Since 1997 when his album Khmer became an unexpected hit in the European jazz underground, Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer has become one of the busiest musicians on the Euro jazz circuit. ‘It’s luck,’ he claims. (This article first appeared in the August issue of Jazzwise and is reproduced by kind permission of the author)
27/07/2004 :: [Since 1997 when his album Khmer became an unexpected hit in the European jazz underground, Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer has become one of the busiest musicians on the Euro jazz circuit. ‘It’s luck,’ he claims.]
More like luck and a lot of hard work.
The 44-year-old road warrior has been touring his music since the album notched up over 100,000 sales, ‘Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Netherlands, Scandinavia, central Europe and down to Spain and we’ve even done the Far East – Japan, Taiwan Singapore and all this kind of stuff,’ he laughs. ‘It’s very important touring, I think so. I mean, just to get out there and play for an audience, play concerts, is very important in building a following for your music.’
With his latest album Streamer, you get to hear what audiences across Europe have been raving about. It’s the most powerful representation of his music yet, recorded live at the Jazz Happening in Tampere, Finland, and the Marquee Club, London
It’s an album that continues Molvaer’s journey into sound to realise his own distinctive musical voice. ‘It’s more like a different way of improvising,’ he says. ‘Jazz used to be a very American sound, very Afro-American, and people were trying to sound like that. But we were trying to take what was happening in Europe and Africa, sort of just put that in, and the classical, ambient and electronic things – just trying to grab hold of these things – these were the things I grew up listening to, things that I know.’
On stage, Molvaer is an enigmatic figure, not given to seeking the spotlight, and remains a shadowy presence even when he’s delivering one of his poignant, searching solos. ‘I think the idea of singing is important with an instrument. Instead of using a voice, I try to use the trumpet to have this singing quality,’ he says.
His middle register loneliness is in perfect contrast to Streamer’s ferocious grooves delivered by guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Auden Erlien, drummer Rune Arnesen plus DJ Strangefruit, who also mixed the album. ‘I felt very positive about the way the band worked,’ says Molvaer, ‘I got a lot of ideas from where the music took us when we played live, so it felt like an obvious next step to do the recording in this way.’
An album highlight is the musical understanding shared between Molvaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset, a relationship that dates back to their teens, ’There are some things which you might not think are guitar which are guitar!’ says Molvaer. ’He’s there a lot on Streamer – it’s all live. Basically we had to take them down, its not very much messed with except one track ’Hurry Slowly’ which uses live material but is sort of a re-mix. The rest of the tracks are as we played, although we had to edit some tracks for time considerations – down from 17 minutes to 11 minutes, these kind of things.’
It comes as no surprise that mixing acoustic and electric sounds has been one of Molvaer’s main interests since he began playing. ’I didn’t grow up playing jazz standards,’ he says. ’I started out with Miles Davis and grew up following developements Miles established from Bitches Brew to Agharta. I still love that music and what I do on Streamer is in some way connected to that part of the jazz tradition. But it also has some of the music I’ve been listening to ever since I was a kid.’
Born in Sula on the northwest coast of Norway in 1960, the son of a well known jazz musician, he played bass, drums and keyboards before finally deciding to study trumpet. ’Just looking back, the first thing I really remember that I got a great kick out of when I was maybe seven or eight was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,’ he laughs. ’And as I played the trumpet, I probably played my father to death with these records! Then I heard Bitches Brew when I was like 12, 13. But in between all this I was always into rock ’n’ roll things, like Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Hendrix and early Chicago – the first records of the band Chicago. I was into everything except traditional jazz, ”standards” jazz. Later I learned to like it, to listen to , I really enjoy it, but its not my thing, my voice, it’s not what I am about, even though I enjoy listening to it.’
On moving to Oslo, he quickly set about gaining as much experience as a musician as he could, playing in a variety of settings from the Norwegian Big Band Oslo 13 to small group work and playing in pit bands for the theatre. During this period he got to play three nights with drummer Elvin Jones. ’They put together a band and it was incredible,’ he recalls. ’Just being close to that nuclear reactor, so to speak! Even though he was getting old and he didn’t play that fast, or he didn’t play that loud either, he had an extreme beat. I’m talking aoubt playing slow and still making it swing in an incredible way. We played our things and standard things – it’s so many years ago I don’t remember what we played!’
