Picture Norway's most famous pianist, so tranquil he sparks controversy, hammering blues and neo-Dixie jams as a sideman in a basement bar. Or a hip-hop star scandalized for atrocious behavior elsewhere finding peace.
In the small coastal town of Molde, its biggest event of the year is often a study in contradictions.
It starts with the event and the town - a normally peaceful community of 24,000 swelling beyond the bursting point for the six-day Molde International Jazz Festival. A street fair atmosphere dominates as blocks of vendors with non-musical wares, absurdly dressed street musicians seemingly playing everything except jazz, and food carts selling hot dogs and baked potatoes - nary a fish in sight - are much of the setting.
In short, this is not the most accurate snapshot of the town's true beauty and character. Knut Borge of Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) told the Norwegian newspaper VG he misses the "intimacy" of earlier, smaller Moldejazz festivals.
"But I just have to accept that those times are gone," he said.
Yet despite the masses, it's a small-town festival at heart. There are five paid staff members - and 700 volunteers. Foreign journalists are unusual enough my visit was the subject of a short article in a regional newspaper.
The musical value of the festival, now in its 45th year, is of little dispute. Even though quirks and inconsistent quality exist, they're not drastically different than other mid-size festivals. Headline acts feature plenty of famous names including Anthony Braxton, Charlie Haden, Roy Haynes and artist-in-residence Arild Andersen, but they are outnumbered by free and small-stage performances with a community feel. Size is often little guarantee of quality - the biggest crowds may attend mediocre shows with scant jazz content, while some of the week's best performances go virtually unheard.
One also may not always hear Norway's most famous names of the moment, but surprise discoveries are likely.
Famed Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer wasn't at the 2005 festival, but his father was playing the clarinet daily with the city's marching band during their noontime performances. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek, perhaps the country's most famous jazz musician, wasn't there, but the names from a strong lineup of young guns vying for similar status with the next-gen crowd are worth remembering.
Extra drama for already busy festival officials came courtesy of vocalist Lauryn Hill, the main headline concert, with her current tour plagued by difficulties in working with her and poor performances, including a disastrous London appearance that started three- hours late because she couldn't decide what to wear. There was little question about the show's commercial appeal as younger people from around the country filled campgrounds and slept in vans in hotel parking lots - but also the knowledge London officials were forced to give refunds to a large and hostile crowd.
But such "poster names" are necessary to make the festival happen, especially after a bad run a few years ago, said Petter Pettersson, a member of the festival's program committee who's been a volunteer since the event's debut. He said they hope to be out of debt after this year's festival and less dependent on cash-driven artists, but they help pay the higher cost of bringing artists here than to less remote and larger Europe festivals in places like Italy and France.
"That means we can have Roy Haynes playing for 200 people in the basement here," he said.
Sounds of a city of roses, 220 peaks and hideouts fit for a king
Molde, known as "The City Of Roses," is home to one of World War II's most daring rescues and best underwater rugby teams.
Originating as a port for two timber and herring farms, it began trade in 1614 and became a city in 1742. A fire in 1916 destroyed a third of the city, mostly wood buildings and rose gardens. About two-thirds burned in another fire in 1940 when Germans bombed the city in their pursuit of Norway's King Haakon and $300 million of the country's gold reserves he was trying to hide from the Nazis. The king and his party hid in Molde for a week in April, making it the country's official capital during that time, before a 900-member crew aboard the HMS Glasgow rescued them "from under the nose of the Nazis" while bombs fell on the burning city.
Norway's music history dates back to the discovery of bronze horns as long ago as 1500 B.C., but Molde's cultural history may be more anchored in literature since three of "the great four" Norwegian authors have stayed or lived in Molde. The city has been a tourist destination since the late 1800s thanks to features such as the 220 peaks visible at the Varden viewpoint.
The Moldejazz festival is the oldest international jazz festival in Europe, with landmark names from Benny Bailey and Miles Davis to Chick Corea and Pat Metheny appearing over the years. It draws a large audience for a regional festival - 100,000 total attendance is claimed by the official web site, although festival officials say it's less - nearly all from Norway.
