Molde Festival Offers Free-Improv Sets & Feel-Good Fare

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Joss Stone performs at the Molde Jazz Festival in Molde, Norway, on July 23.

(Photo: Courtesy Molde Jazz Festival)

Aside from being one of the world’s oldest jazz gatherings, the Molde Jazz Festival, which turned 56 this year, is also noteworthy for its ratio of significance to scale: It’s a festival of huge significance set in a small, beautiful town.

The northwestern Norwegian city of Molde, laid out alongside the Romsdalsfjord with stunning natural splendor all around, has a population of approximately 25,000, which swells considerably each mid-July when the festival takes over the town, which took place this year on July 16–23.

While the main street buzzed with action until the very wee hours (past the point where it gets dark-ish, around midnight), this was anything but a party-fueled, brain-on-vacation festival. Rather, it’s a place where improvising ensembles like trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, Lalaland (featuring the great, underrated Django Bates at piano) and the fascinating duo of Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva mingle with the feel-good fare of vocalist Lizz Wright and the Steps Ahead reunion group, which featured the nimble Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone.

Molde, circa 2016, was the first year with new director Hans-Olav Solli officially in charge, and he has clearly held fast to the critical, delicate balance of artistic challenge, respect for jazz tradition, populist window dressing and a sense of its own ongoing importance to Norwegian jazz—and the larger jazz world.

American artists in the lineup this year included separate sets by Chick Corea and Pat Metheny (with Ron Carter and Cory Henry) in definitively tradition-heeding mode, as well as the surprisingly fruitful partnership of the Brandford Marsalis Quartet with vocalist Kurt Elling.

Both Corea and Metheny have held forth in Molde’s much-admired artist-in-residence roles in years past, a slot impressively filled this year by the remarkably flexible and open-eared Norwegian violinist Ola Kvernberg. We got a sense of Kvernberg’s diverse talents over the course of several encounters: in Mechanical Fair, a band-plus-chamber orchestra ensemble; in the sensuously percussion-driven “post-rock” project Steamdome; faring confidently in an empathetic duet with saxophonist Joshua Redman; and in a solid, first-time free-improv meeting with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten and violinist Mat Maneri.

One of the major changes and solidifying enhancements in the city, and the festival, was the building of the large and multi-purpose Plassen building a few years ago, which now houses a central headquarters for the festival operation and two key festival venues. The Teatret Vårt Natt is a fine medium-scale theater, serving as a perfect spot for shows as varied as the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’s wondrously crazed circus-like and theatrical project with Skrap and pianist-composer Eyolf Dale’s ear-friendly little big band project Wolf Valley.

In a bit of historical significance, percussionist Marilyn Mazur returned to Molde this year to lead her increasingly bold all-female group Shamania. Mazur was an ascending young musician at Molde back in 1985, when Miles Davis called her onstage, initiating what would become a multi-year stint playing in his band.

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