Steve Lehman and Pat Metheny Lead The Moldejazz Pack

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Flying north-west from Oslo on a propeller aeroplane, the first impression of Molde arrives via its surrounding terrain of misty, snow-topped mountains, dotted wooden inhabitations and sea-circled islets. The town of Molde is more conventionally concrete at its centre, but it takes only 10 minutes of uphill trudging to reach the surrounding wilderness. Here we have one of Europe's very oldest jazz festivals, first sprouted in 1961, and now Norway's leading, venerable institution.

For an old-timer festival, Moldejazz still retains a youthful sense of adventure, its programming boasting an emphasis on unlikely encounters, first time presentations and boldly variegated music forms. We could shake our bluesy hips, but we could also tremble under the full onslaught of free-squall. We could leaf through the standard Broadway songbook, but we could also nod cerebellums to the most advanced forms of avant-rap.

Gigs are plentiful over the six-day run, but most of the core sets can be caught by striding between the fairly close-proximity venues. Radical overlaps are few. The main Plassen library-cum-arts centre has a medium-sized theatre and a small jazz club, Storyville, which operates all year round. The big-name shows took place at the Bjørnsonhuset, and a couple of large-scale open-air gigs happened uphill in the grassy natural amphitheatre of the Romsdalsmuseet. As Molde is a relatively small town, most of its venues tended to fill up to near capacity, hosting artists that in bigger cities would have sold out spaces twice the sizes of these. A sense of communal intimacy, gathered.

On the first day, at 10pm in Storyville, the New York saxophonist Steve Lehman played to a smallish, unseated audience. Unseated in more ways than one! Word of Lehman's new hip-hop outfit Sélébéyone (top) has perhaps not fully spread, or its approach was deemed too extreme, upon a sample listen. Well, essentially, this five-piece delivered one of the festival's prime sets, supple and sleek, marrying rigorous twin-saxophone themes (alto/soprano) to an involved beat structure that combined electro-beats with Damion Reid's live twitch-drumming. The rappers are atypical types, HPrizm (of Antipop Consortium) adopting the US weird-hop stance, and the Senegalese Gaston Bandimic turning his Wolof tongue into part of the phonetically complex barrage. This is radical rap, forming the ideal fusion with radical jazz, providing a rare alternative to most of the previous stylish funkoid attempts, down the decades.

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On the second day, veteran Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal (above) rocked out! A front row press chair can be a dangerous place! Even though he remained seated throughout, not too easy on his feet, this had absolutely no effect on the immense power of Rypdal's axe-work. There were a few numbers that involved a more ECM-friendly spaciousness, but Rypdal mostly ripped out extended distorto-spirals, his evil partner-in-the-devil's-music being Hammond organist Ståle Storløkken, helping to reach the furthest corners of the cosmos. The music's tar-slow and dub-heavy, Rypdal rearing up to a howling strike, making a sludge-rock start, then developing a prog aura, with distorted bass, skipping drums, and a roiling Hammond solo. With this Conspiracy quartet, Rypdal seems set on re-visiting his most rocking roots in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing out his bleeding extremes. It's a reeling miasma, with each player periodically coming up for air, to solo, then dive back into the whirlpool once more. A quieter stretch involves a held organ tone, with Rypdal building shapes via wah-wah pedal, steadily increasing the bleed. Then, he whipped out a bottleneck, for some psychedelic blues, followed by an almost ludicrously gargantuan Hammond solo, almost hitting the Deep Purple patch.

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A perfect example of Moldejazz's unique programming was the Storyville set hosted by Mette Rasmussen, where this Danish alto saxophonist invited her preferred improvising partners, thereby creating a most unusual combination of Zeena Parkins (electric and acoustic harps), Craig Taborn (piano) and Barry Guy (bass, above with Rasmussen). An almost completely unfamiliar situation for all four players. An austere modern classical aura blooms first, until Parkins switches to her personalised electro-harp, bullying the improvisation towards a harder, louder rubble-spewing. This encourages Guy to adopt an equally aggressive stance, while Rasmussen works away at repeating phrases, doggedly inserting a spine into the midst of the surrounding amorphousness. Swerving away from her established free-bleating vocabulary, she wisely acts as the quartet's steely structural guru.

