Full of scat: Visitors inspire locals to be extra expressive – on stage and off – during this year’s Polarjazz fest

polarjazzopenbarentsburg

Which is worse: being a local who’s totally owned by an intruder during an on-stage jam or being an intruder who’s drowned out by the locals?

Both…neither…actually, it’s not really an answerable question given the nature of the world’s northernmost jazz festival.

The notable lack of jazz at a festival supposedly featuring the genre is hardly unique here, but over the years Polarjazz has become as much a social gathering as a musical one. Longyearbyen residents found themselves extra expressive at this year’s five-day festival that ended Sunday, although at times that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

HakonSkogErlandsen2

Håkon Skog Erlandsen, foreground, plays a tenor sax solo during a concert with the local jazz quintet SvaJazz at Kroa on Saturday afternoon during this year’s Polarjazz festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The verbosity of local bands got a huge boost from tenor saxophonist Håkon Skog Erlandsen of Tromsø, although his schooling included a deliberate shaming of the Longyearbyen Big Band as its temporary leader that was accepted in good humor by the players and patrons (aside from any unspoken chagrin about solos that didn’t match up).

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said afterward. “Learning to improvise, getting the sheets off the stands.”

Defining the purpose of Polarjazz

Less amusing for many was the amount of chatter among the crowd during the more nuisanced featured concerts – most notably Norwegian folk singer Ingebjørg Bratland, who at one point asked a Friday night crowd of about 600 people to pipe down if they wanted her to play. The request touched off a fierce debate, largely on social media, about what kind of festival Polarjazz, now in its 19th year, is supposed to be.

“I cannot believe people have to buy concert tickets to enjoy themselves and talk as much as they please,” wrote Anne Lise Sandvik, a longtime community activist who initiated the debate on a Longyearbyen community Facebook page. “That’s bad manners toward the artists and bad manners for those who actually paid to be at the concert – and who take their chatter to somewhere else appropriate.”

polarjazzbratland

Ingebjørg Bratland, a Norwegian folk singer, performs a ballad Friday night at Kulturhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Socializing gets nearly equal time with music during the three main nights of the festival, with two or three concerts of an hour or slightly more each night interspaced with breaks almost as long. Some of the Facebook respondents argued the festival is at heart a large social gathering and the music is diverse enough people may end up paying various amounts of attention to it depending on their interests – and in any event complaining about others talking is a classic first-world problem.

“That people are talking to each other just means that people enjoying themselves and having fun,” wrote Thomas Nilsen, a local janitor who’s worked as a photographer and journalist – and is the bassist for the local jazz quintet SvaJazz. “Be rather grateful for the creation of a joint meeting point where everyone can meet and have fun. And it seems that if there is so much noise you can well stay home to listen to artists through their works.”

Lasse Hansen, the festival’s longtime director, said a middle ground exists, agreeing it’s odd to pay lots of money to chat rather than listen and it’s disrespectful to be a distraction during concerts with more subtle music. But he also noted conversation was much more noticeable in certain portions of Kulturhuset, the venue for the main shows, such as the second-floor balcony where the stage sound system didn’t reach as effectively.

In addition, shifting the main venue last year to Kulturhuset – which has space for about 600 people and better acoustics compared to the 400-person dining/gathering room at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel used in prior years – means while there are more people, there’s also the cafe in the lobby people can gather in to chat while still being able to hear what’s on stage.

A different character every day

But trying to define Polarjazz with a singular purpose is probably inherently flawed because every night of the festival features unique characteristics that have become a tradition over the years. Plus, as Hansen put it, it’s “a festival that just was started to get people out and having fun, and at the same time fill (empty) seats and hotel rooms” just before the traditional peak tourism season ramps up.

“Being ‘backstage’ with all participants and artists…the overall comments to us are positive from year to year because people get some of their favorite artists and some they don’t like, some which suprise and some jazz,” he observed. “I guess that sums it up for the most of us.”

The festival debuted in 1998 and has since taken place every year in late January or early February, just as a few hours of bright twilight are returning to Longyearbyen after the polar night. That enables visiting musicians and listeners to sightsee on snowmobiles, dogsleds and skis between gigs, if they can brave elements such as strong winds and temperatures that can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Not surprisingly, such “tour riders” are enough to lure well-known musicians from Norway and neighboring countries, often at discounted fees, while the stuff on conventional “riders” demanding things like “no green M&Ms” tend to get tossed in the overall spirit of rugged informality.

But the remote setting and extreme elements can also present unique challenges for the musicians – one of the most infamous incidents during the first festival we attended involved a bass player whose instrument essentially exploded when he left it outside.

