The first Molde Jazz Festival took place in August 1961, with a three day programme featuring many Norwegian artists, including Karin Krog, Laila Dalseth and Kjell Karlsen. The bill also featured American trumpeter Benny Bailey, giving it an International touch, since the organisers’ intent was clear from the start, to make the Molde Festival an international one. In 1960, two members of Storyville, a very active jazz club set up in 1953, in the heart of the small Norwegian city of Molde, Per-Inge Hansen and Otto Christian Saettem Junior, had been toying with the idea of putting on a festival. Known as the ‘city of jazz and roses’, Molde seemed the perfect place to launch a festival, and with its stunning scenery and outstanding beauty, it wasn’t long before the combination of great music and tourism opportunities combined to provide a showcase for the city. One could say that everything began in the early ’60s, but from a Norwegian point of view, this surely was their time to develop, certainly with their music, their own identity. The arrival of American musician and composer George Russell was a game-changer, not just for the development of Norwegian jazz, but also for the future involvement of American artists performing at Molde. Add to this the international prestige of the ECM record label, a beacon of light for Scandinavian artists through the ’70s and ’80s (and beyond, of course), and it’s clear to see why it didn’t take too many years for Molde to become one of Europe’s largest and most renowned jazz festivals.
By the summer of 1976, the festival had expanded into a truly international affair, featuring an impressive line-up, including Roy Haynes and his Hip Ensemble, Zoot Sims and Red Rodney Quintet, Jan Akkerman and Philip Catherine, and Eastern Rebellion, among others. Also on the bill was the only all Norwegian line-up to be featured this year; alto saxophonist Carl Magnus Neumann, pianist Christian Reim, bassist Bjorn Kjellemyr, and drummer Ole Jacob Hansen. Perhaps not particularly well-known outside of Norway (then or now), this exciting quartet had already been making waves in their native country for a good few years. The early repertoire of the band had begun with jazz standards and material in the Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano songbook. Soon though, it expanded with Christian Reim’s own original material. The pianist had experience in both popular music and jazz, through his previous bands as Dream, Bash, and his sextet, becoming well regarded for his musical diversity and composing skills. With a focus on simplistic yet effective melody, his ballads and lyrical qualities were becoming more and more noticed by audiences throughout Norway. Alto saxophonist Calle Neumann had a reputation for possessing huge amounts of energy whilst retaining impressive control of his tone on solos, ranging from the tender lyrical to the sheer powerplay. The group were by now developing their own trademark sound and when they performed at Kongsberg festival in 1975, one year prior to this live recording, many of the American musicians playing at the festival had heard positive reviews about the band and found their way to the gig, later praising the quartet for their ability to play complex melodies which required an almost perfect interplay, without losing the freshness and spontaneity that was the group’s trademark.
The “Nordic sound” that many listeners worldwide are familiar with today, didn’t just happen, it developed organically over a period of time. Pioneered by many Scandinavian jazz musicians throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the roots of this musical identity were being formed long before then. The pre-Nordic sound of the ’60s and ’70s was rooted in the post-bop tradition and gradually developed into a furtively melodic, lyrical and improvisational sound that became the hallmark of musicians like Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen and Arild Andersen et al. Even American pianist Keith Jarrett, with his ‘European’ Quartet championed this free-flowing style of Scandinavian/ European jazz. Two of my favourite albums of all time were from this era. Released on the ECM label in the ’70s, both were, and still are, magnificent albums. There’s a unique sound and feel captured on those 70’s recordings that still sounds so fresh and vibrant today. Jan Garbarek/Bobo Stenson Quartet’s “Witchi Tai To” and Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging”, also featuring Garbarek, Danielsson and Christensen, were outstanding albums that would still be in my top 10 even today. If you put this “Live at Molde” album on without knowing who the artists are, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Garbarek/Stenson/Jarrett from that period of time. The music here would fit nicely onto either of those two aforementioned albums, it’s that good. It’s like discovering one of the greatest albums of a favourite bygone era that you never knew existed. Pure gold.
The comparisons between Calle Neumann and Jan Garbarek are inescapable. Their alto sax playing shares a distinct edginess, a restlessness, and a keenness to explore new and ground-breaking musical territories, whilst still retaining a deftness of touch that is both sublime and beautiful. Neumann‘s soloing throughout this live album is impeccable; rousing, exciting, mesmerising and thought-provoking in equal measure. Together with pianist Christian Reim, whose gorgeous melodies and charismatic writing accounts for five of the six tunes on the album, the pair perform with a telepathic-like understanding, intuitively creating music that leaves me breathless. Bassist Bjorn Kjellemyr and drummer Ole Jacob Hansen are an integral part of the quartet, not just offering skilful and intelligent support, but also adding wonderful character and personality to the music. The two shorter pieces on the album, “Goodbye” and “Goodbye II” are exquisite. The melody dances with a joyous precision as Neumann and Reim share its spellbinding intricacies. It makes me wonder if the quartet ever expanded these tunes on any of their live performances. That would have been a mouth-watering prospect. The other four tunes on the album are all approximately ten minutes long, each tune giving time and space for all four musicians to explore and enjoy the music they are playing. “Hippie” is a firecracker of a tune, Neumann’s explosive playing sending out sparks of light, radiant and decadent. Reim’s piano bounces with delight, gleefully encouraging the bass and drums to drive this piece on. “Diplomatology” is a more thoughtful piece, more reflective in nature. As with all of their music, the quartet’s interaction is astounding, creating moods and atmospheres for fun. I get such a feeling of contentment listening to this, with Reim’s compelling piano solo drawing me in deeper and deeper to the heart of this fabulous piece of music. The more experimental “Den Fandenivolske” takes the listener on a heart-pumping journey, adventuring through a post be-bop landscape of floral jazz and dense forests, bringing you out on the other side, overlooking fjords and glades of natural beauty. This leads very nicely into Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”, a stunningly eloquent take on this timeless classic. The band are so together, the vibe is so cool, and the music is so beautiful. What more could we possibly ask for.
Now famous the world over, Molde Festival has gone from strength to strength through the last six decades, a remarkable achievement that has seen anyone who’s anyone in jazz performing there. There have been many important recordings documented along the way, with some exceptional live albums having been released by the likes of Arild Andersen, Chick Corea, Peter Brotzmann, Chicago Tentet, and indeed, Christian Reim’s own sextet whose album “Mona Lisa Suite” was also released on Jazzaggression Records earlier this year. You can now, most categorically, add this release to the very top of that list. “Live at Molde International Jazz Festival” is a fine example of this band in its prime. With all studio constraints absent and with the added atmosphere of the Lucullus club in Molde, producer Erling Wicklund captured a near-flawless performance on reel to reel tape. Remastered by Audin Strype, the vinyl sounds remarkably clean and precise, yet exuding a warmth and clarity that makes it the only high-quality recording that remains of one of Norway’s finest jazz quartets of the ’70s. A real gem of an album and one to savour for many years to come.