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.