the trees—shedding light on both Molvær and Biosphere, and providing a glorious, shimmering view of the fjord and the mountains beyond—the music moved in and out of shape, and in and out of defined pulse, with Biosphere intuitively breaking the rhythms briefly, raising the tension and begging for release, even as Molvær entered into a solo segment where, singing into the microphone in the bell of his horn, he delivered a more subdued and understated version of solo passages he gave at his trio performance and opening performance at the start of the festival— now only six days past, but somehow feeling like so much more. With so much music, played in such a stunning locale, time seemed to stretch, becoming somehow pliant and surreal; a feeling made all the more profound by Molvær's "Break of Dawn" performance where, rather than leaving his audience energized, he left them thoroughly relaxed; the perfect entry point for Molde's busy final day.



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