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

John Kelman By

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July 24: Espen Eriksen Trio

With the release of pianist Espen Eriksen and his trio's You Had Me at Goodbye (2010), the Norwegian Rune Grammofon label delivered an album that, for those more accustomed to its edgier experimentations, might have seemed somewhat antithetical to its normal modus operandi. Still, discussions with label owner Rune Kristoffersen at Molde and in Oslo the previous week yielded a deeper understanding. Rune has a clear aesthetic— especially in the design work of artist Kim Hiorthøy, but musically to try and pigeonhole the label is as much an exercise in futility as looking to define the music of the German ECM label in any similarly reductionist terms. It's hard to find any one word to describe a label that has released music as diverse as Supersilent, Susanna and The Magical Orchestra and Elephant9 and Motorpsycho.

But the music of Espen Eriksen Trio is more overtly melodic than much of the music heard on the label, and its performance at the Forum on Molde Jazz 2010's final day both confirmed its inherent nature and made a case that, in performance, the group has the ability to take the music further than it did in the studio. In The Country was Rune Grammofon's first piano trio, but Espen Eriksen Trio is its first to tie more directly to the jazz piano trio tradition, though its song-like forms and gently insistent approach to rhythm is far distanced from the conventional swing of American jazz orthodoxy.

Opening with the melodically memorable "Anthem" (as does the album), Eriksen, bassist Lars Tormod Jenset and drummer Andreas Bye performed all of You Had Me at Goodbye, stretching the tunes but never in excess and always respectful of the essence of the writing. Eriksen, in conversation during the Kongsberg Jazz Festival two weeks prior, where he was representing NRK (Norwegian Public Broadcasting, where he's an employee), explained that the process of making You Had Me at Goodbye was a long one, with Rune Kristoffersen pushing the pianist to hone the material, and the final shape of the trio only taking form relatively recently, after other musicians had passed through it, only to leave because of an inability to make a more complete commitment.

While there will be inevitable comparisons to e.s.t. in its singable melodies and accessible forms, Eriksen and his trio avoid the overt virtuosity that so defined the late pianist Esbjorn Svensson, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström, though Jenset did deliver an arco solo, mid-set, that could easily have transferred to e.s.t., had he add the effects that Berglund has used to create a personal sound on double-bass. But Espen Eriksen Trio, unlike e.s.t., is an all-acoustic trio and one that focuses more heavily on subtlety and nuance than contrapuntal complexity and electronic expansiveness. Bye, in particular, was a drummer who called attention to himself by virtue of doing absolutely everything possible not to do so.

Eriksen admitted to being nervous before hitting the stage ("this is Molde," he said), but if there were any pre-show jitters they were impossible to detect, as the group started in a relaxed fashion, only gradually building in energy— and most notably in commitment and total engagement—as the set evolved. The audience's immersion in the music also grew as the set wore on, with louder and louder rounds of applause that, by the show's end, ensured that an encore would be in order. Eriksen was quick to comply, with a short piece from the album—itself relatively short at just over 37 minutes—that was through-composed and a perfect way to end a late afternoon performance that set the stage for the evening to come.

July 24: Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Gerald Cleaver

It's been nine months since Terje Rypdal unveiled his new trio, with an old friend and a new one, at the 2009 Enjoy Jazz Festival. With Rypdal truly back after some physical problems, his performance there, and at Bergen's Natt Jazz Festival a few months earlier—where he recorded the music for his latest CD, Crime Scene (ECM, 2010)—the legendary Norwegian guitarist played better than he had in years; better, perhaps, than he ever had. Still, Rypdal's first performance with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Gerald Cleaver was not without its problems.

The biggest problem was that, despite everyone playing well, Rypdal seemed to be the one who was truly listening, with Vitous, in particular, seeming to compete for the spotlight in a group where collectivity should always transcend individual virtuosity. Nearly a year later, and with a couple of recent dates in Europe under its belt, rather than sounding like three people playing together, Rypdal, Vitous and Cleaver sounded like a band. There was plenty of solo opportunity for everyone, but there was a greater sense that everyone was truly listening.

There was also even greater energy, with Rypdal, in particular, playing as though his life depended on it. From the opener, which harkened back to Rypdal's days with The Chasers and albums like Chaser (ECM, 1985) and Blue (ECM, 1987), but with more fluid, less rock-centric support from Vitous and Cleaver. As part of the "big four," alongside saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen, Rypdal's playing has long defined the "Nordic Sound," though at this late stage it's hard to know if he actually evokes images of icy fjords or his playing has simply become associated with them by virtue of his living where he does. Learning that Rypdal lives, in fact, on an island in the fjord where Molde is situated, only furthers the feeling that his music is inexorably tied to the place where he lives.

But regardless of the "chicken and egg" question surrounding how Rypdal's music curiously contains both ice and fire, his playing at Kulturhuset was, quite simply, the best playing heard in years—better, in fact, than anything since the mid-'80s, with the possible exception of his remarkable (and aptly titled) If Mountains Could Sing (ECM, 1995). Fingers flying around the frets, building ascending lines where he pushed his high-end notes even higher with equally ascending harmony notes on the lower strings of his Stratocaster, Rypdal seared, swooped and soared; his distinctive whammy bar-work and singing tone contrasting with densely distorted chords. Fed through a Marshall stack and his usual Vox AC-30, Rypdal's guitar seemed as always on the edge of harmonic feedback, which he controlled with masterful precision. Reckless abandon combined with absolute focus to create music that was visceral yet beautiful; lyrical yet angular; and absolutely exhilarating for the entire 90 minutes.