Molvaer also counts playing with George Russell and Gary Peacock important experiences in his musical education. ’It was more in the straighthead jazz world with George Russell, that was part of a Scandinavian George Russell Big Band for one concert in Bergen. The other thing that musically made more an impression on me was playing with a Danish band with Gary Peacock on bass. Me and him did some free things and that was incredible. I felt enormous freedom to wander around and do what was there. And we ended up with a ballad, I think maybe, ”Peace”. That was at the end of the 1980s, something I will never forget.’
In 1982 he joined bassist Arild Andersen’s genre stretching group Masquelero where he remained for the 1980s. ’That was most important, my musical school,’ he says emphatically. ’I was playing in the National Theatre of Norway with Jon Balke. He said ”We’re going to have a gig with a trio, do you want to join in? It’s a gig in Kongsburg.” I said yes, we looked at some notes and stuff and played the first gig there and then we got together for 13 years. For me to play with these old guys – especially to play with Jon Christensen, the process of reacting to him, was a very, very learning experience. It was like ou had to stand on our own two feet, you can’t lean on anyone, you know? Sometimes it’s like someone grabs you from behind and lifts you up, so sometimes i could experience this and sometimes he didn’t play! And there you were, hanging there. You just had to learn how to deal with these things!
’For me this was an incredible experience, a very, very important part of my career and my musical training. We went int the direction of bringing folkloric things into the music in the end. We went into that at the end of the 1980s, it was basically Arild who started to collaborate with this singer and he had some themes we really liked and we improvised from there totally. It was more like instead of playing blues we played Norwegian folk music! Sort of messed it up a bit (laughs), playing around with it is what we did.’
But during his time with Masquelero, with whom he recorded three albums on the ECM label, Molvaer was also listening to a wide range of music. ’Ever since I started in Masquelero I was listening to a lot of different stuff from Brian Eno to Jon Hassell to Bill Laswell and when it came time to go out on my own I wanted to mix all these ideas,’ he says.
The jazz underground of Norway proved to be the ideal place for him to experiment. Compared to the rest of Europe, Norway is out on a limb, away from the ebb and flow of current jazz propriety and has done its own thing. It is a unique music scene where audiences are wide open to new ideas, once described by gilles Peterson as ’the most exciting place on earth to be.’
’It’s a very interesting scene,’ agrees Molvaer, ’there are so many things happening. It is not so hooked up to mainstream jazz like our close neighbours Sweden and Denmark. A lot of great American jazz musicians took up residence in both Sweden and Denmark, and developed a very strong mainstream jazz scene there but in Norway nobody came because it’s cold and rocky! In Norway it’s a different tradition. It started out with Manfred Eicher of ECM records developing the careers of people like Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christensen and Arild Andersen. So these people are our starting point, musicians who are known to experiment – our base is a different one to the rest of Europe.’
In the early 1990s, Molvaer joined bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr’s band, which included keyboard player Bugge Wesseltoft and drummer Audun Kleive. ’It was a bit Miles-like, more dark-heavy like the Live Evil feel to it,’ he says. ’But samples and things were also coming in. I also started working with DJs on the club scene in Oslo, I really liked that.’ In 1993 he started work on a project that would result in the album Khmer, his debut as a leader on the ECM label.
’I started to check out things in the studio and over time Khmer formed itself,’ he said. ’I did it with Ulf Holand, the sound engineer, when we didn’t have regular things we just went into the studio and worked on it when we had spare time.’ By this time Molvaer had already appeared on eight ECM albums, so it was only natural for him to approach ECM boss Manfred Eicher with his new project. ’I asked him if he was interested in hearing what I was doing and he said ”yes”, it was as simple as that,’ says Molvaer. ’I played some stuff for him at an early point and he said he liket it – said it needed a bit more focus, which was good advice as I was just checking out my ideas. Then I got a commission from the Vossa Jazz Festival to write a piece of music, so I thought I’ll do the commission like the record and vice versa.’
