Predictions are for suckers, in music as in politics, but I’m prepared to say we probably won’t hear a heavier new track from a jazz combo this season than “In the Court of the Trolls.” The band in question is the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, from Norway, and the track appears on its fourth studio album, Black Stabat Mater (Rune Grammofon). With its convulsive snarl of chromatic riffs in 11/8 time, it’s a quaff drawn from the brackish well of prog-metal. But as the trio hurtles on, clearing room for an echoey, intrepid guitar solo, it also aligns with a jazz-rock axis. Hedvig Mollestad is the guitarist, in any case. She sounds like a holy terror.
That much hasn’t changed since Mollestad released her debut album, Shoot!, five years ago. Her trio, which has Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad on drums, caught my ear then with its audacious style references: the loose swagger of early Black Sabbath; the density and prowl of peak Led Zeppelin; the expeditionary urge of Jimi Hendrix; the incantatory fervor of John McLaughlin. I didn’t find it a problem that all of these influences were fixed to a point in time: 1970, give or take a year. On the contrary, the specificity seemed a filter through which Mollestad could focus and project her ideas, which have more to do with the jazz-guitar tradition than might be immediately apparent.
In her interviews Mollestad, 34, bridges that gap without hesitation, citing the influence of Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, along with the acts mentioned above. She grew up with everyday exposure to jazz courtesy of her father, Lars Martin Thomassen, a well-regarded trumpeter on the Norwegian scene. Her mother, a teacher, played some guitar, and Mollestad gravitated to that instrument rather than the horn. She met both Brekken and Bjørnstad at the Norwegian Academy of Music, the elite conservatory in Oslo. They formed their trio in 2009, the same year Mollestad won the prestigious Jazz Talent Award at the Molde International Jazz Festival.
They found common ground in metal, a music with root currency in Norway, along with early psychedelic rock and fusion-all while stamping their rapport with the flexibility and inquiry native to jazz musicians. And while it shouldn’t be remarkable that Mollestad is a young woman shredding her way through an essentially macho-coded tradition, well, it assuredly still is remarkable, if maybe a bit less so in Scandinavia than in the States. Live reviews of Mollestad’s trio often include some passing but pointed nod to her appearance, as if underscoring an essential incongruity. Every now and again a writer notes that Brekken is a dynamo in her own right, leaving you to draw the conclusion: This is a take-no-prisoners, majority-female band.
So far I haven’t had the privilege of experiencing the Mollestad Trio in concert, which is one reason its other new release, Evil in Oslo (Rune Grammofon), serves such a vital function. Recorded at a pair of packed club gigs last year, it’s a double LP that cherry-picks highlights from the band’s first three albums. Side A features material from Shoot!-notably the enduring band anthem “Ashes,” which suggests a new spin on McLaughlin’s fiery work in the Tony Williams Lifetime.