Up at the lovely and artistically rewarding Molde Jazz Festival in Norway (boasting status as one of Europe’s oldest continually held annual jazz festivals at 57 years and counting), 2017 will be remembered as the year that Vijay and Pat came to town. Officially, the naturally pluralistic Vijay Iyer was the festival’s “artist in residence” this year, with five intriguing and divergent contexts, but owing to the passionate interest of Pat Metheny to return to the scene of his dense residency here back in 2001, the guitarist embarked on an important three show mini-residency.
Whereas Iyer’s shows presented existing models within his musical life to date, Metheny’s projects, with sophisticated new arrangements by Jaga Jazzist and the ever “up for a challenge” Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, were more adventurous and site-specific in the sense of leaping into the cultural trenches with these Norwegian ensembles.
Over the course of his handful of shows, Iyer ventured—and mostly conquered—the variegated turf of his restless creative ambitions. The festival-opening rap/spoken word project with Mike Ladd, “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams” was in stark contrast to the next afternoon’s memorably stunning duet with fellow piano master Craig Taborn (probably the pinnacle of the fest). And a duet with ageless sage Wadada Leo Smith—including music from their acclaimed ECM album—served as a nice foil to a chamber music-oriented set with the Cikada String Quartet. By late night, a stuffed-to-the-rafters venue was ground zero for the powerhouse Vijay Iyer Sextet, newly recharged by material from a freshly-released album, Far From Over.
Elsewhere in Molde this summer, a noble effort to find a balance between aesthetics, adventurism and tradition was beautifully achieved. A selective list of engaging shows at this year’s festival would have to include the avant-burlesque deconstruction that is Monk’s Casino and the jazz-cum-chamber-new-music musings of French pianist/composer/conspirator Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra. A sagely Euro-trumpeter pact was made with the convergence of Italian great Enrico Rava and Polish master Tomasz Stanko, with formidable young pianist Giovanni Guidi repeatedly seizing our attentions.
Festivalgoers were also privy to a potent and suitably pliable meeting led by the young Danish-born, Norway-based dynamo Mette Rasmussen on alto saxophone, in dialogue with bassist Barry Guy, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and Taborn. The show magnetized the small upstairs Swingville venue (so named for the original Molde club out of which this festival grew).
In the “big house” of the Bjørnsonhuset, the fare ranged from seasoned Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal’s lean, mean and mystical Conspiracy to Herbie Hancock’s SRO serio-party band, and from Nordic legend Karin Krog (sounding true and understated at age 80) to one of the truly classic and ear-opening shows of the week—when Metheny met, or re-met, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. They had collaborated in 2001, and then took that on the road in 2003: hopefully, a similar follow-up will ensue, as this music was too strong and important not to disperse further into the world.
Metheny’s mini-residency was a trajectory of increasing complexity. He was in an old comfort zone in trio mode, working up a fine, empathetic and fluid set with veteran bassist Arild Anderson and drummer Gard Nilssen. The next night (well, at midnight), in a very packed Teatret Vet venue, the guitarist joined the 20-year-plus electro-progressive band Jaga Jazzist, which apparently impressed Metheny when he heard them in 2001. He had wanted to collaborate ever since (drummer Martin Horntvet joked on the microphone, “Why didn’t you let us know earlier?”). Metheny found his way into the ensemble blend seamlessly on charts of their originals and Jaga revisions of such Metheny tunes as “So May It Secretly Begin” to the classic ecstatic “Are You Going With Me.” Other arrangements included the arpeggiating Mahavishnu lite song “Unquity Road,” from Metheny’s great debut album from 1976, Bright Size Life. Exciting and enigmatic by turns, the Metheny/Jaga Jazzist venture was an inspired match-up.
But the connection went even deeper the following night, with his rematch with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. The group unveiled a full evening of new and often thorny charts, with Metheny embarking on some serious reading and head-buried-in-sheet-music moments, while never failing to connect musically and make his natural, personal statement within the textural whole.
A new chart by Erik Hegdal and Ole Morten Vågan was part of the repertoire, as were two radically new variations on “Bright Size Life” (the first song on Metheny’s first album, some 41 years old, but sounding fresh today). One chart slowed down the original to a dirge, and later, a playful version of “Life” as a shambling shuffle further demonstrated the power of great music to be remolded, rediscovered in new forms.
Among the strong solo moments, apart from Metheny’s many starring turns, were violin solos by the most excellent Ola Kvernberg—another versatile musician who easily filled the artist-in-residence role at last year’s Molde Festival, and whose music often suggested the influence of Metheny’s romantic adventurer touch. From an edgier, younger place, alto sax wizard Mette Rasmussen delivered a thrilling and extended solo—partly in taut tandem with dazzling young drummer Hans Hulbaekmo—which coaxed one of Metheny’s famous ear-to-ear smiles. He was in a happy place, clearly, and the feeling was mutual all around the venue and the town. DB