Nils Petter Molvær /Hare & Hounds/Birmingham 26 Feb 2010

Longtime Kings Heath residents like yours truly are still struggling to come to terms with the way in which former grothole  boozer ‘The Hare & Hounds’  has reinvented itself as the ‘pub du jour’  for all those bright young things who totter about on high heels (and that’s just the boys) on your average Birmingham Friday night – and let’s face it, most of them are….

The music booking policy also seems to have had a few shots of steroids as well, because whereas a couple of years back, the best we could hope for was a band where the bass player’s brother had once stood  next to Steve Gibbons in a queue in Asda, we are now getting a slightly more elevated calibre of artiste, darlings.  To be fair to the ‘H&H’, the main upstairs venue has always been a good room; an elevated stage so that everyone can see and decent sound, as well.

Even so, and despite this aspirational booking policy, I was somewhat gobsmacked to see that Birmingham Jazz had elected to put on Nils Petter Molvær’s latest trio in a venue more normally associated with folk & rock acts. 

These days, Nils Petter Molvær  has become almost an elder statesman of ‘nu-jazz’ or whatever you want to call it.  He has been around for quite a while – indeed the last time I saw him on stage was in Norway back in the late 80’s , when he was an integral part of Arild Andersen’s ‘Masqualero’ band.    Masqualero were fairly straight jazz , but it was the two solo albums  NPM made for ECM after Masqualero broke up that really created a stir. 

‘ Khmer’  & ‘Solid Ether’  both featured a revolutionary  mixture of  jazz, trip-hop and Scandinavian folk influences, delivered by an ensemble  that also first introduced the world to the considerable talents of  guitarist Eivind Aarset.  In a way, for ECM, these two albums were as ground-breaking as Keith Jarrett’s  ‘Köln Concert’  from some twenty-odd years earlier.  But Molvær soon grew discontented with the meagre pickings his ECM albums were bringing in – “I got tired of working hard just to give my music away, in exchange for a fairly low percentage cut. So I set up my own label, Sula records, which in effect was just a device to retain control of my own music. Since 2001 I have licensed my records to Universal. I am very content with this system as I am basically free to do whatever I want.” (Mic, Norway)

So far so good and through the 00’s NPM kept up a steady stream of releases that incorporated work with a new generation of Norwegian tyro musical prodigies (like Aarset) and dipped into remixing, soundtrack work and even live recording.  Throughout this process, the press have been generally supportive all over the world, but his 2010 release ‘Hamada’  has divided opinion.  Most people see it as a very ‘dark’ piece of work, even by Molvær’s standards.  After all ‘Hamada’ is Arabic for ‘death’ or the most inhospitable part of a desert.  Not one for the office party, then…..

Nils Petter Molvær; in a certain light, he looks just like Bryan Robson…..

Molvær is touring behind the new album with a stripped-down band comprising himself on trumpet and effects-heavy wordless (well, incomprehensible anyway)vocals, Stian Westerhus on guitar (sounding like a bass one minute and a harp the next) and Audun Kleive on drums and percussion.  Eivind Aarset is missed, but it is more the fact that a trio puts a bit of a strain on the available resources.  In previous bands, much of the sampling work was handled by Jan Bang, but now Molvær seems to be handling it himself in cahoots with the sound man, who was  effectively a  fourth member and whose name I didn’t catch. 

Unless my ears are deceiving me, much of the material seems to come from the ‘Hamada’ album, but it has all been welded into a continuous 90-minute set which I think was a bit of a mistake.  I think everyone; band and audience alike, would have profited from a few pauses to draw breath along the way.  As it is the music hovers like some strange dark bird over the room, vaguely menacing for much of its duration with only the occasional lighter moment.  Creatively and  technically it’s a tour-de-force but emotionally it’s unlikely to win hearts and minds.  NPM is on a journey and we are welcome to observe proceedings but this is a music where the audience is entirely a passive recipient; there is no banter and no acknowledgement until the end when a wave of applause stumbles a bit half-heartedly out into the light. 

It feels weird; a bit like applauding a piece of monumental sculpture or architecture.

I wrote a while back on here about another Norwegian trio (Tord Gustavsen’s) and how they had given a ‘recital’ which was more like a chamber music concert than a jazz gig.  In a strange way, there are parallels here, though instead of the Gustavsen Trio’s tinkling formality, here the audience are dazzled by the technology and the way the band deploys it.  The effect though, is not dissimilar – perhaps rather than a recital we should use the word ‘viewing’, because in some ways, the 90-minutes unveiled by Molvær and his three ‘assistants’  resembles nothing more or less than a huge Jackson Pollock-esque canvas of sound.

It’s jazz, Jim, just not as we know it…..

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