Norwegian Road Trip, Part 7: Molde Jazz, Days 5-6
It's been nine months since Terje Rypdal unveiled his new trio, with an old friend and a new one, at the 2009 Enjoy Jazz Festival. With Rypdal truly back after some physical problems, his performance there, and at Bergen's Natt Jazz Festival a few months earlierwhere he recorded the music for his latest CD, Crime Scene (ECM, 2010)the legendary Norwegian guitarist played better than he had in years; better, perhaps, than he ever had. Still, Rypdal's first performance with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Gerald Cleaver was not without its problems.
The biggest problem was that, despite everyone playing well, Rypdal seemed to be the one who was truly listening, with Vitous, in particular, seeming to compete for the spotlight in a group where collectivity should always transcend individual virtuosity. Nearly a year later, and with a couple of recent dates in Europe under its belt, rather than sounding like three people playing together, Rypdal, Vitous and Cleaver sounded like a band. There was plenty of solo opportunity for everyone, but there was a greater sense that everyone was truly listening.
There was also even greater energy, with Rypdal, in particular, playing as though his life depended on it. From the opener, which harkened back to Rypdal's days with The Chasers and albums like Chaser (ECM, 1985) and Blue (ECM, 1987), but with more fluid, less rock-centric support from Vitous and Cleaver. As part of the "big four," alongside saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen, Rypdal's playing has long defined the "Nordic Sound," though at this late stage it's hard to know if he actually evokes images of icy fjords or his playing has simply become associated with them by virtue of his living where he does. Learning that Rypdal lives, in fact, on an island in the fjord where Molde is situated, only furthers the feeling that his music is inexorably tied to the place where he lives.
But regardless of the "chicken and egg" question surrounding how Rypdal's music curiously contains both ice and fire, his playing at Kulturhuset was, quite simply, the best playing heard in yearsbetter, in fact, than anything since the mid-'80s, with the possible exception of his remarkable (and aptly titled) If Mountains Could Sing (ECM, 1995). Fingers flying around the frets, building ascending lines where he pushed his high-end notes even higher with equally ascending harmony notes on the lower strings of his Stratocaster, Rypdal seared, swooped and soared; his distinctive whammy bar-work and singing tone contrasting with densely distorted chords. Fed through a Marshall stack and his usual Vox AC-30, Rypdal's guitar seemed as always on the edge of harmonic feedback, which he controlled with masterful precision. Reckless abandon combined with absolute focus to create music that was visceral yet beautiful; lyrical yet angular; and absolutely exhilarating for the entire 90 minutes.
Vitous came with the orchestral sample library that he innovated in the 1980s, but his ability to trigger samples on material reprised from the Mannheim concert last year as well as on new compositions was even more seamless; his arco tone absolutely distinctive, with the occasional touch of wah filtered in; his pizzicato as rapid-fire as ever. But while it felt as though he was fighting, to some extent, with Rypdal at the Enjoy Jazz ECM 40th Anniversary mini-festival, here he played a more supportive role when Rypdal was at the forefront; pushing and pulling with the guitarist rather than vying for the spotlight.
Some of Vitous' best work can be found on ECMirrespective of his better-known albums as co-founder of fusion super group Weather Reportincluding albums like First Meeting (1980), Atmos (1992) and , of course, the two albums he recorded with Rypdal and drummer Jack DeJohnette: Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette (1979); and To Be Continued (1981). If this trio's Molde performance was any indication, in particular in its evolution towards a true group sound, then it absolutely needs to be recorded, although Rypdal explained, in a brief chat before the show, that first up will be an album where the guitarist has collaborated with the Hilliard Ensemble, soon to be heard in a reunion with Jan Garbarek on Officium Novum (2010).
Cleaver was also in better form than at his Mannheim performance, though his reliance on a very wet, heavily reverbed sound was sometimes excessive, removing much of the clarity, especially when he moved to mallets. But his ability to combine groove and rubato freedomeyes constantly on both Rypdal and Vitouscontributed to the sense of freedom with which the trio approached the music. Employing hand percussion on one song, he expanded the trio's audioscape while retaining an at-times cymbal-heavy approach that harkened back to Rypdal and Vitous' work with DeJohnette without imitating it.
But as strong as both Vitous and Cleaver wereand as much as they now seemed better in pursuit of a collective soundit was hard to deny Rypdal's position as star of the show. There's simply no other guitarist in the world who sounds like he does; combining a more expansive harmonic knowledge and unfettered sense of freedom with the kind of rock and roll edge that has turned him into a true icon on his instrument. There were a lot of eyes on Rypdal at Kulturhuset, and while there were plenty of non-guitarists (and non-musicians), it was obvious that a lot of aspiring players were in the crowd as well. Rypdal's performance will, no doubt, go down as one of Molde 2010's most thrilling individual instrumental performances; a true sign that the guitar icon is fully back, his creative juices thoroughly recharged and ready for anything.