In the early hours of Sunday 19 July the last notes of the Molde International Jazz Festival died away after six days and nights of celebrating jazz, from traditional New Orleans music with the stylistically sure-footed Cotton Club septet from Britain to Nils Petter Molvær’s international techno-ambient success Khmer.
Between these extremes, the 38th edition of the MIJF offered American attractions such as the Michael Brecker Quartet, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, the Phil Woods Big Band, Tribute to Ella featuring Milt Jackson and others, David Murray’s Speaking in Tongues and the Brian Blade Fellowship. From closer to home came Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, his countrymen Knutsson, Berger and Spering and the Esbjörn Svensson Trio with singer Viktoria Tolstoy, the Finnish Trio Töykeät and Dutchman Hans Dulfer. From Mongolia came throat-singer Sainkho Namtchylak. As usual, the festival attracted a selection of Norway’s finest jazz musicians and everyone contributed towards a festival vintage that deserves to be called successful, even if it was not one of the very best.
Having taken place every year since 1961, the MIJF is one of the world’s oldest festivals of its type. With its six days, 350 professional artists, 150 amateurs, 120 events of which 50 are free of charge, 18 stages and more than 30,000 tickets sold, it is the biggest of Norway’s approximately fifteen annual jazz festivals and fills the little town of Molde (pop. about 25,000) on the west coast of Norway between Bergen and Trondheim to bursting point every year. Some 80,000 day visitors during the festival add to Molde’s definitely carnival air, a success that has nevertheless required time to mature.
Only after many years of scepticism did Molde’s population learn to accept and subsequently support the festival with enthusiasm and pride.
To Norwegians, Molde, whose rose-filled town centre was bombed to smithereens by German aircraft during World War II, is still “The City of Roses”. These days it is also known as the home town of our current Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, a good football team, and its owner, super-capitalist Kjell Inge Røkke, who has given Molde Norway’s most impressive football stadium. Internationally, however, the jazz festival is the town’s best known visiting card. Six hundred volunteers annually work 30,000 unpaid hours at the festival, which is Norway’s biggest annual cultural event (after the Bergen International Festival) with an estimated turnover in 1998 of some USD 1.76 million. In 1988, the MIJF received USD 0.3 million in central and regional government support, USD 0.28 million in sponsorship revenues and about USD 0.82 million in ticket sales. In addition come revenues from the sale of festival effects, including 15,000 T-shirts.
American artists have played a dominant role at the Molde festival over the years. Several of them, such as Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Ralph Towner, first came as relatively unknown young musicians; others, like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Eubie Blake, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis came as established stars.
In recent years, the festival has also invited popular rock’n roll stars to play at outdoor concerts for up to 8,000 people. These concerts subsidise the “pure” jazz programme, which mainly takes place in smaller venues with low ticket prices. The Blues Brothers Band, Little Feat and Bob Dylan are among the non-jazz musicians who have played at the festival, thereby arousing criticism from those who regard the advent of rock at jazz festivals as artistic dilution and surrender to commercialism.
At this year’s festival, guitarist Carlos Santana and his band played the first part of the opening concert. Santana had previously told a Norwegian newspaper that he wanted to give the whole of Molde an orgiastic experience, but the concert contained neither enough potency nor sufficient musical Viagra to fulfil the Woodstock hero’s ambition. The audience experienced far more nerve, power and soul when Herbie Hancock and his reunited 1970s band, The Headhunters, revitalised funk/fusion music in the latter part of the concert.
The productive tenor saxophonist David Murray and his gospel-meets-jazz project Speaking in Tongues was responsible for the next day’s main concert. With the instrumental quintet and the Deep River Gospel Choir, Murray gave a concert that enraptured some of the 1,500 people in the Molde sports hall. However, the concert discomfited others, who found the preaching intrusive and the musical content mediocre. On the other hand, A Tribute to Ella the following day, with stars such as Milt Jackson, Frank Foster, Kenny Barron and John Faddis received almost unanimous praise. Incidentally, the same evening 75-year-old Milt Jackson and the much younger Kenny Barron (who replaced heart patient Tommy Flanagan) gave an impressive duo concert for 150 devoutly listening fans.
Most controversial was the concert with the US trio Painkiller (alto sax rebel John Zorn, electric bass guru Bill Laswell, metal drummer Mick Harris). Previously announced as “the hippest from New York”, Painkiller played louder than anyone before them at Molde, drove many out of the hall, and sounded to everyone except the hard core of fans (who got the message) like excruciatingly noisy primal screams.
After several visits, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker is a sure favourite at Molde and for many people two gigs featuring Brecker, Joey Calderazzo (p), James Genus (b) and Ralph Peterson (dr) in the legendary basement club, Alexis, was the musical high point of the festival. The American Brian Blade Fellowship, headed by the young drummer Brian Blade, also made many friends in Molde after two concerts of melodious jazz, good improvisation and an original sound. The Phil Woods Big Band and the Soul Survivors did sound club gigs.