"That's because we haven't been doing any international marketing of the festival because we can't accommodate them," Pettersson said. He said room rates double as everything is booked for miles around and "that's why the festival can't grow any bigger than it is today."
Pettersson, wearing a fishing vest with a multitude of pockets that keeps things organized during the festival and gives him an excuse to makes exploratory hikes to lakes other times ("it's like jazz - I'm always interested in the possibilities"), said the only major permanent festival when he joined the board was in Newport, R.I. But the board took action after seeing an article speculating what town might become the "Newport of Scandinavia."
"The board decided Molde would be," he said. "They just decided to do it. They named it 'international' from the start. The reason was one man - Benny Bailey, the trumpeter."
There's been a number of memorable appearances over the years, including Davis playing at 3 a.m. because he was in poor health following a gig in France and that's when his stamina had sufficiently recovered. Despite the delay, he still played to a full concert hall.
"It was like waiting for Santa Claus when you are expecting him in he afternoon, but he doesn't show up until after midnight," Pettersson said.
The festival's total first-year budget was 15,000 krone (about $2,400 U.S. at current exchange rates), he said, noting "that's what you have to pay to stay in a suite at the hotel today." There was no paid staff until the 1970s, and the street concerts and vendors appeared in the late 1980s.
"By that time we had festivals in lots of places," Pettersson said. To stand out "we decided we had to bring the music out to the people."
That music during the first daytime hours hardly qualified as jazz, much of it by one-man and small street bands playing covers, and vendors such as a trio dressed in excessively lavish animal skins playing a New Agey flute-and-drum version of the Lord Of The Rings theme. By late afternoon, however, the strains of Pat Metheny's "James" seeped from one of the street stages into the jam-packed streets, setting a more appropriate mood for the upcoming main events.
High notes from the bass
If a bassist's job is laying a solid foundation, Arild Andersen is a master Moldejazz handyman.
He's been a regular at the festival, winning acclaim for, among other things, the quartet album A Molde Concert recorded during the early 1980s and a "five out of six" score from a Norwegian newspaper for a 2003 trio performance. He played four concerts at the 2005 festival ranging from an opening night electric ensemble before a large crowd, including Norway's prime minister, to a small venue solo performance. Each of them saw the longtime ECM artist in a progressive mindset stereotypical of contemporary Scandinavian jazz - consistently innovative and high in quality.
The opening night "Electra," initially written for the Summer Olympics in Athens featured the sort of ambient electronic experimentalism I'd expect from Moevar's group after seeing a few of his concert videos. Perhaps that's because it's the only type of this performance from the region I have experience with, but the synth and sample backgrounds, colorfully changing lighting, unusual sonics such as trumpeter Arve Henriksen sounding like a Middle Eastern flute and long-form evolving compositions all bore a resemblence.
Andersen made a delayed entrance, waiting several minutes before entering with some moderate punctuation of the underlying contemporary beat before making a statement with some heavy plucking accented by chorused effects. He switched to a light bowing touch before the ensemble shifted abruptly into something Euro rockish to close out the 30-minute piece.
Vocalists Fotini Grammenou and Elly Casdas were solid with their harmonic support without any real standout moments, but the ethnic-filled percussion and drumming by Patrice Heral and Paolo Vinaccia got addictively savage at times. Much of the overall effect was aimed at creating a group sound, be it neo-classic or Pink Floyd-like rock, and mostly succeeded at achieving a feeling of depth.
Andersen's other concerts during the week generally proved solid as well. His solo performance late the following evening on a smaller stage saw him doing works like "Ghosts" as Albert Ayler's recording of it echoed through speakers. On the final night he performed a trio world music concert with percussionist Nana Vasconclous and Turkish flutist Kudsi Erguner. Much of the final show was lower key, more harmonic and maybe less adventurous than opening night, although Vasconcious got one of the most intriguing audience participation moments I've heard going on the finale by engaging them in clapping patterns that sounded like rain, conducting vocals in sections to achieve complex harmony and adding other layers resulting in an unusually rich and musical group experience.
