Molde Aims to Intermingle International Jazz Scenes

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Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity performs at the 2019 Molde Jazz Festival in Molde, Norway, joined by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (left) and saxophonist Joshua Redman.

(Photo: Thor Egil Leirtrø)

“Hans-Olav Solli and the crew at Molde International Jazz Festival let my dreams come true as the artist-in-residence last year,” drummer and composer Gard Nilssen said. “They were totally open to whatever I wanted to present musically, and that is not very common these days. I felt that my artist- in-residence lineup, as well as the rest of the festival program, turned out to be a great musical success at what I consider to be one of the finest jazz festivals in the world.”

The Molde International Jazz Festival, held in the titular Norwegian city, is set to celebrate its 60th anniversary with this year’s edition, which runs July 13–18. Composer and saxophonist John Zorn is at the center of the event.

It will mark Zorn’s fourth time playing at Molde: During the 1990s, he fronted his Naked City project and Painkiller band. The following decade, he performed with Electric Masada. And this year, Zorn will be involved in 11 concerts, including three shows he’s curated that count Norwegian musicians on the bill.

Some of those concerts include “Midsummer Moons,” at which guitarists Gyan Riley and Julian Lage will be interpreting Zorn’s wily compositions; “The Hierophant,” a concert consisting of drummer Kenny Wollesen, bassist Trevor Dunn and pianist Brian Marsella exploring Zorn’s work that was inspired by tarot card readings; and “The Hermetic Organ,” a solo performance where Zorn will be playing alto saxophone and organ at the Molde Cathedral.

Unrelated, but just as auspicious as Zorn’s residency, will be a reading of “Driving Miles,” a musical monologue, composed by Henning Mankell, which was performed at the Molde festival a decade ago in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Solli, the Molde festival’s director, hopes that the eclectic, international lineup—which is set to include homegrown musicians like bassist Ellen Andrea Wang, violinist Ola Kvernberg, and pianist Espen Berg—will inspire some surprising impromptu collaborations that now have become signature events at the Molde festival.

Solli makes sure to point out highlights from last year’s festival, including when drummer Nilssen joined guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan for a spur-of-the-moment reading of “We Shall Overcome.” Or when trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Joshua Redman joined Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity ensemble onstage.

“Those moments are so magical,” Solli said. “It’s one of our trademarks. They’re so magical because you never know what will become of those encounters. They could lead to future collaborations or even new bands.”

In addition to the various musicians related to Zorn’s residency, this year’s lineup includes vibraphonist Joel Ross, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and singer John Legend. The festival also will present some legacy-facing concerts from keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who first performed there in 1971; saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who first performed at the festival in 1966; and vocalist Karin Krog, who performed at the festival’s 1961 inaugural event when she was 23 years old.

“There has always been a strong connection between the U.S. and the Molde Jazz Festival. Charlie Haden and Wayne Shorter were here in 1966,” Solli said. “We always try to merge the American and Norwegian jazz scenes. And we always create new music.”

Opportunities aside, another major draw for the festival is its idyllic location. The town is a part of Norway’s western Romsdal Peninsula, which contains breathtaking scenery like the Romsdal Fjord—Norway’s ninth longest fjord—and 222 mountain peaks. Within the city are The Romsdal Museum and Alexandra Park, where the festival hosts some of its more DJ-centric and pop acts.

Solli became the festival’s director back in 2014 after working under Jan Ole Otnæs, who’s now the director of the Nasjonal Jazzscene, a concert venue in Oslo. Solli commends his predecessor for being a torchbearer of the festival’s programming history; it’s been a place where musicians early in their careers are given a platform. Bassist Esperanza Spalding made her European debut there in 2007, and vocalist Melody Gardot still was early in her career when she performed at Molde in 2009.

But Solli has helped to rebrand and expand some of the festival’s performance spaces. During his second year as director, he added the Molde Cathedral as a venue, where in 2015 both the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Norway’s SKRUK choir performed “Roots from the West,” featuring Scandinavian folk songs, black American spirituals and jazz.

“We’re always working towards throwing the perfect festival,” said Solli with a typical combination of Scandinavian warmth, restraint and pride. DB




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