The music predominates, but the MIJF offers other experiences than packed clubs and night-time concerts. The day begins at 10 a.m., when the daily New Orleans-inspired street parade starts from the festival hotel, the Alexandra, and swings through the main streets to the city square in front of the town hall and the cathedral. There, overlooking the Romsdal Fjord and a fantastic panorama of eighty-seven snow-clad mountain tops, international artists and national and local amateurs and professionals perform from midday until 5 p.m. each day. The concerts are free of charge but the musicians are paid and the festival spends USD 65,000 on this attraction.
On warm, sunny festival days, the area around the stage is a milling throng in the middle of the day and some of the festival veterans caught up in the crowd probably long back to the 1960s and the first, far more peaceful festivals. At that time, queues were something the organisers could only dream of but, on the other hand, the intimate festival atmosphere was highly appreciated by international jazz celebrities who, until 1972, had to be transported on day-long journeys to and from airportless Molde by train, bus and boat or by seaplane from neighbouring towns.
Although the festival is still an informal event, those innocent times are long gone. However, even for the big festival of today, the goal of arranging an open, unbureaucratic event still holds and, not least for this reason, Dexter Gordon’s comforting words to nervous organisers before the arrival of a “difficult” countryman in 1964 are inscribed in gold in festival history: “Take it easy. The atmosphere will get him”.
Dexter was right, of course, and twenty-five years later, ahead of his seventh visit to Molde (he has been there even more times since then), guitarist John Scofield gave the following testimonial in an interview with the undersigned:
“Do you know what makes the Molde Festival unique for me? The people. It’s the only festival where I get to know people and feel I meet them again year after year. Jazz people from all over Norway come for their festival, and I feel that I have become involved in it, that I have friends and acquaintances I meet again. Very few festivals are social events, they are all about money and big business and you seldom meet the same organisers two years running. But in Molde, with Alexandra night spot, the people I meet during the day – all this makes the Molde Festival unique.”
Young Norwegian jazz:
The MIJF has been running an active recruitment and jazz education programme among young people for many years, arranging courses and workshops led by well-known Norwegian and international musicians. This year, the Festival also took part in a national project with three other festivals, the umbrella organisation Norwegian Jazz Forum and the government-run concert tour organiser the Norwegian Concert Institute to select the “Young Jazz Musician of the Year”. Forty bands were heard by the jury, the four best ones being given exposure at the Molde Festival, and the trio Urban Connection was ultimately awarded the title. The prize consists of a major tour, totally in accordance with the purpose of the competition, which is to give the best young musicians a chance to show what they can do to a larger audience with a view to establishing a professional career.
Of the established Norwegian artists, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær was the most visible during the ’98 festival. Between concerts in the USA, Canada and Europe, he did four gigs at Molde; firstly at a modern house/breakbeat seance with Norwegian DJs and musicians and then at a “virtual stage” concert, where Molde was linked to the New York club The Knitting Factory via five ISDN lines and giant screens. Molvær played with guitarist Terje Rypdal, el-bass player Bill Laswell and the Brazilian DJ Soulslinger in Molde, while Hill Green (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums) were in New York. The result of the hour-long concert was probably more a feeling of “OK, so it’s possible” than a musical highlight.
On the other hand, Molvær’s two last performances, Khmer, known from the international CD release on ECM and a subsequent re-mix for clubs and dancing were certainly highlights. From its beginning as a commissioned piece for Vossa Jazz (another Norwegian jazz festival) in 1996, Khmer has developed into a powerful audio-visual experience but still has Molvær’s minimalist jazz trumpet as the vital nerve in the sometimes overwhelmingly techno-based rhythmic groove. For the moment, Khmer’s success shows no sign of abating, thus making Nils Petter Molvær another international Norwegian jazz name in the wake of Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Karin Krog, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen.
After a week of music, art exhibitions, theatre and ballet, sun, rain and lively but wallet-shrinking beer sales, the ’98 festival ended with the French band Gipsy Kings. Again it was a fairly programmatic outdoor affair in front of 5,000 people, so the strongest musical impressions from the final day were provided by the fine Canadian trumpeter Kevin Dean and his quartet of Norwegian hardbop veterans, by poet Jan Erik Vold with a hand-picked Swedish-Norwegian band, and by the many young musicians who tested their skills with the festival’s excellent jam backing group, incidentally an important tradition that the festival has continued, and which in its time provided Jan Garbarek, amongst others, with his first opportunity to play with foreign musicians.
The most heated debate of the festival concerned the Cuban women’s band Canela which, with choreography, costumes and curves, aroused the enthusiasm of those who find the visual aspect of music the most interesting. Others muttered “scandalous” and maintained that the band would have been better suited as a show at a flashy night club. However, we cannot avoid pointing out that a queue of fiery admirers, exclusively men, lined up to get into the ladies’ dressing room after the show and, for some, the ’98 version of the Molde International Jazz Festival will be remembered as “the year Canela was in town”. Others have cleared their heads and are looking forward to the ’99 festival.