Live review

Nils Petter Molvaer at Ronnie Scott’s (EFG LJF 2021)

Nils Petter Molvaer
(Ronnie Scott’s. 17 November 2021. EFG LJF. Review by Rob Mallows)

Nils Petter Molvær in 2019. Photo credit Tore Sætre / Creative Commons

This was a very Norwegian gig.

Sure, there were three Norwegian musicians on stage. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer,  drummer Erland Dahlen and bassist Jo Berger Myhre. But what I mean was this was a showcase for why Norway is, in my book right now, the tops for jazz – and in particular, it’s more esoteric, uncomfortable cousin: electro-acoustic jazz. If it were competing in a bicycle race with other jazz hotspots for creativity bragging rights, Norway would be so far ahead of the pack that it could put its legs on the handlebars and coast over the winning post.

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This was music of brooding intensity, arch and angular, as foreboding and powerful as the worst thunderstorm but lit up by bright flashes of creative brilliance. And by four of the most powerful, and colourful, stage lights I’ve ever seen on this hallowed stage.

It wasn’t a gig for the jazz purists. There was more technology and pedals here than you could shake a stick at, so anyone expecting an everyday trumpet trio gig was disappointed – and I could see, from a scan of the two-thirds full Ronnie Scott’s (it was the early sitting, so fair do’s) that there were a few punters thinking, “What on earth is this?”

What it was was contemporary jazz after a whisky chaser. A slow motion explosion of adulterated sound and gorgeously rounded melodies, unadorned by trills, edging forwards like the relentless nose of a glacier before crashing into the ocean. It was pulsating, edge-of-the-seat stuff (though, ironically, Molvaer was sat down most of the time).

The secret? The laptop and mixing board on a small table next to Molvaer. Not to be left out, Dahlen and Myhre too had with them enough dials and switches to keep an amateur radio enthusiast twiddling away for days on end. Electronics, baby. This was a showcase for what it can do when done well.

Throw in bouts of sheer improvisation – you could see the rictus expression on Myhre’s face when he thought to himself, “Ooh, how about this” – and you had something very special. No sound was weird enough that it couldn’t be tweaked a little further, or more delay added to make it sound just that bit more urgent.

The underlying music was already special. Ornament it with the gifts from the gods of electronica, and you make it extra special. The band revelled in their electronic idyll, squeezing every pulse and electron out of their wave generators to create harmonies that just sat and glowered, and melodies that kept coming back and back, across numerous tracks (most weren’t named), because they’re worth repeating. 

The rhythm section was so good that, had Molvaer left after the first number to nip down to Sainsbury’s to get a few things he’d forgotten from the weekly shop, I’d have been just as happy watching Myhre and Dahlen play for the rest of the set.

I knew from when I first clapped my eyes on the not one, not two, but three ships bells hanging like brass ornaments above Dahlen’s stool that the rhythms we’d hear would be anything but standard. From the slowest, barely-there brush work on the first, slow track to the machine-gun precision on the snare and toms and the whimsical gamelan-like percussion, Dahlen had a rhythm and sound for every occasion.

Myhre’s electric bass playing was exciting, on-the-edge stuff, and his frequent use of the bow was an unusual touch which provided welcome colour. So exact were his fingerings, his desire to stretch each chord tone that bit further to create a more interesting idea, it was like watching a surgeon at work.

I was so entertained by these two that it was easy to forget Mr Molvaer. 

His has a slow, languid style – in a jazz particle universe, he would be an anti-Randy Brecker – but what it lacks in vim it makes up for in sheer expressive width, with each minor modulation, each whisper into the horn played back through his laptop, becoming a flowing soundscape of goose-bump inducing grandeur.

It was a cathartic, almost draining experience, as you had to listen so intently to hear what the music was trying to say. It was bleak, too, at times, like a Norwegian night-time without the aurora borealis.

But what an experience!

LINK: Nils Petter Molvaer’s website

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