Rediscovering the sound of kids
Throughout the festival various free acts appeared on daytime stages, from old-style groups doing standards like "Black And Blue" and "I'm Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter" to young quartets doing evolved modern fusion originals. Most of it I took in casually for short periods, appreciate of the settings as much as the music. There's a European easygoing spirit about beer gardens, for instance, such as kids wandering around carefree instead of being subject to the intense scrutiny at closely monitored U.S. venues.
Much of the short attention span was also due to featured events starting early in the afternoon and continuing well after midnight.
Festivals always seem to have one or more student/children's performances, and a few early afternoon Syng, Klapp And Swing family concerts were the sort nobody knowing what they're in for would say anything bad about - and in this case there's merit beyond escaping the wrath of vengeful parents.
Harald Gundhus, who played with Benny Bailey during the first Moldejazz festival, resurrected the children's performance from a 1970s project combining a traditional jazz quartet with a children's chorus. His conducting preserved an even, consistent quality between the simplicity of the chorus and instrumentalists providing jazz accents without becoming the dominant presence. Pieces, sung in Norwegian or to wordless "la-la-la" vocals, were nearly all familiar works such as "Spinning Wheel," "Rock Around The Clock," "St. Thomas" and "Giant Steps." Exceptions proved interesting, such as a folk story with dark overtones illustrated by piano lines painting as much drama as the unknown (to me) lyrics - although sadly the conclusion featured a peppy cadence and cheer common to any garden variety kids' tale.
The lyrics were simple and age-appropriate. Those on "Giant Steps," for instance, translate to "This is a song/It is not very long/But it has 'Giant Steps'/So we can go ahead."
"We tried all sorts of Sonny Rollins stuff and Count Basie and Charlie Parker, but we also wrote," Gundhus said. "We had poets writing children's songs."
The improvisational nature of jazz allows creativity and compensating for "mistakes," so Gundhus said the main challenge is keeping fundamentals such as timing correct between the children and adults.
"I try to keep that jazz spirit - no compromises," he said. "We take no prisoners."
"The challenge is we all have to balance. The band, you can hear, are all very good, seasoned musicians. The children you can't expect to have that experience."
Gundhus, now living south of Oslo, recorded LPs with children's choruses in 1974 and 1978, recently releasing them on a single CD after they were discovered. Like the concert, the more than 20 recording are short, simple and fun, more likely to entertain than amaze.
Bassist Charlie Haden performed the first featured concert of the evening and gets credit for the first audience greeting I understood at such a show - "It's great to be back in Molde - let's hear it for Molde." But, like the rather perfunctory words, his "Land Of The Sun" performance based on his Cuban/Brazilian recording of the same name didn't generate much passion.
This isn't to speak ill of Haden or his sextet, but his scholarly intellect lacked the immediate groundbreaking challenges associated with other festival artists like Andersen, even considering the understated subtlety that is a common trademark of Scandinavian jazz.
On some pieces Haden's harmonically inclined acoustic upright spoke notes so clearly one could almost hear words - something ideally suited on weekend mornings for those eschewing smooth jazz - but it was his fellow players offering most of the freer-minded tonal expressions. Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba threw additional complexities and build-ups into the easygoing patterns established by Haden, while flutist/saxophonist Miguel Zenon blended trill-like phrasing into an eclectic folk tale on one composition (blame the absence of specificity on my ignorance and lack of a set list).
The lackluster sense carried over into the first part of the Trio Mediæval a cappella concert in the Molde Cathedral. The acclaimed female trio of Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Oss was accomplished enough, but the classical compositions were unremarkable. I left to hear other performances, but others at the concert unimpressed with the first half said a second portion of traditional folk songs from the region was more interesting and a better showcase for their vocal interplay.
