Violin Dynamo Kvernberg Seizes Spotlight at Molde Jazz Fest


Ola Kvernberg (left) and Joshua Redman perform at the Molde Jazz Festival in Molde, Norway, on July 20.

(Photo: Courtesy Molde Jazz Festival/Ruben Olsen Laerk)

Part of what makes the Molde Jazz Festival a prize on the global jazz festival circuit is its delicate balancing act in the programming department, keeping a watchful eye on matters of art and issues of popular culture over the course of its annual feast in this fjord-hugged corner of Norway.

For the 56th edition, which ran from July 18–23, a short list of highlights ranged from the mainstream American visitors—pianist Chick Corea and band, guitarist Pat Metheny in an intimate duet with bassist Ron Carter, and an enlightened pairing of the Branford Marsalis Quartet with singer Kurt Elling—to the maverick freedom-within-structure magic of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet and the more puckish free thinking of Lalaland, showcasing pianist Django Bates, a player definitely deserving of wider recognition.

Up the hill in the idyllic outdoor Romsdalsmuseet venue, crowd-pleaser Joss Stone’s set was opened by the much more musically complex and conceptually minded inventions of Esperanza Spalding’s project Emily’s D+Evolution.

Snarky Puppy keyboardist Cory Henry—who released the CD/DVD set The Revival (Ground Up/Universal) in March—won gospel-tinged feel-good points for his set at the venue Storyville (named after the club where this festival was born in 1961), located on the top floor of the Plassen building.

The same room also buzzed, more cerebrally, with Nate Wooley’s gamey Wynton Marsalis tribute (both ironic and sincere) and the subtle, beguiling abstractions from the duo of Kaja Draksler (piano) and Susana Santos Silva (trumpet).

This was also a year in which the distinctive artist in residence role, which in the past was filled dutifully by Corea and Metheny, was particularly memorable and stocked with musical intrigue. This year the role belonged to the naturally eclectic and ear-friendly violinist Ola Kvernberg.

At a press conference on the festival’s final day, artistic director Hans-Olav Solli (in his first official year as director) expressed his satisfaction over Kvernberg’s qualifications for the position. “Ola is close to a perfect example of someone with a huge range of talents,” he said. Of working with Kvernberg to develop the festival’s programming, Solli added, “It was big fun.”

Being on the receiving end of that program was big fun, too, with some nice surprises folded into the mix. Kvernberg’s July 18 performance was the grand gala of the residency, with the violinist at the epicenter of a large-ensemble fusion of jazz and chamber music. The reputation of this piece, “Mechanical Fair,” precedes Molde, having been commissioned by the Norwegian Kongsberg festival in 2013, and recorded for the Norwegian Jazzland label.

The Molde performance, combining a jazz band in the center of strings and other orchestral timbres and blending melodic and minimalist themes into a sweeping suite, was an expansion of the original. Echoes of Metheny’s own romantic vocabulary, when in his “Metheny Group” mode, filtered through the writing, often relying on repetitive melodic modules rather than long arcs of thematic expansion.

If strings prevailed for the night of July 18, then drums and seductively pummeling percussion ruled the next night, with Kvernberg’s new project, Steamdome, aptly booked for a late-night set at a club-style venue. The combination of grooves, interlocking riffs and slinky odd-metered pulses made up much of the program for what was essentially a cinematic post-rock vehicle, with improvisation kept to a minimum.

It was an entirely different story the following day, which found Kvernberg delivering an impressive duo performance with saxophonist Joshua Redman. Odd as it may sound on paper, the pairing was an inspired one, as the two agile players swapped riffs and danced around each other’s ideas.

Genre-wise, they remained footloose and ever ready, from Norwegian folk themes (with Kvernberg laying out gorgeous chords and loops as a bed for Redman’s lines), to a slow-motion “Giant Steps” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” and retooled scores of Rachmaninoff and the Penguin Café Orchestra. Everything seemed to work for this duo—a pairing well worth revisiting at future festivals.

Molde was the town—the hometown, in fact—where famed, famously flexible drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (who was Molde’s artist in residence in 2002), premiered his unique, free-jazz/punk/swing ensemble the Large Unit in 2013. The group has gone on to considerable acclaim for its fresh, potent sound in the ranks of “little big band” culture.

This year, Nilssen-Love returned in the form of a free-jazz foil for Kvernberg, the foundation of a late-night improv band with regular ally Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten on bass and New York-based violinist Mat Maneri, assembled to test Kvernberg’s mettle in the avant realm.

After hearing Kvernberg in more tonally inclined, structured and minimalist settings, one might be wary of his wits in a “free” zone. But he fared beautifully here, channeling his way with phrasing that reflected a tremendous sensitivity to the ensemble setting. Although it was more orderly and less chaotic than some free-jazz performances, the avant-Kvernberg meeting was yet another shining highlight in a residency—and a festival—brimming with bright moments.

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