Review: Conte/Andersen/Molvaer at LJF

Michael Tucker takes in the feel-good Paulo Conte, rhythmically fierce Arild Andersen and poetic Nils Petter Molvaer at LJF's opening weekend

The Guardian has called the LJF “one of the best jazz festivals in the world” and it would be hard to disagree. In its 21st year, the 2013 jamboree features what must be its broadest range yet of both artists and venues. And the festival atmosphere really seems to have taken over the major South Bank cluster of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room: when I went on the opening Saturday, a worldwide range of superior food stalls on the Waterloo side of the site were complemented by any number of alternative or niche outlets along the river walk, with a wealth of special lighting skeins spread high over everything to fabulous effect.

Given the option of the Alex von Schlippenbach trio with free jazz improvising legends Evan Parker and Paul Lovens in the Purcell Room, or the totally different, but equally legendary, Paolo Conte at the Festival Hall, I chose the first set from the latter before then making my way across to the QEH to hear Norwegian bass maestro Arild Andersen’s new quintet.

I’d heard and enjoyed the gruffly soulful, age-rinsed vocals of the characterful Conte many a time on record. But I wasn’t prepared for either the warmth of the tumultuous welcome which he got from the sold-out auditorium or the precision and variety of the light-touch charts delivered by his excellent 10-piece band. Crisply strummed echoes of Parisian Hot Club days, courtesy of the fine guitar trio of Nunzio Barbieri, Daniele Dall’Omo and Luca Enipeo, were complemented by in-the-pocket interaction from Jino Touche (chiefly on regular bass but sometimes switching to electric) and Daniele Di Gregorio (doubling on marimba). The disciplined yet highly atmospheric Romanticism of violinist Piergiorgio Rosso was but one arresting element in an often tango-touched session where accordion and bassoon fleshed out solo spots, as brief as they were effective, from a widely accomplished reeds section of Lucio Caliendo, Claudio Chiara and Massimo Pizianti. As for Conte: while a little of his (sensibly, occasional) noodling on kazoo goes far enough for me, I could listen night and day to his worldly-wise musings, accompanied by his own functional, sparely effective piano (although he too doubled on marimba).  
You could spend hours debating whether this was jazz for the 21st century, but one thing is sure: Paolo Conte and his band deliver 100% of the feel-good factor which, many a year ago, used to be such a key element in jazz entertainment. They play short but nonetheless consequential numbers – a refreshing feature of this concert which many a contemporary improvising jazzer might care to (but most likely will choose not to) take on board.

Entertainment and the feel-good factor were no less present, albeit in very different register, in a generous hour-and-a half set – featuring lucidly constructed and rarely over-long pieces, all of original material – from Arild Andersen’s new quintet. Andersen runs this group as an occasional supplement to the regular trio he has with Italian drummer Paolo Vinaccia and Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith (and which played a burning session at Ronnie Scott’s a couple of nights or so previously). Sometimes Andy Sheppard might be in the frame, and sometimes the trumpet player could be Paolo Fresu or Mathias Eick, depending on availability. For this concert, which opened with the haunting arco-led Reparate from Andersen’s forthcoming ECM album Mira, together with Smith Andersen brought the Swiss trumpeter and flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel, Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and French drummer Patrice Héral. Michel’s track record includes recordings with George Gruntz, the Vienna Art Orchestra, Susanne Abbuehl and Eivind Aarset. He stuck to flugelhorn throughout and impressed consistently with his tempered yet dynamically confident and essentially melodic phrasing: especially so given that this was his first performance with the group.

Héral’s connection with Andersen goes back well over a decade to exploratory recordings on ECM and Stunt Records. Throughout the set, their empathy and understanding were in plentiful evidence. Executed (on his new lion-crowned bass) with characteristic glee and sensuous commitment, Andersen’s dazzlingly fleet pizzicato lines elicited quicksilver response from a drummer who knows how to exploit the full dynamic range of his kit – and then some, courtesy of sensitively employed electronics and the zestful talent for Indian-inflected vocalizing which capped the closing number.  With modal and harmonic elements in the mix, Wasilewski offered rubato, up-tempo, and also funky lines (all on regular piano apart from one ostinato foray on keyboards) while Smith complemented an increasingly authoritative, practically sculpted lyricism on tenor (especially in the upper registers) with an affectingly folkish outing on shakuhachi flute. Music for grown-ups with open hearts and minds, the melodically appealing, dynamically sensitive and sometimes rhythmically fierce concert went down a storm with a full house which included Andersen’s old playing partner, drummer John Marshall.

There was another full house for the Friday night solo concert given by Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer (pictured), Andersen’s running mate in the Masqualero band of the late-1980s and 1990s. This took place in Hall One at Kings Place – the excellent venue just around the corner from Kings Cross Station, which apart from its year-round and world-class music programme features visual art exhibitions in both its generous atrium spaces and a gallery: the night before this opening concert, Molvaer played a beautiful, air-limned solo melody at the opening of a superb exhibition of paintings by his compatriot Ørnulf Opdahl.

The concert was the opening one of three here at the weekend specially devised for Molvaer by presenter Fiona Talkington – of Late Junction fame and a long-time supporter and promoter of avant-garde Norwegian music across and beyond the genres. With its characteristic tendency to the fragmentary, Molvaer’s haunting sound and spacious, poetically cast and practically filmic phrasing were complemented judiciously on occasion by treated samples of post-Techno rhythm and industrial sounds. For me, this would have been riches enough: as I remarked to Molvaer afterwards, his sound is so beautiful that one’s immediate response on hearing it is to close one’s eyes in appreciation. However, the hour-long concert also featured the established Norwegian video artist Tord Knudsen, with whom Molvaer has worked for many years.

While I enjoyed some of their work together on the 2002 DVD Molvaer Live, an hour of Knudsen’s high-keyed, pattern-dominated work with live video projection and heavily sequenced programming – screened large to complement Molvaer’s stage presence – was for me distinctly surplus to requirements. However, overall the audience greeted music and imagery alike with seemingly unqualified enthusiasm, auguring well for Molvaer’s subsequent concerts with the Hilde Marie Kjersem Band, Spin Marvel and Jan Bang.

Photography by Joerg Grosse Geldermann

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