Norwegian Road Trip, Part 6: Molde Jazz, Days 3-4
One of the festival's most anticipated shows, violinist Ola Kvernberg's Kulturhuset performanceset up for standing onlywas absolutely packed to the rafters. While it helps that Kvernberg is a local boy, coming from a small town nearby, that wasn't the only reason that a line-up went out of the venue and down the street before the show. Featuring a high-octane nonetbassists Ole Morten Vågan (also playing acoustic guitar) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten; saxophonists Håkon Kornstad and Joshua Redman; trumpeter Mathias Eick; drummers Erik Nylander and Torstein Lofthus; and violinist Bergmund Skaslienthere was more than enough star power to draw in not only fans of the violinist, but of his group's individual performers.
Kvernbergwhose Folk (Jazzland, 2009) was one of last year's most pleasant surprisesbrought this new group together under the banner "Liarbird," with a 90-minute set of enthralling new music that gave everyone more than enough time in the spotlight, but also focused on the violinist's strong writing and ability to guide his band mates through its countless twists and turns. With only one break during the largely continuous, episodic performance, Kvernberg's suite touched on a variety of markers, including Norwegian traditionalism (folk music as well as brass bands); hints of Middle Eastern tonalities; wildly electric energy that wasn't exactly fusion, but somehow felt like it at times; detailed charts with shifting meters and wild harmonic excursions; and the kind of improvisational/interpretive freedom that took full advantage of this stunning group of players.
While Redman's appearance might have smacked of "ringer"bringing in a well-known artist to elevate the potential popularity of the projectnothing could have been further from the truth. Redmanalternating between tenor and sopranoplayed his ass off, to be sure, but in this egalitarian situation, didn't shine any more than the rest of his band mates. Redman was, in fact, clearly engaged in the show and loving what he was hearing around him; in particular, during one of Kvernberg's best solos towards the end of the set, where the saxophonist seemed to be looking around him in amazement, hollering encouragement at the violinist, whose incendiary solo was bolstered even further by the sometimes thundering support of Nylander and Lofthus. As strong as Kvernberg's solo was, it was actually part of a longer segment that started with Eick, delivering one of the most lyrical features of the show, and then moved to Redman, Kvernberg and, finally, Kornstad for a breathtaking series of solos that provided some of the set's most memorable moments.
From left: Mathias Eick, Torstein Lofthus, Håkon Kornstad
Kvernberg's Trio+1 performance at Natt Jazz 2009 was incendiary, but "Liarbird" went positively nuclear on more than one occasion, the audience screaming in approval throughout. Kvernberg, using two violinsa normal model as well as his octave violin, tuned an octave below the normal rangeinteracted with Skaslien, who was located on the far side of the stage; sometimes doubling lines, other times Kvernberg strumming his violin like a mandolin, while Skaslien stuck with a bow. With two bassists as powerful as Flaten and Vågan, when the music grooved, it grooved hard, all the more thanks to Nylander and Lofthus.
The group even proved that it's possible to dance in 5/4, as the audience moved to a lengthy passage, towards the end of the set, where the two drummers demonstrated remarkable telepathy. And when Kvernberg gave Nylander and Lofthus the chance for an in tandem solo near the end of the performance, it was a thrilling example of collaborative spirit within the context of a clearly structured context, made clear when Kvernberg began to tap his violin in time with some of the drummers' complex stops and starts. A lot of Norwegian groups are using two drummers these daysincluding Eick's own group and guitarist Eivind Aarset's Sonic Codexbut it's a credit to all these groups that the drummers never seem to get in each others' way, creating a broader percussive undercurrent and pushing the power of their groups with thundering, unshakable grooves when necessary.
Redman may be the most well-known of the group on an international level, but hearing him beside Kornstad, it was absolutely clear that the Norwegian innovator is working at the same high level, with his own harmonic sophistication, unerring virtuosity and knowledge of the jazz tradition. Kornstad also worked in some of his seamless technological integration, at one point building an expansive solo of layered loops, extended techniques and thoughtful lyricism not unlike the work on his most recent release, Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009). From the smile on his face throughout the set, Kornstad was clearly enjoying the opportunity to work with Redman, but based on the American saxophonist's body language, it was obvious that he was having just as much funand, perhaps, learning just how strong the Norwegian scene is, first-hand.
Kvernberg was equally enthralled by the entire group, directing it even as he got lost in the music. A recording of "Liarbird" will hopefully be followingand soonbut until then, the memory of yet another outstanding Molde Jazz 2010 performance will have to suffice.