Vitous came with the orchestral sample library that he innovated in the 1980s, but his ability to trigger samples on material reprised from the Mannheim concert last year as well as on new compositions was even more seamless; his arco tone absolutely distinctive, with the occasional touch of wah filtered in; his pizzicato as rapid- fire as ever. But while it felt as though he was fighting, to some extent, with Rypdal at the Enjoy Jazz ECM 40th Anniversary mini-festival, here he played a more supportive role when Rypdal was at the forefront; pushing and pulling with the guitarist rather than vying for the spotlight.

Some of Vitous' best work can be found on ECM—irrespective of his better- known albums as co-founder of fusion super group Weather Report— including albums like First Meeting (1980), Atmos (1992) and , of course, the two albums he recorded with Rypdal and drummer Jack DeJohnette: Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette (1979); and To Be Continued (1981). If this trio's Molde performance was any indication, in particular in its evolution towards a true group sound, then it absolutely needs to be recorded, although Rypdal explained, in a brief chat before the show, that first up will be an album where the guitarist has collaborated with the Hilliard Ensemble, soon to be heard in a reunion with Jan Garbarek on Officium Novum (2010).

Cleaver was also in better form than at his Mannheim performance, though his reliance on a very wet, heavily reverbed sound was sometimes excessive, removing much of the clarity, especially when he moved to mallets. But his ability to combine groove and rubato freedom—eyes constantly on both Rypdal and Vitous—contributed to the sense of freedom with which the trio approached the music. Employing hand percussion on one song, he expanded the trio's audioscape while retaining an at-times cymbal-heavy approach that harkened back to Rypdal and Vitous' work with DeJohnette without imitating it.

But as strong as both Vitous and Cleaver were—and as much as they now seemed better in pursuit of a collective sound—it was hard to deny Rypdal's position as star of the show. There's simply no other guitarist in the world who sounds like he does; combining a more expansive harmonic knowledge and unfettered sense of freedom with the kind of rock and roll edge that has turned him into a true icon on his instrument. There were a lot of eyes on Rypdal at Kulturhuset, and while there were plenty of non- guitarists (and non-musicians), it was obvious that a lot of aspiring players were in the crowd as well. Rypdal's performance will, no doubt, go down as one of Molde 2010's most thrilling individual instrumental performances; a true sign that the guitar icon is fully back, his creative juices thoroughly recharged and ready for anything.

July 24: Sidsel Endresen/Stian Westerhus

If Terje Rypdal's performance announced that a guitar icon was back, Stian Westerhus' three festival shows—first, with Nils Petter Molvær's trio, then with Puma, and, finally, as Molde Jazz 2010 drew to a close, in duet with singer Sidsel Endresen—was a solid declaration that there's a new legend in the making; a feeling clearly supported by his winning the 250,000 NOK Sparebank 1 JazZtipendiat 2010 award. Westerhus and Endresen first performed a short encore together, following a double bill of solo performances in Oslo in 2009, and it went so well that the two intrepid explorers felt that further exploration was warranted.

The duo's Molde performance was its first full-length show, and it couldn't have gone better. Endresen, beginning in more conventional territory in the '80s but, through a series of albums—first on ECM with the acoustic but innovative So I Write (1990), moving into more sophisticated electronic territory with Undertow (Jazzland, 2000) and, most recently, documenting the beginning of a completely new approach to voice as instrument on One (Sofa, 2006) that was further developed on Live Remixes, Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008)—positioning herself as one of the most distinctive vocalists in the world, Endresen could, on paper, seem to be both an odd choice to partner with Westerhus...but also the ideal one. Endresen's entire approach is based on an acoustic reduction of singing into the smallest of cells that, gradually honed, build into a completely new vocal vernacular; Westerhus' instrument is as much about the array of effects processors that he feeds it through as it is the extended techniques he employs. Endresen is, in relative terms, a quiet performer; Westerhus is nothing, if not loud (though he does understand the meaning of space and quiet).

But the two artists' commitment to unorthodoxy and free-spirited improvisation makes them the perfect partners, each listening with big ears and even bigger hearts, as their set commenced with Endresen sounding as if she were in conversation, but with a language that—stuttering, starting/stopping and jumping back to repeat the briefest phrases—was entirely her own, and though emulating speech, possessed a clear cadence, an unmistakable musicality. Heard in this relatively quiet context, Westerhus' almost instantaneous engagement brought a combination of strange sonorities and the occasional harmonic center, as he used a pair of alligator clips to prepare his slim line Gibson hollow body electric guitar, still fed through the numerous amplifiers and effects processors that took up a large part of the stage at Forum, and gave him the flexibility of moving from a whisper to a thundering, crunching roar in a nanosecond.

Despite its all-improvised nature, the set seemed to move through a series of episodes that, rather than representing explicit cueing, were the result of the kind of instantaneous responsiveness that both artists have demonstrated in other contexts. Surprisingly (or, perhaps, not so surprisingly), Endresen handled herself well when Westerhus began cranking up the volume and intensity; responding with a rare combination of staggering vocal gymnastics (but never without an absolute purpose) and the rich singing voice that she's had all along, as she moved from jittering, reverse-attack articulations to resonant melodism, moving with Westerhus' shifting harmonic center (and, at times, no harmonic center; more sound and texture than notes and chords), but also providing a clear focus for Westerhus, who has proven himself, all week, to be an intuitive player, regardless of the context. With, perhaps, the best chance to watch him at work with his pedals, it became clear just how absolute his knowledge of them is, both individually and in concert together.

If the chemistry that Endresen and Westerhus demonstrated in this, their first full show as a duo, then how they'll be when they perform at Punkt in Kristiasand, five weeks from now, is anybody's guess. Most important, of course, is that they'll not be able to predict how that set will be, and that's exactly as it should be.

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