Jazz and Pop Worlds Collide in Molde

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Molde is a small stop on the Norwegian fjord-viewing cruise-ship route. But July 16-21, under skies that never fully darken, it hosted Moldejazz, Europe’s second-oldest jazz festival. The week-long happening books pop, rock and hip-hop alongside a robust selection of Dixieland, straight ahead, fusion and free-jazz performers. The jazz selections include American jazz eminences, locals and events that reflect the country’s commitment to cultivating its own cultural activities. While guests such as Donny McCaslin, Hudson, Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom and festival artist-in-residence Maria Schneider played theater shows every evening, local youths staffed the brass band that opened each day’s festivities by marching down the street playing “Little Liza Jane.” The finale of Jazz Intro—a biannual elimination contest among young bands—awarded a cash prize and a tour of the country to I Like To Sleep, a trio of 20 year olds that combines Bobby Hutcherson-inspired vibraphone improvisations with the crumbling, droning metal sonorities of Sunn 0))).

Schneider brought some fire of her own to a speech during the festival’s opening ceremony, excoriating the negative cultural effects of big data companies. She opened the festival with a career-spanning set of big band arrangements, including the first live performance of “Sue,” her collaboration with the late David Bowie, and concluded with orchestral compositions staged in the town’s cathedral. But Joe McPhee, a 78 year-old multi-instrumentalist from Poughkeepsie, New York, made the ceremony’s most moving statement without speaking a word. His brief soprano saxophone recital illustrated the core of emotion that links jazz expressions across styles and decades. That same day McPhee, toting a pocket trumpet and plastic alto saxophones, also played in Universal Indians, a group that includes expatriate American tenor saxophonist John Dikeman and the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang. The group explored less linear relationships between the past and the present by improvising freely with the allowance that any musician could introduce an Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler theme at any time. This facilitated a dynamic of respectful challenge and naturally self-balancing energies, with fragments of “The Truth Is Marching In” and “Theme From A Symphony” lending gravitas to the abstracted sound fields, hard charges and tender retorts.

Trondheim Jazzorkester, a flexibly configured group that previously worked with Pat Metheny, joined forces with the trio MaXx to play a suite that combined free jazz with progressive rock passages. And Paal Nilssen-Love’s XL Unit staged a triumphant return to the festival, where it had played its first gig 5 years ago. Augmented by Dutch guitarist Terrie Ex, two Brazilian percussionists and others, its deliriously exciting set included raucous, punk-spiked jazz and earthy Ethiopian song and dance numbers.

Jazz and pop met on the grounds of a drizzle-dampened field by the Romsdal Museum on the festival’s third night. Energized by a group of supporting musicians young enough to be his children, opening act Stanley Clarke played a well-received set of speedily executed fusion hits. Headliner Van Morrison’s affinity for jazz never has been a secret. The singer’s most recent album, You’re Driving Me Crazy (Legacy), is a session with Joey DeFrancesco that revisits the singer’s chestnuts and mixes them with old blues and jazz numbers. While the song selection of his set corresponded to the album’s content, he brought his regular seven-piece backing band, and the empathy of its accompaniment justified that choice. Clad in a fedora and pinstripe suite, Morrison looked a bit like a retired don, but there was ample salvation and mischief in his music.

After some shaky moments on the first few songs, Morrison hit his stride with “Magic Time,” his voice sounding untouched by age. Holding notes and repeating lines, he made space for melodic reinvention and spirited embellishment in a song about unabashed nostalgia. The set alternated Morrison’s best-known works from the 1960s and ’70s with even older blues and rock tunes. Instead of the extended soloing heard on You’re Driving Me Crazy, members of his backing band got a couple bars to make their statements, which kept the flow brisk. Guitarist Dave Keary was in especially fine form, adding rockabilly bite to “Baby Please Don’t Go” and country flourishes to “Into The Mystic.” Morrison soloed frequently on alto saxophone and harmonica, and while he’s no virtuoso on either, the parts he played seemed to build steam for his vocal forays.

If Morrison embodied resilience in the face of time, Yazz Ahmed’s Hafla Band offered a vision of what jazz can become in the 21st century. Raised in both Bahrain and the UK, the London-based trumpet and quartertone flugelhorn player has accompanied reggae and popular musicians, most notably Radiohead, in addition to leading bands since 2006. The crisp twang of Dudley Phillips’ six-string bass and the plush textures of Naadia Sheriff’s electric piano grounded Ahmed’s music in ’70s electric jazz, winding lines finding common ground somewhere between Miles Davis’ modal playing and Bahraini folk music. When she used a Kaoss pad to sample and manipulate her horns as they snaked through percussive obstacle courses, it seemed like her solos were running races with shadows of themselves. The effect was both psychedelic and futuristic, and when she abruptly cut the electronics to allow her clean-toned horn to bolt out of the sonic thicket, the result was electric. DB




On Sale Now
November 2018
Stefon Harris
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