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

John Kelman By

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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.

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.

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