It may have been an off night personally due to my selection of shows, but good comments were heard in the press room the next day about a handful of overlapping and subsequent performances including Andersen's solo appearance, Dr. Lonnie Smith's organ-led trio and the Ilmelekki Quartet's midnight concert/open jam (the latter, a young progressive award-winning Finnish group, was a highlight of a subsequent festival I attended in their home country).
The mid-week anti-lull
With "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion" leading one of the main concerts, the next day held definite promise of a turn for the better.
Seemingly quaint names turned in cutting-edge performances, beginning with a lavish orchestra and ending with gritty voodoo aided by a master of mellow.
Anyone expecting conventional big band from the Trondheim Jazzorkester probably had their world rocked when they showed up for the ensemble's afternoon performance at the community theater-like Kulterhuset (assumed translation: Culture Hut). The program featuring works by pianist Maria Kanneggard shifted through contemporary arrangements from saxophonist Erik Hegdal, with heavy doses of interplay between various individuals a consistent high point.
The most questionable thing about Kimmo Pohjonen's featured performance with the Kronos Quartet might be his claim to be a "Teknoterrorist."
Political correctness aside, the owner of a few unusual nicknames such as the "Hendrix of the accordion" tag led the already diverse string quartet through an eclectic mix of ethnic and symphonic jazz compositions. Pohjonen opened heavy on electronics, playing a synthesized hand drum before shifting to an effects-heavy accordion that sounded like ocean waves at one point and what can only be described as experimental contrasting noise at others. He retreated into more conventional tones on subsequent pieces, supplemented with chants and other touches, with the quartet consistently providing the modern collaborative fuel that is their trademark style. They got a standing ovation despite a something less than sold-out crowd, possibly due to the number of competing performances that evening.
Among them was a jam-packed basement gig aided by Norway's master of mellow, as pianist Tord Gustavsen played the role of nondescript sideman for vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen and the Nymark Collective. "Devil's Gonna' Get You". Those wanting to hear Gustavsen's meditative side got a chance on pieces like the moody "Down And Out."
Saxophonist Anthony Braxton also provided a jolt with a typically "challenging" show of avant-garde freeform some audience members apparently didn't realize they were in for, according to a journalist I talked to the next day who's covered a number of Molde festivals. It was too much for one listener who'd had a few too many drinks, as he jumped on stage after about 30 minutes, screamed some profanities and left.
"It was the worst thing I have ever seen," the reporter said.
With any luck the Braxton intruder was still nursing his hangover the next afternoon during guitarist Ivar Grydeland's and drummer Ingar Zach's improvisational show.
The Norwegian duo spent much of their hour-long concert extracting unusual sounds from mostly ordinary instruments, and a lively and intelligent debate could thrive on whether it was musical freshness or fraud. Even if purpose and interaction existed in their minds, some might ask if the results were noticeably different than how kids might sound dropping ping pong balls on the floor and generating hums by moving a magnet on a guitar fretboard.
Some interesting role-reversal occurred early as Grydeland used his ukulele primarily as a percussion instrument while Zach applied two bows to the edge of his snare drums. Such things held more visual than audio interest, as did many of their sound-generating experiments, but the half-full room of about 40 people seemed receptive. One person who said he's listened to them a number of times in recent years says he's heard them evolve and their Molde show featured a lot of long, drawn-out ideas - so consider that a countering opinion of knowledge to my newbie impressions.
Lauryn Hill: Peak performance or steep disappointment?
At the least, Lauryn Hill's performance was a success because it didn't suck.
The master of "Miseducation" was slaughtered in British newspapers and other media worldwide for her earlier London concert, nearly universally blasted as awful, with many fans leaving, others becoming hostile and using words like "ripoff," disgrace" and "half- assed" to describe the evening. Refunds were issued to anyone presenting a ticket stub.
Her self-described comeback is struggling elsewhere as well, with articles citing a poor attitude during rare interviews and behavior quirks such as her insistence on being referred to as "Ms. Hill." I didn't understand a word of a morning briefing in the press room the day of the Molde show, although it seemed clear a number of rules and restrictions applied.