On the fourth day, at 2pm, another winning set: German veteran Alexander von Schlippenbach leads his absurdist virtuoso combo Monk's Casino (below), in a most sympathetic treatment of the Thelonious canon. Not many interpreters have managed to catch Monk's twinkling gleam of ambling humour, but this crew are masters of ironic clowning, armed with a severe scalpel of thematic editing. They barely pause for breath, as each tune careens into the next, gaps tiny, pace flat-out, wriggles at maximum. Monk's Casino play completely acoustically, except for (possibly) a very low level bass amplifier. Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet) and Axel Dörner (trumpet) make odd steps, sharp segues, and sudden solos that are literally lonesome outbursts. Monk is discovered at his most lean and wiry, as these cantankerous misfits wander the stage completely at ease and informal, so intravenously infected are they by the great centenarian's music.

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A few hours later, the starry blues pairing of TajMo (Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo') packed the sunny uphill park, dividing their repertoires equally, and appearing to genuinely dig each other's songs. Mister Mahal might have mostly remained seated, but that didn't curb his dance moves, as he sang richly, playing guitar, banjo and harmonica, with his daughters on backing vocals, plus a fine horn section to lend even greater spirit. Their combination is winning!

I'd caught Herbie Hancock nearly a fortnight previously at the Gent Jazz Festival, where his set floundered around like a loose jam session, with much inward-looking noodling. The revered keyboardist's Molde set was way superior, the band by this time having locked much tighter, with its leader in an extremely energised and extroverted state. There were still abundant solos, but these sounded more directed out to the audience than within the band, Hancock stalking around with his keytar, possessing energy to equal that of Chick Corea. Both of these veteran greats seem to enjoy the marathon set, a tendency very well justified in this case.

The programming at Moldejazz is so exceptional that we haven't even had chance yet to mention the two artists who played a significant number of 'in residence' gigs, all of them in stretching settings. Vijay Iyer mainly repeated existing collaborations, mostly with fellow Americans, aside from the meeting with Norway's own Cikada String Quartet. The pianist played duo sets with Craig Taborn (piano) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), and was most disappointing when delivering his Holding It Down war veterans concept piece, in partnership with wordsmith Mike Ladd. Iyer made up for this latter failing with an astonishing set by his own sextet, delivering numbers from the new Far From Over album. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey worked at an unceasingly powerful level, matching force with polyrhythmic complexity, seemingly soloing without let-up, soloing as a naturally ongoing state. Meanwhile, the front line of Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman and Mark Shim produced a staggering crossfire of solos, with the latter saxophonic pair enjoying a particularly tussling ascendance.

Meanwhile, Pat Metheny jumped right in, collaborating with Norwegians, forcing himself to negotiate uncharted waters, and producing results that held a consistency of excitement. His trio set with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Gard Nilssen had an easy, supple sense of enquiry, as they each staked out a generous patch of soloing space. Metheny met the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, passing through a country ramble, then being goaded towards a raunchier precipice by an orchestra that delights in jacking between serrated improvisation and organised, harmonious washes, mostly equipped with a conventional big band swing. Until Mette Rasmussen emerges with a bittersweet solo, singing in alternation between drum thunder and horn section stabs, epic in development and repeated climaxing. Even more remarkable was Metheny's midnight meeting with Jaga Jazzist, a less likely combination. This densely formed collective made ample space for the guitarist's searing, multi-faceted solos, and Metheny appeared to be ecstatic in this angular, math-jazz setting, as Jaga Jazzist matched his enthusiasm, acknowledging his long-held influence in their lives.

– Martin Longley

– Photos by Thor Egil Leirtrø (top), Ole Bjørn Steinsvik (second from top and bottom) and Geir Jartveit (third from bottom) and Moldejazz