The Moldejazz Festival 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.


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