The original intent was to focus primarily on jazz but, as with so many other festivals with that four-letter word in their titles, was forced to shift to more popular rock, blues, folk and other acts to lure enough listeners to be financially viable.

polarsoundboard

Soundboard engineers perform equipment tests before a series of evening performances at Kulturhuset during Polarjazz. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The festival opens on a Wednesday with the vorspiel (English translation: foreplay), featuring two or three hours of one- or two-song mini-sets by local musicians at whatever the main venue happens to be. Aside from the headliner shows on Friday and Saturday night, it’s the most heavily attended event of the festival and almost certainly the one that indisputably is both about listening and socializing.

This year’s “variety show” held true to form, including featuring some of the “purist” jazz of the festival from the local big band and the year-old SvaJazz quintet, both of whom performed full concerts during the festival’s subsequent days.

Among the most popular and lively bands was a popish group from the Russian community of Barentsburg that traveled 60 kilometers by snowmobile for the gig – and had a maniacal amount of stage presence energy despite (or because of) the long and bitterly cold trip.

Of course, the usual assortment of instrumental and vocal performances by local students – some more talented than one might expect in an tiny isolated Arctic wasteland community, thanks in part to having a highly successful commercial pianist/singer as one of their music teachers – got some of the loudest applause. (Full disclosure: the writer of this diatribe dared to judge the local teens by his global standards at his first Polarjazz eight years ago when he was working for a jazz magazine/website and hasn’t lived down his sometimes unkind remarks since).

But it was two moments – one comic (in retrospect, at least), one tragically painful – where the music was an afterthought at best that most captivated the audience.

The comic moment came when Hansen, fulfilling his role as MC, got up to introduce an act, took an errant step and suddenly vanished from view with loud crash. He reappeared maybe 30 seconds later after the expected deluge of people tried to reach the stage to assist/gawk, sporting a hugely pronounced limp he would walk with the rest of the festival thanks to a sprained knee ligament. Despite the pain, he fulfilled his hosting duties, as well as his role as the drummer for SvalJazz and the local big band.

“I do not think it was for the good of the knee,” he told Svalbardposten after the festival.

husbypolarjazz

Longyearbyen bluegrass band Blåmyra performs a two-song set in remembrance of Atle Husby, a band member killed in the Dec. 19 avalanche, at the end of the vorspiel show at Kulturhuset. Photo couresty of Blåmyra.

The painful moment came at the end as the local bluegrass band Blåmyra took the stage for a short set in remembrance of Atle Husby – a multi-instrumentalist who played mandolin for the group who was killed in the massive Dec. 19 avalanche that also killed a two-year-old girl and destroyed 11 homes.

Purist thrill

For whatever reason, Thursday now seems to be the main night mostly likely to feature “real” jazz – and the least attended. The duo of guitarist Ulf Wakenius and bassist Per Mathisen, both acclaimed Norwegian jazz musicians, was billed by Hansen as a “who-knows” gig likely to feature as much funk as jazz. But what listeners got was unquestionably the best gig of the festival if they were among those into the musical one-percenter genre.

polardrummerjazz

Utsi Ziming engages in a drum solo during a concert Thursday night at Polarjazz. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The only real flaw was a harsh and overly dense soundboard mix (not uncommon if bands use their own people after flying up the same day, which tends to distort one’s hearing). Wakenius, the legend with the most longevity, showed more than competent flair vamping styles from Wes Montgomery to early Pat Metheny (kinda necessary when playing hits of the latter like “Bright Size Life”), while mixing in plenty of his own snippets in phrases running the gauntlet from swing to rock. But it was the non-featured performer, drummer Utsi Ziming, who said he joined the two more famous musicians a year ago, who clearly was the most emotive and seemed to be having the most fun on the stage.

The evening’s second – and much more attended show – was by Sondre Lerche, a hugely popular Norwegian rock singer/instrumentalist. Energetic and entertaining, no doubt, but his best work during the festival, perhaps not surprisingly, came during smaller and more intimate shows before a few dozen people afterward at the Longyearbyen Youth Club on Friday and in a community room in the international research community of Ny-Ålesund about 110 kilometers northwest of Longyearbyen on Saturday (where drummer Dave Heilman’s “kit” consisted of makeshift items like a bucket, a coffee mug and firewood).

polarnyalesund2

Sondre Lerche and other members of his band perform a Polarjazz concert Saturday in Ny-Ålesund. Photo courtesy of Polarjazz.

“This has been an ongoing thing within the band, really since we started playing together five years ago,” Lerche told Svalbardposten after the gig in the tiny international research community. “Especially my drummer is pushing for a lot of things and one of the things he has wanted was to go to Svalbard. So they have had a campaign and asked me, ‘is it this year, will it be this year,’ but it had to fit with the bookings and my own schedule. Now we have half a year free and thought that we will take a little break from the break.”

