(Editor’s note: I discovered Svalbard a decade ago while spending several years traveling the world writing about jazz in unusual and unexpected places. Obviously a festival in a tiny isolated town on an island near the North Pole in the middle of winter qualifies. I spent about two weeks here and, even before leaving, was talking to people and making plans about coming here to start this newspaper. In the meantime, as part of the 20th annual festival’s coverage this is the long article I wrote for the website All About Jazz about the 2008 festival which, among other things, criticizes the talent level of local kids. Nine years later, my thoughts about that and all the other inaccurate, inane and insane things I wrote are annotated in yellow highlight text – click on it to read my comments and add your own.)
(Technical note: The program I’m using to rant about my rookie follies requires the webpage to be “live,” but the notes won’t show up at this site until all of them are finished – hopefully within a day or two of the end of this year’s festival. To see the comments so far, click on this link.)
The World’s Northernmost Jazz Festival
January 30-February 3, 2008
“This place is abandoned by God and ought to have been abandoned a long time ago by mankind as well” —Historical quote on mural at Longyearbyen’s museum
This is where people will come after Doomsday: a town 600 miles from the North Pole whose idea of fun is hosting the world’s northernmost jazz festival in the middle of winter.
A glacier-covered land where the sun doesn’t shine from October 26 to February 15 and where carrying a gun almost everywhere is necessary to avoid being eaten by polar bears. Where a vault deep in one of the Arctic mountains will eventually store up to 4.5 million varieties of seeds for global catastrophes such as nuclear war. And where in late January, sub-zero winds blast through the windows of a four-star hotel to cool off standing room-only crowds at Polarjazz, a four-day showcase of local and national talent.
“It was a very good idea because previously it was just cold and dark and nothing happened,” said Susanne Hansen, 28, a singer who was one of the opening-day highlights at this year’s 11th annual festival.
Polarjazz (featured in this BBC Destination Music video) takes place in Longyearbyen, Norway, the largest town on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, several hundred miles directly north of the mainland. The average January temperature is what one travel guide calls “a toasty 3ºF” thanks to the moderating effect of being on the coast of the Greenland Sea. The industrial-looking rectangular metal buildings are strictly utilitarian, but there’s a strong infrastructure because of heavy investment in coal mining and scientific research (the region has been called “ground zero in the climate debate”). Booking quality musicians might seem like a challenge, but the response is consistently enthusiastic.
“This is like Norway times a hundred,” said Haavard Stuboe, an Oslo guitarist appearing for the first time along with his acoustic trio. “All the Norwegian musicians want to come here.”
The festival does more than offer locals a diversion during the long polar night. It provides a boost to businesses and efforts to market winter tourism activities such dog sledding, snowmobiling and watching the northern lights. The event’s original purpose, in fact, was fighting efforts to reduce by half the six weekly jet flights to and from the mainland during the dark months, according to a co-founder.
Total attendance is estimated at 1,000 (fewer actual listeners), about two-thirds of whom are locals. Norwegians from other parts of the country make up most of the rest, but a scattering of devout and curious foreigners usually show up.
“My interest in jazz has been rekindled and this place fascinates me,” said Peter (he asked his last name not be used), a retired science worker from Melbourne, Australia, who visited a year and a half ago on an science research icebreaker offering passenger tours. “It was an excuse to see it in the winter.”
“There are some people who come every year from England and Germany,” said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year’s festival director. “I say ‘Why don’t you spread the word?’ They say ‘We don’t want to. We want to keep it for ourselves.'”
For some traveling far, the lure exceeds the norms of more cautious travelers. Not only did I come here with my ex-wife Kristan and her current flame, but I flew them here as a belated Christmas gift. All of us have worked in Antarctica and wanted to see what in many ways is its northern equivalent—from the same research in the same kind of buildings to the political neutrality that permits a large number of nations to work here relatively free of interference. Also, Joe knows a lot more about jazz than I do, they both take better photos and their insight was invaluable throughout.
Judy Ross, a New Jersey resident, said she and her friend Donna Fritzer, decided to come after plans to visit Kenya were canceled after ethnic violence broke out following a disputed election in late December. “Donna wanted to wear a mink coat, I wanted to hear music, so I said ‘Let’s go north.”
They participated in most of the major tourist activities during their four days and were jovial during the shuttle bus ride to the airport despite tragic circumstances, as word came from home midway through the festival that Ross’ father had died. The family advised her to stay in Longyearbyen and she said she has no regrets.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I took him to the top of the world.”
