Stage of majority: 21st annual Polarjazz festival features all non-jazz lineup (but plenty of musicans who’ve played it)

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It’s hardly unusual for a jazz festival to be notably lacking its namesake genre in order to draw enough of a crowd to be commercially viable. Yet the world’s northernmost jazz festival usually features at least one or two bands devoted to some form of jazz –but ended up busting out for its “lucky 21” anniversary.

“We tried to get several,” said Lasse Stener Hansen, longtime director of the five-day Polarjazz festival that begins Jan. 31. “We tried to get the big ones like (Norwegian saxophone legend Jan) Garbarek, but we were too late.”

Still, jazz purists seeking a fix shouldn’t give up all hope. The vorspiel evening on Jan. 31, featuring three hours of what’s essentially “open mike” music by various local musicians, typically features a number of groups performing classics and modern. And while not a part of the official schedule (because the crowds are so large promoting them would be counterproductive), nightly jam sessions at Karlsberger and/or other pubs after the night’s main gigs are where anything is possible – not to mention free of charge.

Beyond that, consider the presence of Finn Sletten, a drummer born in Ny-Ålesund with a lot of jazz creds who’s known to virtually every local who’s attended the festival and very few people elsewhere. He’ll be part of a band fronted by Jarle Bernhoft (who goes by just his last name or Bern/hoft), a Norwegian pop star who might be the festival’s biggest “name.” The band, in addition to a featured concert on Feb. 1 (the official opening night of the festival) will perform several smaller impromptu gigs at various locations around town.

Then there’s Anneli Drecker, an electronica/pop/jazz singer from Tromsø with decent jazz lines on a long resume of collaborations with top-name acts (i.e. part of a-ha’s peak-era Minor Earth, Major Sky tour). A pro for more than 30 years, she’s previously performed at Polarjazz as well as a spring concert of Sami music with other northern Norwegian musicians at Svalbard Church several years ago. She will be one of two featured concerts on Feb. 2 at Kulturhuset.

Some returning musicians are a virtually guaranteed draw, including Unni Wilhelmsen, an Oslo folk/rock singer who’s been at multiple past festivals and will play to her strength – smaller venues with more direct contact with the audience – with a 1 p.m. gig on Feb. 3 at Kroa (a time slot that last year went to the local jazz group Svajazz, but which Hansen said isn’t ready to stage a performance this year after some members temporarily moved away).

Another familiar presence will be Circus Dos Mosquitos performing – as they have the past two years – the closing act as a dance party at Huset beginning at midnight Sunday (as in, shortly after the Saturday night concerts end). The throngs making it to that gig (very likely after taking the free bus for obvious reasons from the concerts at the very lively bar scene at Kulturhuset) have shown they’re entirely about fun music and could care less about the presence of “pure” jazz.

The festival has evolved in various ways over the years, with recent changes including using Kulturhuset instead of the Radisson SAS Polar Hotel as the main venue and eliminating a closing Sunday evening concert at Svalbard Church. But Hansen said the core character of the event, which typically features jammed crowds on both the stage floor and an overfloor lobby where more socializing takes place, remains consistent, along with the appreciation for top-tier bands regardless of their genre.

“It’s really a music festival,” he said.

But, as with some past years, Hansen is already setting his hopes a bit higher for next year.

“There’s a lot of good jazz musicians in the bands, but we’ll most certainly change that for next year,” he said. “We can’t have Polarjazz without jazz.”

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(Full disclosure: the author of this article is a former professional jazz journalist who’s always harped about the “purity” thing – sometimes a bit controversially – more than most during his decade of covering the festival. And since the director is at least as big as fan – and can actually play – it’s always something we fixate on because it’s all part of being a free press.)

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Schedule

Wednesday, Jan. 31
• 8 p.m.: Polarjazz Vorspiel. Kulturhuset.

Thursday, Feb. 1
• 8 p.m.: Silya and the Sailors; Bernhoft. Kulturhuset

Friday, Feb. 2
• 8 p.m.: Anneli Drecker; Gåte. Kulturhuset
• 9 p.m.: Kjartan Lauritzen. Longyeabryen Youth Club (for those in grade 7 and up to age 20).
• 11 p.m.: Advent Bay Poolboys. Barentz Pub.

Saturday, Feb. 3
• Noon: Tonje Unstad. Rabalder café.
• 1 p.m.: Unni Wilhelmsen and friends. Kroa.
• 5 p.m.: Ida Jenshus. Gruvelageret (free bus at 4 p.m. from Lompensenteret).
• 8 p.m.: Erlend Ropstad; Sondre Justad. Kulturhuset
• Midnight (Sunday): Circus Dos Mosquitos. Huset (free bus from Kulturhuset).

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