Friday night – featuring Lerche’s gig that engaged the local teens perhaps even more than the previous night’s crowd, plus the instantly infamous folk concert by Bratland – didn’t register to your average jazz fan (or at least the editor of this fishwrapper, who’s been covering that music scene globally for kind of a while now). That said, Bratland possesses a seriously emotive talent for her craft, which may explain her discouragement when folks clutching beer cups decided they had other things higher on their social agenda.

The second act, the nearly 40-year-old pop/funk band D’Sound – whose bass beat is exactly what the name suggests – probably was just fine for what they delivered, but our “what’s Top 40?” editor is in no position to judge.

Meeting the meat

Saturday is the ultimate day when Polarjazz gets real, whatever that reality may be. It debuted this year with a children’s concert at noon by the satirical folk band Lyriaka in Kulturhuset’s cafe – always a safe place to let restless tots go wild – with an opening song whose chorus (in Norwegian) sounded remarkable like “made a fart.” We, of course, will assume that was purely coincidental. But what really scored was several numbers where they performed songs with lyrics written by local young’uns at a workshop only a day or two before.

polarjazzkidsconcert

Lyriaka, a children’s folk band, performs one of several songs Saturday at the Kulturhuset cafe fearturing lyrics written by Longyearbyen School students. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“We tell them about experiences in our lives that were sometimes hard and their words come from that,” said Øyvind Gravdal, a saxophonist/singer who’s the group’s co-founder, noting they have done numerous similar projects with schools throughout Norway and an album of the best compositions is scheduled for release within a few months.

After a jazz-free Friday it was again up to the locals, with an assist from Erlandsen’s tenor sax wizardry, to prevent a two-day shutout. Given that the coffeehouses (all two of them) don’t open until 10 a.m., it’s not surprising the biggest lunch crowds start showing up around 1 p.m. Which is when a “jazz lunch” featuring SvaJazz was scheduled at Kroa (probably the best something-for-everyone eatery here to you outsiders). True the expectations, the gig itself didn’t start until the players has time to feed themselves, if that’s what they were doing. But the set of classic swing was tight, if not daring. Vocalist Elisabeth Gjelsteen Einas tends to dominate the stage with her “cheery thin blonde in tight red dress” presence, but she’s also got a decent range that works better in the alto realms than those surrounding it. Erlandsen, of course, dominated the solos with his diamond-hard tone (for you true freaks, he plays a specialized Yamaha YTS82Z tenor with a metal mouthpiece custom shaved by an NYC specialist; it says nothing good about our editor – who had to sell his lesser alto axe a year ago so you could read this – when that’s the thing he discussed most with the musician). But the others truly represent the best of the local improvisation scene and trumpet player Hans-Gunnar Skreslett – the coolest vice principal you never had – notably made his mark as a guy able to sit in on any session without, as Miles put it, getting his ass kicked and tossed on the street due to not having the chops.

polargruv

Numa Edema, center, and Nikolai Grasaasen perform Saturday evening at Gruvelageret. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A bit later, at 5 p.m., came the gig that showed off Svalbard in all of its everyday improvisational glory. Matilda, the scheduled band, had to cancel a couple days before when its lead former became ill. Polarjazz organizers brought up Numa Edema, who we’ll call an acoustic rock/folk singer, on very short notice. Whatever he might be elsewhere, his stripped-down gig with guitarist Nikolai Grasaasen at Gruvelageret (a recently restored mining shack from long ago) easily ranked among the best non-jazz sets of the festival. Seriously, it reminded us of everything we love about almost any musical genre not buried an avalanche of commercialism caution – loose, playful and aware of the audience while at the same time just saying on the spur-of-the-moment “f*** it, we’ll just play what’s fun.” Alas, only about 70 people were able to squeeze into the room – many of whom arrived after a kilometer-long hike by torchlight from Huset, where a bus dropped them off since the “road” beyond is more suited for snowmobiles than family sedans.

polarsundfor

Sofia Jannok sings political protest songs against a snowy video backdrop Saturday night at Kulthurhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Saturday night is typically a blowout night with three concerts instead of two – not to mention the after-hours jam session (they happen every night, but this when you’re most likely to get the most stars) at some pub that goes well into the wee hours of Sunday. And this year’s lineup delivered – if you weren’t a fan of Miles or Medeski, Martin and Wood.

Sofia Jannok delivered a powerful rock/folk show Svalbard residents could certainly relate to thanks to a background video screen showing various wintry scenes, including one showing trees being felled during a song protesting placing entreprenuers above the environment. That was immediately followed by a short a capella joik, in keeping with her Swedish-Sami heritage and campaign against mining on land used by Sami reindeer herders.

polarsundfor

Susanne Sundfør lights up the stage during a pop/electro concert Saturday at Kulturhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Susanne Sundfør, a three-time Norwegian Grammy winner who was one of two big-name headliners along with Lerche, certainly lit up the stage in her own way. The concert was accented by a constantly shifting array of dazzling lights, silhouetting and other visual flourishes. She mostly lived up to her billing as an energetic electro-pop vocalist strong enough to cut through the densest instrumention. Alas, there was moments the bass thumps from that instrumentation was literally painful. If it had been one of the post-midnight dance parties hosted on weekends at Huset would have worked, but not so much as a supposedly “listening” gig.