Giving New Meaning To Accessible Jazz
Some jazz festivals worry about bringing in enough listeners. The founders of Polarjazz were trying to keep the community from being cut off from the outside world most of the winter. Braathens Airline wanted a decade ago to reduce by half their six 737 jet flights between Longyearbyen and the mainland because of reduced winter passenger traffic. But Stein-Arve Soerensen, the airline’s cargo director at the time, said winter was when demand for cargo peaked.
“Every year I have a fight with the planning department in the company about capacity,” said Soerensen, now managing director of Jetpak, a Scandinavian cargo company. “They want to turn down the flights in the winter period and I want to increase the activity.” On one plane trip he met Leif Vigstad, who was making his first trip to Longyearbyen to start a new job,
“He was, like me, interested in music,” Soerensen said. “I told him about my ‘problem'” and they contacted hotel and other officials in Longyearbyen about starting a jazz festival… We have in Norway a jazz festival in Oslo every year and I have a lot of people in jazz alignment,” he said. “I told them about Svalbard and they were interested in coming up…A lot of them didn’t even get paid for it. It was enough just to give them plane tickets and rooms free of charge.”
Attracting an audience was more challenging at first, said Haakcon Sandvik, 26, a bassist who has lived in Longyearbyen nearly all his life. “All the musicians went to see the other musicians, but other than that they didn’t have many listeners,” he said. “Now they go beyond jazz to get more people.”
Jazz was scaled back more than usual this year because much of the planning occurred late, but still included traditional big band, small ensemble cool/post-bop, a cappella and neo-Scandinavian experimental. Among the “other”—and often better-attended concerts—were well- known Norwegian artists, modern folk and Klezmer performers, plus an opening night of local musicians and a finale at the town’s one church pairing a local gospel children’s choir with singer Randi Tytingvaeg’s quartet.
“We can use an all-round artist for the first concerts for one night to get the people out of their homes and on the second concert an artist that nobody knows,” said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year’s festival director, “but we know that the audience will get a nice experience and listen to some music they never would have listened to if it wasn’t for this.”
Nobody organizing or working during Polarjazz is paid, Hansen said. “I drink champaign all the festival,” he added. “That is all.”
Plenty of those earning a living in Longyearbyen have reason to toast frequently as well, with the festival bringing in money during one of the slowest periods despite increased winter tourism marketing. Hotels normally closed during the winter open and some tour companies use it as a warmup for the beginning of tourist season in mid-February, including dogsled operators who get their canines in shape.
“For me as a tourist manager it is a dream,” said Unni Myklevoll, manager of Svalbard Tourism, the official tourist board. The festival might not draw large numbers on its own, but does provide an extra and potentially decisive lure for those thinking about coming for other activities. Many winter visitors are from northern neighbors such as Sweden, Denmark and England, but the Chinese and Japanese are also becoming a strong presence…. They come for the northern lights,” Myklevoll said. “Newly married couples, if they can see the northern lights their first years it is a blessing on their marriage and if they have a baby it will be a happy baby.”
Venues and adequate sound gear in Longyearbyen aren’t a problem, even though there isn’t a proper recording studio. Sound gear has been brought in largely by those producing the numerous documentaries and other presentations about the Svalbard region. Most concerts take place at the Radisson SAS Polar Hotel, promoted as the farthest-north full-serve hotel in the world, including a sauna, conference facilities, room service ($20 for a burger, plus a $16 service charge) and stunningly fast wifi (thanks to an undersea communications cable built by NASA for polar research). But getting bands here on a limited flight schedule that’s at the mercy of the elements means more work than buying tickets.
“The big challenge in planning was in the logistics side,” Hansen said. “You can imagine if you fly up there in Boeing 737 with (an upright bass), drums and other instruments. We have to load it into the cabin. It was a big logistics operation.”
The extreme cold and dry climate can cause mischief. Singer Unni Wilhelmsen had trouble with her guitar tuning and other members of the band seemed to have similar problems after arriving that same day, depriving the instruments a chance to recover from outdoor exposure. StuboeÃ’¸ said he’s had cracks start to appear on his guitar soundboard in Arctic climates, so he’s learned to take precautions. “You keep it in the bathroom, where it’s humid,” he said.
Most of the musicians stay for the entire festival and, even if they’re only playing one show, take advantage of the opportunity to explore the area (snowmobile tours, often going to the east side of Svalbard to look for polar bears, seemed to be the most popular).
