I first saw Norway’s Hedvig Mollestad-Thomassen about seven years ago in the power trio that brought her to the attention of European jazz fans and won her multiple prizes. On this new album, she’s doubled up and expanded to a sextet. It’s a positive step.
Derived from a 2018 commission, Ekhidna sees Mollestad changing things up – no bass, two Rhodes pianos, a trumpet, and an extra oomph of power. On drums she’s brought in Torstein Lofthus, backed up by Ole Mofjell on percussion. Marte Eberson and Erlend Slettevoll on the Rhodes beef up the tone palette. But it’s Susana Santos Silva on trumpet who is the perfect secret spice in this particular mix. Her acoustic smoothness combines well with the rasp of Mollestad’s electric guitar.
Opener No Friends But The Mountains is sparse and unadorned, like the landscape of Mollestad’s home country, with Silva’s trumpet the swooping sea eagle over the calm fjord of Mollestad’s chord choices.
A Stone’s Throw has an opening riff that would put many rock bands to shame, and the twin guitar/trumpet attack is sonically exhilarating amid the percussive onslaught of Lofthus’ drums; listen carefully and there are plenty of wonderfully obtuse chord and note choices that skirt progressive rock, blues, metal, jazz and all points in between.
On Antilone, Mollestad channels Iron Maiden for a spiky opening riff that is a helter-skelter race to the finish once the drums and keyboards join in, with Silva’s trumpet providing anguished yelps amid the wonderful cacophony until, about a minute in, calm breaks out, and the keyboards fill in with softer vibes and the track matures. The fastest track. The biggest high.
Slightly Larger, ironically, has a much smaller sound. This is Mollestad at her most introspective, picking out a simple melody over soft Rhodes piano chords. It stands in stark contrast to all that goes before it, and is the better for it. Serving the same purpose as a drinks break at a tennis match, it gives you a moment to pause and sets you up for the exertions to come.
There’s a defiantly, unapologetically rocky opening to title track Ekhidna, its grungy riffs conjuring a mid-90s vibe. The listener suffers a mixture of sharp and blunt trauma from the guitar and Lofthus’ drums. Silva’s super trumpet solo over the drums just goes on and on like a rampaging racehorse crashing through the fences. Lofthus kicks seven bells out of its drums on this barnstorming track which doubtless would be any gig opener.
The Ekhidna, apparently, is a figure from Greek mythology, half woman, half snake. Judging by this track, its bite is deadly. Jazz rock is its natural habitat, evidently.
Last track One Leaf Left starts off as a barefoot walk through a Nordic forest, a calming exploration of a simple four-note depending riff, before descending into a harder groove and some super-concussive sounds from Mofjell. Wolves around every corner, no doubt.
Progressive jazz is in rude health as long as musicians like Mollestad’s continue to create such textured music and give praise to the almighty gods of melody.