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

John Kelman By

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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.

July 25: Ending the Trip with The Atlantic Road

With Molde Jazz 2010 over, and the town demonstrating almost no signs of it the following morning—most of the kiosks down from the main street, there was one last thing to do. Atlanterhavsveien (The Atlantic Road), about 50 kilometers outside of Molde, is an award-winning stretch of road that connects the island of Averøy to Vevang, Eide, on the mainland; by extension, the road connects the cities of Kristiansund and Molde.

Driving through the mountains outside Molde to reach the road, it becomes clear just how spread out the population of Norway is. Not a mile goes by where there isn't some sign of life, whether it's a collection of homes or a single hunting shack, which is normally on the property of the owner, signifying that there's a home somewhere else on the land. Rolling mountains, ranging in height from a few hundred meters to nearly two thousand, provide a wealth of hiking and rock climbing opportunities for a population connected to nature in ways that North Americans, as a general rule, are not. Even in the midst of summer, some of the peaks still show snow near the top, and skiing is still possible on some of them.

But all things change and become even more impressive when the bridges that span the islands begin to loom in the distance. Approaching the first bridge, it looks more like a ski jump than a bridge, but that's just perspective. Begin to drive on the bridge, and the natural curve that shapes the bridge into a hill that mirrors the rolling scenery around it, and the vista opens up. With the entire three-week Norwegian Road Trip coming to an end, it's hard to pick where the most beautiful spot in Norway is, in a journey that began on the east coast and is ending on the west. But with 222 mountains surrounding it, and The Atlantic Road not far from it, Molde and its surrounding area certainly jumps out as one of the country's most appealing locales.

That there are prisons, factories and other signs of normal habitation only proves how well the Norwegian culture aims to integrate with its geography. There are urban issues in larger centers like Oslo, to be sure; but overall there's a certain sense of harmony that's tremendously appealing. And there's another truth: that it's impossible to separate the music of a country from its culture, and from its geography. It's a certainty that were Norway a different country, with a different climate and different latitude—as opposed to a latitude where, only a little farther north than Molde, you're into the Land of the Midnight Sun—the music that comes from it would absolutely be significantly different.

Music is, after all, a fundamental reflection of who we are and where we live, and if three weeks traveling Norway have taught any one thing, it's that these things are, indeed, absolutely inseparable. With Kongsberg, Oslo and Molde now in the past, the hope is to try and retain some of the scenery, the unique cultural perspective and the vibe that has turned Norway into a country with a music scene like no other.

Visit Motorpsycho, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Trondheimsolistene, Nils Petter Molvær, Biosphere, Espen Eriksen Trio, Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous, Gerald Cleaver, Stian Westerhus, Sidsel Endresen and Molde Jazz on the web.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

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



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