While the activities are unfamiliar to visitors, the music they bring with them is a novelty since jazz is essentially nonexistent the rest of the year. There’s an active music scene in other genres. Rock bands play regular pub gigs and the annual Dark Season Blues festival at the onset of the polar winter is Longyearbyen’s biggest music event. Other student and community groups like brass bands and church choirs are open to experienced musicians and newcomers. The town’s mining- oriented history and high number of temporary residents mean there isn’t the kind of ethnic presence such as the aboriginal Sumis at the northern tip of Norway’s mainland. But Myklevoll, who plays trumpet in the community Storband, a little big band, said the modern population of students, scientists and others provides a cultural boost.
“Talents are good here because people are very well educated,” she said. “It is in general a higher educational level and standard of living.” Thriving in such a small and isolated town means being welcoming and free of inhibitions. Opportunities, for those seeking them, aren’t hard to find. “It is easier to join things because it is not far to go,” Myklevoll said.
Can’t Get Enough Coal In That Stocking
“The streets in Longyearbyen have no names, they have numbers. Grown men do not build houses in streets that are named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard.” – Peter Adams, 2005, quoted as part of the museum’s mural
Longyearbyen is named after a U.S. entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1860-1922), who as head of the Arctic Coal Co. founded the town and the first of many mines that became the dominant economic base. Written history of the region dates back to 1194 in Icelandic sagas of “Sval Bard” (“cool” and “edge” in Norwegian), interpreted as “the land with the cold coast.” The island of Spitsbergen is 60 percent glaciers, 27 percent rock and 13 percent vegetation with no trees (it does have crowberry and cloudberry bushes).
A Dutch expedition led by Willem Barents rediscovered the archipelago in 1596, triggering a series of human/human and human/nature conflicts that continue to present day, according to an official historical narrative. England, The Netherlands, Norway and Russia established bases during the 17th and 18th centuries, overhunting walruses, Arctic foxes, polar bears, reindeer and nearly driving the rare Bowhead Whales to extinction. The English and Dutch fought land and sea battles over whaling rights, with both sides suffering heavy losses. But by the 19th century many of the hunting colonies left, and scientific exploration and Arctic expeditions became the focus of activity.
Coal mining brought another rush of people at the beginning of the 20th century, with several countries getting into conflicts over territorial rights. These were resolved with the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, designating the area as Norwegian, but demilitarized and granting other nations the right to seek natural resources on a principle of absolute equality. The treaty means unique privileges for foreigners, who can visit, study and work here without a permit or passport (practically speaking, a passport is still needed to make the trip via mainland Norway).
The Svalbard colonies were destroyed by Nazi Germany during World War II, although the 2,000 Soviets and 900 Norwegians living there had already been forced to abandon the islands two years before the attacks began in 1943. The town was rebuilt, but Cold War tensions over Svalbard’s potential as a military air site kept Longyearbyen from getting an airport until 1975. The Norwegian government’s desire to make Longyearbyen a family community instead of a company town for mining, which was going through a crisis during the 1970s, made the difference.
About 60 percent of Svalbard’s Norwegian population is employed today by what’s now a state-owned coal company, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, but tourism has emerged as a strong secondary industry. National Geographic Adventure lists Svalbard as one of its six recommended trips for 2008, saying it “has lately earned fame as ground zero in the climate debate. Perhaps that’s because visitors get a firsthand view of what’s at stake—a panoply of calving glaciers, rich wildlife and yawning fjords.” There’s a relative abundance of restaurants and quality hotel space in Longyearbyen (although rooms fill quickly during peak season) for visitors arriving by air and cruise ship. It’s a dramatic transformation from 1990 when the only beds for tourists were in bunk houses. The region’s other cornerstone, The University Centre in Svalbard, opened in 1993 and offers Arctic science and technology classes from undergraduate to postgraduate levels.
A new scientific landmark is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault about 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain. Designed to replace species destroyed by global or regional catastrophes, it can store up to 4.5 million distinct seed species. The permafrost and lack of earthquake activity were seen as vital for protecting vital food crop seeds for hundreds or even thousands of years, and there isn’t the political and environmental turmoil where many of the world’s 1,400 crop diversity collections exist. (By the way, since man doesn’t live by bread alone and the post-Armageddon bash will need a mood booster, the Huset restaurant and nightclub has the world’s northernmost wine cellar with 25,000-bottles wine cellar.)