But in many ways, the show didn't need to be about Hill. It was about the setting.
When Pope John Paul II died, a TV reporter asked mourners why they were standing with so many others in 12-hour lines for a glimpse at the pontiff that would last mere seconds - a self-answering question since the time spent with so many others with a common bond was no doubt the experience many would remember most. With the Hill concert, the gates opened at 4 p.m. for a show whose opening act was scheduled at 6 and Hill at 7:45 - making for much more than simply a one- or two-set act.
Hordes of mostly young people came by car, bus and other cheap means to town for the show in the Romsdalsmuseet, a picturesque park filled with grass-roof huts, ponds and other niceties. Much of the crowd was too far away see any real stage action - and many couldn't see it at all from the trees, benches, rocks and other relatively quaint places they lounged.
But it was about being a part of an event whose sounds drifted down through much of downtown. Most of the crowd seemed happy and lively enough, on their feet and moving for the dance-oriented pieces, and she performed audience favorites like "Killing Me Softly," something that bothered reviewers of other shows where she bypassed the familiar classic. Personally I didn't get much out of it, but I'm also among the maybe 2 percent of listeners who thought her MTV Unplugged live double-CD was brilliant and is less inspired by her other works. Also, this being a jazz festival it really didn't fit the mood, even if it was a necessary cash generator for the event.
The best seats might have been had by those who didn't pay a penny, instead setting up picnic baskets on the hills outside the fenced area and on park benches on the hillside trail leading to the venue. Andreas Dutzen and Jenny Dyrkorn, both 10, spent the early part of the concert high in a tree - distance and language barriers prevented much more of an evaluation from them than "good," but Andreas' mother, Ueva Hjelen, said it was a way to be a part of the experience without committing an entire evening to it.
"I'm not familiar with the names, so I read about them in the paper the next day," she said.
As for Hill herself, the trip to Molde may have done some good. A few people said they saw her shopping downtown and - contrary to media reports elsewhere - she actually seemed happy and pleasant to be around.
Norway can have that effect.
When something appears on the schedule as "TBA" (to be announced), one hardly expects a highlight event.
But if saxophonist Petter Wettre's solo performance at the Reknes room was mere filler, then it carried the heft of lard. A more appropriate mixing of metaphors might involve wind sprints, as the Norwegian totally exhausted himself and was drenched in sweat after less than an hour of dense playing that at times was nothing less than astonishing.
Performing newly composed original music and without resorting to cheap crowd- pandering gimmickry, Wettre laid lyrical foundations (the finale sounded like a distant relative of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow") and returned to them at regular enough intervals to maintain a sense of cohesion. But the flurry of passages from bop to next-gen freeform in-between were the obvious highlight, with Wettre more or less putting on a clinic on most of the tonal possibilities of the instrument. My notes from the session are rather useless, at one point simply noting he was doing a little of everything on a level and speed beyond my level of comprehension. At some point I also had a sudden flash of recognition - I'd been blown away by the end of a small group gig he'd played a week earlier at the festival in Aarhus, Denmark.
It's a shame only 30 people were in the nondescript room to hear it. Especially given the huge crowd that heard what came next.
The Ola Kvernberg Trio and Ebou Secko Wolof Experience, a nine-member West African music-and-dance collaborative, was rather tame for a featured Friday night world fusion concert. The easiest depiction of this was the female trio of dancers who, while colorfully dressed, seemed to sway with all the enthusiasm and coordination of a tired '50s rock lounge act most of the evening. It wasn't until the end of the evening when they loosed up to more traditional drumming from a quintet of percussionists, taking individual turns with their steps before joining together for something resembling an energetic finale. Considering the applause they got for the closing number, it's unfortunate it was such a limited part of the show.
The band, featuring "locally grown" violinist Kvernberg, was good, not great. His violin possessed a strong fusion lead voice that was mostly assertive, but seldom daring. Some openings revolved around a handful of creative phrases, but the percussion-heavy ensemble made less of an overall impact than might be expected from their makeup.
