08/09/10

Molde International Jazz Festival

July 19-24, 2010 in Molde, Norway

Mention the Molde International Jazz Festival to most American jazz fans and you’re likely to get a puzzled look. It’s not because it’s a new festival—in fact it celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer and it’s arguably the longest continuously running festival in Europe. Perhaps it’s one of the best-kept European jazz secrets because they don’t have to do any publicity outside of Norway. Each summer for seven days, every hotel, campsite and spare room in and around Molde is booked to capacity and the population of this sleepy town on the Ramsdal fjord more than triples in size, so there’s no point in trying to draw more people. This year Molde celebrated its golden anniversary with its customary mixed bag of mainstream and cutting-edge shows in various genres along with free concerts, daily daytime parades through the town and some very special events.

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Scene view of Molde, site of the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway
By Larry Appelbaum
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Rune Grammofon exhibit at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway
By Larry Appelbaum
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Tiny street musicians at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway

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Part of what makes this festival so memorable is the setting for its concerts. For example, a noontime performance Javid Afsaru Rad offered a chance to hear centuries old Persian melodies played on santur (hammered dulcimer) and hand drum inside an 18th century wooden chapel lit only by candles. It was a mystical experience heightened by dark skies and a steady summer rainstorm. Another unusual setting was a 7:00 am break-of-day concert by Nils Petter Molvaer and Biosphere in the amphitheater in Reknes Park. It was a stirring sight to see 1600 people gathering for an outdoor show of trumpet and lap-top triggered rhythms and ambient sounds at that hour of the morning, though based on the faces of the crowd it was unclear how many woke up early or stayed up all night.

As with any jazz festival these days, there were a few popular commercial acts on the schedule to satisfy the non-purists, for example an outdoor Romsdal Museum concert by Missy Elliot. And there were a number of shows by touring groups making the summer festival circuit (Herbie Hancock, Jeff Beck and Gretchen Parlato). But Sonny Rollins, just six weeks shy of his 80th birthday, was not only the biggest jazz act on the bill, he was in particularly good form in a concert on the museum’s outdoor stage. Despite a steady rain, no one was allowed to bring umbrellas into the park, so there were thousands of poncho people waiting to hear Rollins’s latest group with guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobe Watkins and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. The quintet sailed through a long opening blues, followed by a quote-filled excursion through “Falling in Love Is Wonderful.” Rollins caressed Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” while Bernstein nimbly sketched its contour with lush harmonic substitutions. The seeming endless rendition of the Italian folk song “Serenade” lost a bit of steam halfway through, but two lively calypsos got the rain-soaked crowd up on its feet dancing in the puddles.

Of course Sonny Rollins can be seen at a number of jazz festivals around the world this summer. Another special aspect of the Molde Jazz Festival is the opportunity to see Norwegian artists who don’t travel abroad as much. Mari Kvien Brunvoll, for example, is an eccentrically charming, pretty young singer originally from Molde, now living in Bergen, who has yet to release any commercial recordings. In her solo set at Forum, she sat on the floor surrounded by a mixer and various bits of audio gear enabling her to incorporate vocal loops and samples into her quirky, dream-filled soundscapes. Her set was playful, highly entertaining and ended too soon.

Another Norwegian artist who should be better known abroad is violinist, composer Ola Kvernberg, who assembled an all-star front-line for his band Liarbird, including Matthias Eick, trumpet, and saxophonists Hakon Kornstad and Joshua Redman. Their opening anthem “Liarbird” gently unfolded, giving way to soaring sections with plenty of open space for improvisation. The two basses and two drummers kept things percolating underneath, and everyone got a piece of the nasty, slinky groove of “Boog,” with the two tenors locking horns and Kornstad dipping into his electronic bag.

There were a number of free-jazz shows that went for the jugular, including German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s series of incendiary duets with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love at Reknes. There was nothing tentative about their cyclonic collaboration. The fiery first piece lasted 35 minutes--at one point Brötzmann came perilously close to a melody.

In a festival where there’s so much going on, it was often a single moment or piece that resonated deepest: for example tenor saxophonist Kjetil Møster getting his Coltrane on with a blistering solo during a set by The Core, bassist Steinar Raknes and his solo acoustic bass and vocal on Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do,” or Ab Baar’s and Ig Henneman’s loving, appropriately unpredictable homage to Misha Mengelberg, “Gammer”. Pianist Aki Takase and clarinetist Silke Eberhard mixed originals, some Monk, and a lot of Ornette into their flowing, amusingly conversational series of duets. Not all moving moments were musical. Following an amped-up, excruciatingly loud midnight set by the power trio Bushman’s Revenge, you could walk out afterward into the quiet, still night and see a breathtakingly beautiful full yellow moon rising over the fjord.

Amidst all the high points, there were a few minor disappointments: the trio Fly was very late getting started for their show at Alexandrak Jelleren, and there were too many other tempting concerts going on simultaneously to stick around. And the much-anticipated performance by award-winning guitarist Hedvig Mollestad showed she was not quite ready for prime time (though she looked good in those boots). Two events made me wish I spoke Norwegian: a play that ran for several nights titled “Driving Miles” about a real life curmudgeonly taxi driver who didn’t like music but became a friend of Miles Davis after he drove the trumpeter around Molde. The other was a group interview in an art gallery with one of the festival’s founders, along with the author and photographer of a newly published book on the festival’s anniversary. For those who appreciate Norwegian recordings, Rune Grammofon was the “label in residence” at this festival. Not only were certain label acts on the schedule, there was a gallery show of cover art by the label’s distinctive graphic designer Kim Hiorthøy.

In addition to the musical offerings and the scenic splendor of the surrounding fjord and mountains, there are a number of small details in Molde that make a big difference for serious festival fans. First, it’s an audience-friendly experience in that most of the venues are in a small area downtown, and an easy 5-10 minute walk from one to the other. Each stage has good p.a., lighting and sound, and all pianos were in tune. The downside (aside from the mind-boggling high cost of commercial goods and services in Norway) is that the festival is so popular that even the more obscure artist’s shows were often sold out. That’s a problem that a lot of festivals would love to have.

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