There may not be the cultural atmosphere of an Inuit or Sami village in the Arctic, but Svalbard still has its quirks and claims to fame. Shoes are removed before entering almost every building, a longtime tradition to keep coal dust out of homes. In 1998, the Norwegian Championship in badminton was held in the Svalbard Sportshall. The Spitsbergen Marathon, whose motto is “you won’t get it tougher” due to the wind and weather, is in June, with a time of 3:21.22 by a man in the 50-54 age category winning the 14th annual race in 2007 among the 23 men and four women participating. Much of the 2007 children’s fantasy movie “The Golden Compass” was filmed in Svalbard and tourism officials say it “gives you good impressions of the impressive unspoiled and untouched landscapes here” (it gets a dismal score of 43 out of 100 from the compilation of critics nationwide at the Rotten Tomatoes web site, with one calling it “a movie with characters constantly explaining arcane concepts and only rarely doing anything about them”).
Prices for U.S. travelers are astronomical thanks to the crippled dollar, the cost of remote shipping and what’s already the second most expensive country in the world on the Economist’s Big Mac Index (about $6.50, vs. a low of $1.40 in China). A can of Diet Coke costs $6 at the hotel (but “only” at $1.50 at the Svalbardbutikken supermarket), a bowl of Thai chicken soup (very tasty) $14 at the coffee house, a loaf of bread $6 and a new CD $30. Frozen whale meat was on sale for $14 a pound at the grocery store (steak-like, so try a red wine) and parents who scoured eBay for Nintendo’s elusive Wii at Christmas might be chagrined to know two were on the shelves of a store in the Lompensenteret mini-mall for $500 each. I spent my nine-day stay in one of the Radisson’s apartments and, given the price of dining out, spending slightly more than $100 for a microwave oven to cook many of my own meals (reindeer burritos and sour-cream porridge—anyone…anyone?) proved a significant money saver.
Locals are quick to accept newcomers, some joking I’d already become a resident by staying longer than the average tourist. But thinking a year or two in Svalbard will satisfy their curiosity about the area, some stay longer.
“People move on before they’re finished with Spitzbergen,” said Guind Jacobsen, who left a chef job near Oslo to become a dog sled guide when his girlfriend was accepted to the university two years ago. “After a few years they come back.” A handful end up joining the miners and others who make up a second part of the community with decades- old roots. “What they say is if you haven’t left after a couple of years then you’ll stay 10,” Myklevoll said.
“Is this Svalbard karaoke?”
That question by Joe a few songs into the opening night of Polar Jazz wasn’t overly diplomatic, but was eerily close to my written notes at that moment (“sounds like local talent night”). Much like any evening-long procession of a small town’s musicians, the Jazzvorspiel (the latter part means “preamble” or “prelude” in German) ranged from the good to the tolerable to the brave.
Nothing was painful, and Kristan and Joe agreed talent exceeded the annual Icestock festival at the 1,200- person McMurdro Station in Antarctica. The Svalbard crowd—while bigger and louder on subsequent nights- -was unmatched in individuals and subgroup fervor.
“it’s like going to see a play in Juneau,” Kristan said. “Half the drama is in the audience.”
The jazziest portion of the evening featured the Storband (16-17 members, by my count) playing standards, the first an instrumental followed by five songs with different lead singers. The band was par for casual players who gather once a week to practice, with straightforward arrangements and no solos beyond brief embellishments. There were a few moments of confusion about the timing of parts, none throwing things seriously out of whack.
Most of the singers sounded fuzzy, making me think it was a soundboard problem until Susanne Hansen (introduced in paragraph two) showed a superiority in skill and clarity leading the finale, “Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?” The band stepped it up a notch with the well- timed hit-and-pause arrangement, although they weren’t always on-key with Hansen. She mostly kept her vocals in a safe mid-range register, faltering only when some of her clarity was lost when she tried to stretch into higher pitches and volumes.
Hansen also performed a couple of songs with an instrumental quartet at the evening’s midpoint, getting more acclaim for an aggressively bluesy “Feeling Good” and Arctic-themed ballad “The Other Side Of The World.” Joe compared her to former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant. Hansen, who works as a clerk at an all-purpose store in the Lompensenteret that is one of the few places to buy CDs, said she’s never heard of Merchant.
Her evaluation of her mini-set? “Not bad for rehearsing only three times,” she said. The band also had to work around a guitarist who was supposed to join having his flight held up because of bad weather.