Luckily, the Zanussi Five rode to the rescue.
The quintet featuring Norwegian saxophonists Kjetil Møster (tenor), Rolf-Erik Nystrøm (alto) and Eirik Hegdal (baritone/alto) was savage without getting Braxton-like crazy, blaring out collections of tones, squeaks, squawks, key clicks and the rest in a fashion that somehow assembled themselves into a reasonably harmonic fashion. Unlike many neo- improv, noise-intensive groups, one could hear the music being assembled and developed as they stomped through soundscapes where multiple rhythms were often taking place. In fact, the smartest thing bassist Per Zanussi and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen did was simply provide steady intensity much of the night without getting in the way of the horn melee.
Coming To Strange Conclusions
Some things should be judged by their cover. Like the works of Eguene Chadbourne.
His handmade CD covers assembled from newspaper clippings and other paraphernalia ranging from the war in Afghanistan to classic jazz, depending on the theme of equally diverse albums, are possibly the coolest I've seen. No two seem alike and it's a good clue that what's about to take place early Saturday afternoon in the Reknes room is anyone's guess.
"Chadbourne is a musician, composer, author, director of a record company, critic and comedian combining the inspiration from cartoons, European free improvisation and other sources of inspiration found in country, punk, Bach, Dracula and Jimi Hendrix," the festival program states. A more concise description might be Anthony Braxton meets the banjo player from Deliverance.
Sure enough, the hour-long show was an exercise of raw and sometimes vulgar weirdness, unfortunately to the point of getting in the way of talent at times. His standard and unconventional guitar techniques were innovative, rapidly fingerpicking while constantly adjusting tunings as an example of the former, with rubbing and popping balloons off his strings one of the latter sonic novelties. His vocals were better appreciated for their poetic than harmonic qualities, which were often grating. But this was not a tie-and-jacket audience likely to be offended by his profane anti-Nazi rants or turning a certain well- known Latin standard into "The Girl From Al Quida" with lyrics like "Every time someone steps on a mine/for her a sweet valentine" and exaggerated sounds kids make when pretending to blow things up. He took similar tonal liberties with "The Sound Of Music" to close out the show. As one might imagine, his CD of jazz tunes was anything but ordinary - look for a review here if it turns out more than a few copies exist and people can actually buy them.
The main concert of the final day was another outdoor park gathering, this time featuring the triple act of Ane Brun, Thomas Dybdahl and Jaga Jazzist. All but the last act were Nordic rock (and as it turned out Jaga Jazzist did a fair amount of it as well), which I took in as it flowed into the streets downtown. Partially this was to keep an eye on other happenings, such as Molde's middle-of-the-pack soccer team squaring off in a match that further clustered downtown and because I risked missing Andersen's finale otherwise.
If asked for a personal overview of the festival, the two overwhelming impressions are it is among the most expensive and friendly events I've experienced during my travels. A festival official went out of their way to find me a room in Molde after learning I was staying in a place an hour's drive away. While this saved untold time, gas and pricey tolls, the cost of the hotel was so high that I simply refused to do the currency conversion in my head out of fear. I have seldom encountered media people who were more helpful or personable in terms of trying to make sure I had information I needed, even if nearly all of it was in Norwegian and hence there's a few holes here and there in this article. And one of my favorite souvenirs is the newspaper article that translates roughly to "seen carrying a backpack everywhere he goes and attending many concerts, Mark Sabbatini is writing about the festival for the U.S. web site All About Jazz," etc., etc.
There's no question I'd recommend the Molde festival as a substitute or supplement for events in Oslo or Bergen, since musically it feels more regionally authentic. But booking everything from transportation to rooms should be done many months in advance and extending the trip with a diversion like taking the ferry to the extreme northern coast is highly recommended since you'll be paying a stiff price anyhow. A number of other Scandinavian festivals occur about the same time, making a side trip to Sweden or Finland worth considering, especially since the train system linking them is among the best in the world.