The band that actually did play from midnight until well into the wee hours of Sunday was Dos Mosquitos (“rated as one of Norway’s toughest party bands,” in the words of festival promoters). We weren’t there, having reached Peak Prostration, but there’s evidence to suggest their repertoire of hard-core cover tunes gave the crowd a vigorous workout.

Final exam

The final day of Polarjazz – always on a Sunday – tends to be a bit surreal. Nothing happens until at least 5 or 6 p.m., and it’s a good bet many of the exhausted and hungover participants have slept until nearly then. But the music, which until this year consisted of a church concert and maybe a late-night jam session, tends to outdo its billing.

polarbigbandchurch

Håkon Skog Erlandsen conducts the Longyearbyen Big Band during a performance Sunday at Svalbard Church. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Seeing the Longyearbyen Big Band featured as this year’s church concert was a huge letdown since in past years visting gospel/blues/folk artists have blown the place away with gritty and heartfelt gigs light on flash. It’s  easy to suspect it was a cost-cutting decision. But thanks to the imported regional tenor sax wiz, the concert featured enough new and entertaining elements to at least go the distance, so to speak.

The set was essentially SvaJazz writ large – lots of classic and modern tunes likely found in any decent jazz fakebook (a copy of the original and invalable Real Book was spotted near the alter afterward), but – as Miles so wisely said – the songs and studio originals are just what’s listed on the menu. What happens live is the sustinance. And in this instance listeners were rewarded with something beyond an acoustic church potluck. Erkandsen, in his conducting duties, did a nice job of upgrading the audio and stage presence arrangements of some of the best crowd-pleasing tunes.

The only hitch in hearing his final round of solos – a highly prolific combo of complex and often atonal postbop, and modern/fusion ear-catching vamps – is he clearly outshone the locals, which was to be expected (and appreciated). But while a critic (us in that role) might come away from such a gig with a somewhat different impression than the locals on stage and in the audience, the question is how relevant critical scrutiny is for this kind of festival.

“This kind of concert is not good or bad – it’s educating for the ones who perform and the audience are all there mostly just to show respect to locals who perform,” Hansen noted. “It shouldn’t be analyzed as anything else.”

Anyhow, skipping to the last chapter of the gig – Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” a dream tune of jazz improv students everywhere thanks to its simplistic chord structure – Erkandsen had things tight though the vamps by getting the horns and such to stand and swing in sync. But the longish solos numerous folks got was a bit too much in an instance or two. And, in that final self-depricating act, he left them way behind after a few “follow-me” jam riffs. He and various locals said afterward it was totally intentional and the crowd was in on the joke – and we buy that. But there’s still some pain if you’re a purist knowing that while the jazz scene has come a long ways since we first got here eight years ago there is still a ways to go before we match up with the serious cats. Then again, if you’re living here it’s not for the four-star restaurants, Broadway theater and ballet.

Still, it was jazz and we (even in our critic role) along with everyone else got a buzz out of it in the spirit intended.

polarfinale

Hekla Stålstrenga performs a northern Norwegian folk tune during the final concert at Polarjazz on Sunday night. Photo by Petter W. Sele.

Normally that would be a fitting and fun end to the festival, but for the first time a second concert was added this year as the finale. The show by Hekla Stålstrenga, a traditional northern Norwegian folk/rock singer, was also a bit of a one-off in ways beyond the scheduling. It was pitched as an evening diversion for locals who didn’t attend any of the festival’s other concerts. The theater seating at Kulturhuset was restored after being folded away for the open-floor concerts during the rest of the festival, reducing the venue’s capacity to about 230 instead of 600 – and ensuring the emphasis would be on the music rather than mingling. Which worked for the audience – many of whom were probably glad to sit after four nights of standing for hours – given the acoustic guitar/fiddle timbres that dominate Stålstrenga’s five-member band.

Hanssen, the festival’s director, said it’s likely the festival will make the second Sunday performance a regular part of the schedule in the future. Beyond that, he noted all-access festival passes sold out quickly this year and, as with many other tourism-related activities, visitors from other countries are an increasingly large clientele.

And it’s not just the listeners willing to make extra efforts to be here during the polar winter.

“Every artist reduced their fees this year,” Hansen said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Planning for next year’s lineup begins pretty much as soon as this year’s festival ends. And while it will be a landmark 20-year event, jazz purists probably shouldn’t get their hopes up for more of “their” genre at that Polarjazz festival.

“We must not get hanged up in this name,” Hansen said.

 

Leave a Reply