Hansen said she grew up singing in choirs, furthered her music skills while living on the mainland for a few years, and now performs in concerts every other month. She said she became a fan of jazz only three years ago, citing Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as influences, but rock and pop remains her dominant interest. She doesn’t have any specific long-term musical goals and, while she thinks she might return to the mainland at least temporarily in a few years, her young child and other family ties are keeping her rooted in Longyerbyen for now.
“It’s a very special place,” she said.
Among the evening’s other noteworthies was a six-man a cappella group that Kristan thought might be the local ski team. They did a few peppy, apparently hokey, numbers in decent harmony, concluding with a female pianist joining to punctuate what seemed to be a parody of a dark death march. “if tonight is a traditional smorgasbord, that was the ham,” Kristan said.
The worst of the evening was almost certainly a dragging, melancholy “Born To Be Wild,” lacking any apparent satirical intent by a foursome (female singer, two men with guitars and a drummer) in their 20s. Another questionable arrangement came from the final group which, after opening with “Rocky Top,” delved into something where Joe’s condensed factual summary says more than analysis possibly can: “This is a Norwegian band playing AC/DC and they’re doing it bluegrass style.”
They saved face by getting back to conventional shitkicking, including a whirlwind fiddle-and-clapping number at the end, earning loud applause on merit and setting the stage for a final song at 11:30 p.m. with all of the evening’s performers doing a sing-and-clap thing in a line through the audience to the stage.
In Jack London’s Call Of The Wild, I’d be the cheechako who drives his dogsled into the lake and drowns.
Comfy as the Radisson is, one might as well vacation in Cleveland if going outside isn’t in the plan. So Day 2 of Polarjazz got off to an early and chilly start with a half-day tour through a valley outside Longyearbyen. It’s little more than a sampler for novices wondering if a longer trip is something they can endure, the sort of thing I felt offered little insight of the “real” experience when leading hiking and skiing primers of similar intent.
It does sort out the truly inept.
My candidacy for a dogsledding Darwin Award began shortly after we arrived at the kennels, wearing thick head-to-toe clothing our guide gave us in town, when Jacobsen gave us instructions over the non-stop din of barking on getting the dogs from their shelters and attaching them to the sled. He warned it was vital not to let them get away, since about 20 of their 89 dogs were in heat. The kennel yard is separated in half by sex, but the yiping turns into an eardrum-splitting uproar if one gets loose among the other (one escapee was caught quickly by our guide). I struggled to keep my dog held steady between my knees while attaching the harness, which I kept hopelessly rotating like a sweater with four arms that I couldn’t find the neck hole through. All told, I got three dogs attached in the same time Joe (in picture) harnessed six. Little wonder Kristan is with him now.
Then came the instructions for driving our three sleds: pulling up the stake-like anchor only when everything was truly ready to go, not throwing it so far when stopping it couldn’t be reached from the sled, using body lean to help steer. There was no mention of yelling “mush” to get the dogs started (“It’s like a motor that’s always on and the only control is the brake,” Joe said later), nor did we get whips to spur them on.
“The most important thing: Don’t let go of the sled,” Jacobsen said.
Kristan and I shared a sled, Joe and our guide had their own. Ours promptly overturned and dumped me painfully into the snow while she was trying to navigate away from the kennels on a downhill slope, the hardest kind to drive on. I made up for it a few miles later by nearly impaling her with the anchor when the sheer force of the dogs starting forward jerked me nearly over the handlebar I was clinging to with my free hand while all but throwing the anchor randomly forward so I could get a grip my other hand.
I stayed upright and (barely) managed to avoid falling while driving, although my vastly underweight 120-lb. body was terribly ill-suited for leaning during turns to keep it from overturning. Joe was less fortunate—and so was I as a result—when he took a spill and his dogs, now moving much faster with the lighter weight, dashed by and his sled hit me in the back. I was sitting in the sled while Kristan was driving and the impact ensured I wouldn’t be at the helm again that day.
Which is a bummer, because driving is definitely better than riding. When you’re standing upright you have clear view of the scenery, the bumps don’t jolt as much and you have a good idea of what kind of terrain lies immediately ahead. In the sled you’re sitting low—almost laying down—the view is obstructed by your knees, and the bumps are rough and unexpected (in this hasty and awkward self-portrait, I’m in the lower left corner and those are Kristan’s hands on the sled). Plus it’s much colder just sitting there. The only socks I brought were well-worn white tubers and I probably would have gotten frostbitten toes if our guide didn’t put a down sleeping bag over me during the return trip.
