Iyer’s Idiomatic Adventurism by the Fjord


Alexander von Schlippenbach (left), Rudi Mahall, Uli Jennessen and Axel Dörner perform at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway. (Obscured: bassist Jan Roder)

(Photo: Josef Woodard)

Vijay Iyer has done more than his share in the contemporary cause of musical border-crossing and idiom-fusing in—and beyond—the modern jazz scene, and he’s been logically taking his message to the festival “streets.” In June, he ambitiously took on the music director position for the prestigious Ojai Music Festival, bending the fest’s typically classical aesthetic toward the jazz-meets-creative music strategies of his cohorts.

Then, in July, Iyer could be found in more familiar and jazz-centric turf, in the fjord-centered grounds of the famed and venerable Molde Jazz Festival—arguably the prize among Norway’s rich jazz festival circuit. In both settings, Iyer presented the remarkable range of his music and in the suitable context of multiple and varied performances. There were two overlaps in the programs: his empathic duet with seasoned trumpeter and latter-day jazz icon Wadada Leo Smith (heard in Molde last year with his Golden Quartet) and Iyer’s own formidable sextet (with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, bassist Stephan Crump and Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn). The latter is riding fresh and high on the repertoire of a strong new ECM album, Far From Over.

But Iyer’s Molde residency was also framed by wildly divergent projects, from the opening rap/spoken-word project in collaboration with poet Mike Ladd (“Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dreams”) to the closing night concert of his piano-with-string quartet music (featuring the Cikada Quartet). In between came a beguilingly fine piano duet with piano master (and fellow ECM artist) Craig Taborn—quite possibly the highlight of the entire festival.

Just as he circled around and through a presumably “classical” aesthetic in Ojai, Iyer demonstrated his own variegated adventures in, around and through jazz, perfectly embodying our current, pluralistic jazz moment.

Compounding the embarrassment of riches in Molde this year, an old friend and fan of the festival, Pat Metheny, arrived for three strong programs interacting with Norwegian musicians (he was a Molde artist-in-residence in 2001 and reportedly longed to return). His trio set, with veteran bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Gard Nilssen, was a pleasing teaser for the “big” projects of the week: intricately arranged evenings of music with Jaga Jazzist and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, clearly a festival high point.

Molde’s festival, reportedly the oldest festival in Europe, at 57, is on an admirable upswing in the last few years, with the arrival of new director Hans-Olav Solli. This year, in particular, boasted a powerhouse program over its six-day spread. Outdoors, the sound of dance-oriented bands in the central Alexandra Park seized the air into the wee hours of these rarely dark summer nights.

The large outdoor venue of the idyllic Molde Romsdalmuseet (where we see vintage Norwegian houses and buildings of the sort more common before the devastating Nazi bombing of Western Norway in 1940) appealed to large pop-minded audiences. Here, artists like the Taj Mahal/Keb Mo touring unit helped subsidize the more sensitive musical wares in the indoor venues downtown.

Speaking of musical projects slipping across jazz and classical borders, French pianist-composer-leader Eve Risser’s fascinating White Desert Orchestra—a sort of rejiggered chamber ensemble—freely and inventively blurred lines between jazz, progressive music and post-minimalism. Another great European band deserving much more recognition is Monk’s Casino, the blissfully elastic and deeply musical group with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, ever-intriguing trumpeter Axel Dörner, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen, deconstructing Monk’s treasure trove of a songbook in a way that might please the late legend.

Accidentally or otherwise, this year’s program also regularly tapped into music with an ECM imprimatur. Aside from recent star ECM artists Iyer and Taborn, we heard the folkish wiles of Finnish singer and kantele (Finnish zither) player Sinikka Langeland (with notable Norwegians Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Trygve Seim on saxophones and members of Trio Medieval); a wonderful meeting of ever-young elder statesmen and ECM-linked trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava (with scene-stealing young ECM pianist Giovanni Guidi in the mix); and the new, aptly-named Norwegian band Atmosphères (Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset, pianist Tigran Hamasyan, and atmospheric live-remixer Jan Bang).

Also from the ECM realm, guitarist Terje Rypdal—who has worked with a big band in recent years—stripped down to a bass-drums-organ quartet, a signature jazz-rock format reminiscent of his classic ’70s albums on ECM. He closed his set with a short rocker reminiscent of Deep Purple’s “Woman From Tokyo” gone headbanger Nordic. By contrast, a woman proudly from Norway, the fine Billie Holiday-inspired Karin Krog, now 80, was sounding subtle and soulful in her own Nordic manner, with a band led by mainstreaming tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

Free improvisation is also an important area at least touched on in any given Molde festival line-up, and this year’s powerful and poetic late-night set in the upstairs Storyville venue was one for the books. Here, the stunning young newcomer to the scene, Dane-in-Norway alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen was a commanding yet sensitively interactive force in charge of a hand-picked group of more veteran improvisers—bassist Barry Guy, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist Taborn.

Rasmussen herself, blessed with a potential ferocity and tonal flexibility suitable for solo sax concerts up through multiple-player congregations, acquitted herself beautifully, with taste and abandon where suited, validating once again the growing reputation across the Atlantic. Next stop: America and other shores?

Taborn had already established his mastery the day before, when he joined Iyer for a memorable two-set afternoon tête à tête performance with a pair of spooning Steinways (they switched pianos between pieces, like tennis players gamely switching sides). Yes, they are virtuosic players, but also great listeners, aspects embedded in the ever-morphing dual piano invention created on the spot. By turns abstract, spare, thicketed, tonal and otherwise, sometimes with a grounding ostinato riff (often odd metered, but usually not), the teaming of Iyer and Taborn was the stuff of sublime music-making. They really must go on meeting like this.

Stepping outside from the indoor Teatret Vårt venue that afternoon, into a rare sunny day filled with the rush of visitors who temporarily swell Molde’s population from 20,000 to around 100,000, made for a surreal contrast. Such is the duality of the Molde experience each mid-July. The 2017 festival edition was a thought-provoking jewel of a program. DB

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