The festival commission allowed Molvaer to begin working on Khmer in earnest. ’We recorded an enormous amount of material in blocks of two days here, two days there,’ he says. ’The big job was to edit it. Then we sent the tape to Manfred, and he liked it.’ When it was released Khmer announced a new sound, the sound of the Norwegian jazz underground and opened the door for other Scandinavian musicians from Bugge Wesseltoft to the Swedish pianist Esbjørn Svensson to establish reputations across Europe.
The mix of jazz improv with the liberating potential of dance beats hit the right spot with European audiences and critics in 1997, leading to Molvaer’s nomination for the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize 2000 and several awards including the annual prize of German Record Critics, a Norwegian Grammy for Best Jazz Album and was even voted Jazz Record of the Year in the Los Angeles Times.
Khmer’s popularity extended beyond the normal jazz constituency to connect with young audiences and restored jazz’s lost link with the popular culture. At any given time, jazz has always reflected what was going on around it – in the 1920s no jazz band could escape without having to play the Charleston while jaz fans in the 1930s danced to the strain of the ’Jersey Bounce.’ This tryst with popular culture, making art out of pop, remained until the 1960s jazz-rock phenomenon had run its course.
When this link was undone in the 1980s with a return to the ’tradition,’ jazz suddenly seemed like a museum of past styles and tried and tested methods of articulation. ’Basically American jazz has become not very interesting,’ says Molvaer with genuine regret, as if an old and trusted friend had passed. ’There are a lot of good players, but are they forced to play that way? I don’t know. But for me, personally, I like Johnny Cash better than I do Wynton Marsalis. He’s a great player but he doesn’t move me. Johnny Cash moves me, you know what I mean?’
Khmer came at just the right moment, as European audiences began to get bored with the American sounds of yesterday and began looking around for something new and fresh. It was followed by Solid Ether in 2000, which was followed in 2001 by Recoloured – The Remix Album, a reworking of the Solid Ether tracks by the likes of Matthew Herbert, Bill Laswell and the Cinematic Orchestra.
In 2002 came NP3 which, while not as dynamic as Khmer or Solid Ether, explored the creative use of the new music manufacturing technology. ’For me the experience of meeting DJs, I would say was very important in helping me find my voice in music,’ says Molvaer. ’Their approach to music was something I felt was very inspiring. A very whole musical picture, but with jazz it’s often, ”Oh Jesus! Listen to how fast he plays, he can play all these chords!” And all of these things which was sort of important, but let’s see how he plays, is he saying something! It’s a very much more conservative and competitive thing, especially when you are younger, I think. So I’m not talking about the big masters now, I’m talking aobut people trying to play like Freddie Hubbard, or trying to play like Clifford Brown or Keith Jarrett or whoever. There’s a lot of good musicians, but they’re not ”personal” musician, it’s a bit like American society in a way, impersonal. Everybody should try and find their own voice – what to do you want to play? And what do you want to express And what do you want to do? And is this like a part of your personality and is it part of your inner voice? And for me that inner voice is not so jazzy, it’s different, I think.
’The reason for this difference is the culture – for me it was Jan Garbarek and what these people did in the 70s and 80s – not very American, they were the people I listened to a lot. Also playing with Jon Christensen, and a different kind of approach to American jazz, and then it sort of developed, and me and Bugge started these things. Now there’s loads of bands playing beautifully, and they also have different expressions, for instance Super Silent, or Crepe or Wibutee, or Audun Kleive, who is my age, but there is a culture here for doing things different, which in a way is the Norwegian culture!’
Molvaer’s music is relevant to its time. In years to come there will be no mistaking this as jazz of the new millennium. You listen with your body as well as your mind. You tap your foot, you move in time to the music and yes, dance even! That’s why Molvaer likes his audiences to stand. ’It’s not traditional mainstream jazz, so we prefer to have people stand, it’s very physical music, it works best that way,’ he says with a smile. Large-scale hedoism like this annoys the purists but Molvaer realises there is no future in the past and is experimenting with the sonic possibilities of tomorrow. ’We’re different to what is happeniing in America,’ he says.
And he’s right.