The valley, even if it was a mere 10 miles outside town next to a coal mine, was an exceptional sight with sharply defined peaks of pure white on both sides of the path. The difference in the brightness of the twilight was astonishing from when we arrived only a few days ago, when a faint glow touched the sky for an hour or two. On this day the light was bright enough to see the peaks clearly to the horizon and it lasted twice as long.
“I’m very happy the light is back,” Jacobsen said. “It’s been a long season.”
We went about 15 miles to where a hill started to climb out, with the out-of-shape dogs struggling mightily to get up the first slope that was our turnaround point. This is where the drivers had to step off their sled and run alongside (they’ve never have kept up speed on level ground), which is a damned hard thing to do for long on a slope with deep snow.
The return trip was relatively uneventful, experienced hands we were by now (cough), as was unhitching the dogs and returning them to their individual dog houses. Of all the tasks, this last one might be the hardest for me on an extended trip—caring for the dogs before thinking of your own comfort, even just a quick warm-up. Luckily, instead of pitching tents there was a cabin with a wood stove going and some hot water Jacobsen brought in thermoses. So we sat on benches around a wooden table while exchanging the kind of war stories one does after an expedition, mild as this was (Kristan and Joe returned a couple of days later for a full-day trip including a crawl through some ice caves). Us novices could least offer comparisons between Svalbard and our work experience in Antarctica, plus Kristan could talk about covering the Iditarod several years ago.
That’s how one learns about the difference between Alaskan Huskies and Greenland dogs (the latter aren’t as fast, but they’re smarter and better for driving in bad weather). Also, there hasn’t been a polar bear attack on the kennels since they opened in 1997, since most of the creatures are on the east coast, on the other side of town. Jacobsen said tours there, especially on snowmobiles, are in high demand, to the chagrin of some locals. A couple bears have been shot recently during attacks, which are generally the result of visitor stupidity.
“There are a lot of people who want to get a little bit closer on a CX37,” he said. “They turn off their engine and they think they’re going to take some pictures.”
Shooting a bear results in serious inquiries and plenty of potential trouble if unjustified, but the locals also have enough sense to let regret overcome practicality. Polar bear is advertised as an as-available dish on the Raddison’s and possibly other menus, although none was offered while we were there.
Jacobsen said he was heading out that evening on another half-day tour, this time facing the challenge of keeping eight or nine sleds together, but the former chef said the day-in, day-out routine of rigging and driving dogs in the cold amidst people who usually don’t know what they’re doing hasn’t lost its allure. “It’s a big change from 40 degrees in the kitchen,” he said. “Now sometimes it’s like minus 40.”
At even the most remote and obscure festivals, there’s almost always at least one “find.”
Sometimes it’s a total unknown, sometimes an established musician lost amidst the masses. Stuboe, the Oslo guitarist and composer, proved one of the latter and his new trio was the highlight of this year’s Polarjazz festival, at least for me and my traveling companions.
He coaxed unaccompanied serene warblings by running a glass over his fretboards, drew laughs with the ’70s camp tribute “San Francisco” to oversize cars known for bottoming out on bad shocks and gave jungle rumble treatment to the much overplayed “Summertime.” I thought he sounded strongly of John Scofield, Joe thought he was more like Al Di Meola (“with a keyboarist they’d be Return To Forever,” he said). Stuboe said the trio is influenced by Jim Hall’s trios from the early 90s.
“The idea here is to use an acoustic sound because it feels freer” than when an organ is part of the group, he said.
Stuboe, whose early influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis, graduated from the Jazz Conservatory in Trondheim. His professional work ranges from the organ groove group Jupiter, led by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, to leading a trio paying tribute to Wes Montgomery. At Polarjazz he explained many of the songs about to be played, then built them piece-by-piece starting with solo sound explorations (light percussive-like harmonics, sometimes right at his tuning keys, for the opening song; high-note questions and bass-string answers on the John McLaughlin tribute “John Deere”). From there Stuboe, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Torstein Lofthus accelerated into various syncopated funks, some drawn from compositions with few such roots such as “Lahppakobbal” (“I can’t pronounce it properly myself,” Stuboe said), influenced by small Sami village in Finland and its traditional pentatonic Yoik music.
Arntzen provided a smart, stable foundation of soft, thick-tone notes which hit a sprinter’s pace during solos. Lofthus went for a less-is-more approach on many solos, emphasizing one or two tones at a time, moving through a few rotations of new ones, then finally bringing them together for the climax. Interplay between the three was consistently strong and seemed to connect well with the audience, which sadly was noticeably lower in number than several featured rock/pop bands.
Among such groups was the evening’s opening rock/folk concert led by Vidar Johnsen and Peter Nordberg, two established Scandinavian vocalists/guitarists who began collaborating on projects more than a decade ago. The songs, either originals or covers I didn’t recognize because they were in Norwegian, were a decent assortment of arrangements from ballads to mild reggae.They were obviously known and popular among the crowd, but I found myself taking very few notes.
Jazz might not be the most appreciated music in Longyearbyen, but Stuboe said he believes listeners do more than just show up because it’s a novelty.
“I think the general atmosphere here was really positive,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. I think in general when the music starts happening everyone is paying attention.”
Frozen Whales In The Tropics
Free tropical fruit. Palm trees. A serenade. What more could one want in the Arctic?
The main isle of the Svalbardbutikken supermarket turned into an agricultural wonderland to begin Day 3 of Polarjazz, complete with a street market line of boxed produce and greenery (much of it paper) everywhere you looked. It was more a nose-thumbing than an escape from the Arctic winter, especially since I was lugging frozen whale and reindeer in my basket.
Besides the free fruit, the main attraction was a free mini- concert in the aisle by the eight-man a cappella group Kaarstadbygget (MP3 samples), which did a mix of serious and whimsical pop classics in Norwegian and English. The notable crowd- pleasing moment was second tenor Oddvar Aalde doing a comically exaggerated serenade of “Oh, Carol” to his wife. They sang for only 20 minutes or so, but it was intended as a preview of their opening concert that night at the Raddison.
Their full show branched out considerably in their vocal explorations and repertoire. The opening “Let’s Go Walking Down The Street” featured remarkable life-like high-hat and bass sounds to pace the lyrics, and the “percussion” section got a denser workout during a-ha’s ’80s hit “Take On Me.” A few more playful arrangements were stirred in, from the barrage of dog barking on “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” to the astounding one-man “Radio Show,” where lead tenor Hallgeir Omarhus emulated a channel surfer by jumping every few seconds from beat-box grooves to nonsensical narratives to stormy sound effects to static.
The second concert was Oslo singer Unni Wilhelmsen (official site with audio and video), a Norwegian folk/rock star whose first two influences on a long list are Susanne Vega and Simon & Garfunkel. Her guitar and maybe some other instruments suffered tuning problems caused by the exposure to the cold. One result was some timely lyrics, with “my piano is out of key and so I’ll weep” earning some laughs at the recognition of the reality of the situation. It may have also eventually worn down her level of performance: she played a solo vocal/electric keyboard ballad for the finale before the encore, ending it with a rather limp flourish of keys and a resigned shrug toward the audience. But the gestures were fitting of Wilhelmsen’s seemingly open communication with listeners, in the voice of someone who still finds much of the experience new after starting her music career started relatively late in life.
“Music didn’t exactly play a prominent part in our family life,” she writes in a lengthy Web biography, and while her parents gave her a guitar at age 12, it was no substitute for the piano she craved and bought at 20.
“I had been writing stuff for a while,” she notes. “Pieces of thoughts, comments or quotes from books I’d been reading. Stuff that gave me associations to be curious about. But the words seemed naked to me. Something was missing, even if some pieces surely could pass as poems.”
The usual procession of open mikes and small-time club gigs followed, until a journalist recommended her to a record company without her knowledge in the summer of 1995. In February of 1996 she released her debut, To Whom It May Concern (listen to one song here), which won Norwegian Grammies for Best Female Of The Year and Album Of The Year. She started her own label, St. Cecilia Music, in 2003 and released her sixth album, Til Meg (hear samples, in 2006, the first featuring Norwegian lyrics.
There were definite similarities to Vega during her Polarjazz concert, although Wilhelmsen sings in a higher register, with intriguing stories among the fluff. Things suffered when she tried to rock harder (think about “Tom’s Diner” and how awful the dance-floor remix is; voices like these are assets that should dominate rather than the instrumentation or arrangements). Then again, she drew as large a crowd as any performer at the festival and if there was any comparative lack of enthusiasm, I didn’t detect it.
The place remained completely jammed with people standing all the way to the lobby as the Urban Tunells Klezmer Band took the stage just before midnight. Billing themselves as one of the few such Norwegian bands, the quintet promotes itself as respecting Klezmar’s traditions while touching on modern deconstructions into Jewish jazz, hip-hop and “klezcore” made popular by groups such as Balkan Beat Box. Urban Tunells’ set came nowhere near BBB’s club-beat intensity, although some of that can be heard on their 2007 album Upnorth Balkan Beats—The Kohib Remixes (10 MP3s from this and their other albums are at their Web site). Instead the performance was free and frenetic in a more acoustic roots vein and, while personally a fan of both groups, this was probably a better listening experience for those seeking more than immediate gratitude.
The opening was a deceptive bit of plodding melancholy by pianist/vocalist Tor-Petter Aanes, whose deep coaxing voice reminded me for some reason of Brazilian stalwart Joao Bosco. There wasn’t a lot of time for reflection, however, as with a heavy vibrato flourish the rest of the band leaped in with a series of instrument shots and overlapping quips. Clarinetist Morten Michelsen fired off a succession of rapid Klezmer vamps punctuated by some sustained high screams, brought it back down to the dirge, then accelerated back up to the expected fast finish. Accordionist Jovan Pavlovic displayed intense jazz chops a couple of songs later with a thick, atonal barrage against a simple pounding cadence, which Morten wrapped up with a series of screams that broke down into rapid-fire snippets. Double bassist Sondre Meisfjord’s most memorable moment came a song later by going on a multitude of short-term, sparse-note journeys from a common starting point. Drummer Stig Rennestraum’s work escaped scrutiny in my notes, but I did pen something about there being a lot more “movers”—plus some actual dancers—compared to the two earlier shows.
The Ultimate All-Night Party
When night lasts four months, staying up until 7 a.m. is nothing.
The final full day of Polarjazz concerts went way late, but that didn’t deter most of the participants. The final concert, a salsa dance party, was full despite starting more than an hour after its scheduled 12:30 a.m. time, and musicians from various bands followed up with a jam session until nearly 4 a.m.
“Everybody went after that to a party,” Hansen said.
I’ll take the director’s word for it, since my endurance has a more mortal limit.
That limit manifested itself in the worst possible way when a mid-morning nap lasted until mid-afternoon, causing me to miss a concert by pianist Anders Aarum’s quartet at the university. His albums (five MySpace songs) are the quintessential example of scholarly modernism that characterizes the best Scandinavian jazz musicians, possessing a style people more informed than me call an individual voice evolved a few generations from McCoy Tyner. Aarum’s three albums explore everything from spare acoustic poetry to electric funk and none of it smacks of artistic compromise.
While seriously bummed, I found out later not all was lost. But I had to subcontract the afternoon review to Peter, the Australian tourist checking out the winter scene after his summer visit.
“It was a mixed bag, but I enjoyed quite a lot of it,” he said. It was “more the ruckus” side of mainstream in the vein of John Coltrane, thanks to Aarum playing an electric keyboard (safer from a tuning perspective), two guest vocalists and some dominant work by saxophonist Gisle Johansen (name is my guess, based on who Aarum’s been playing with at recent festivals).
The trio of evening concerts started with vocalist Kari Bremnes, apparently known as the “voice of northern Norway,” who managed to attract a bigger crowd than the already beyond-capacity masses who’d squeezed sardine-like into some previous shows. The reason quickly became obvious, as she put on a loud, showy Norse rock/pop tour with a lot of shifting themes and beats (“call this a moneymaker show,” I noted). Songs transformed from slow folksy ambiance to well-known dance beats to blues guitar solos to drumwork on truck tire rims or emulating Latin hand percussion on a standard kit. Her voice, in the low mid-range, almost always seemed to be trying to seduce regardless of setting. As Joe put it, she sounded like a Norwegian Enya.
“She was a really good vocalist, but there wasn’t a musicianship,” he said. At times the band’s strategy seemed to be “if you make a mistake play it repeatedly and the audience will think you’re doing it on purpose.”
I’m willing to call it an off night since Bremnes’ 2007 Live album (sound samples at official site) and others I’ve heard from her 20-year career are considerably more refined.
The next act offered some redemption for my midday slumber.
Oslo singer Julie Dahle Aagaard’s horn-heavy band was more interesting than Bremnes from a jazz perspective and featured Aarum on a rack of keyboards. Doing a set of originals and covers ranging from ballads to funk, her husky voice reminded me of Alanis Morissette, although she lists Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz and Angie Stone among her influences. Her band got plenty of solos, usually quality fusion stuff, although Aarum didn’t quite fulfill hopes due in part to sound problems that also constantly made Aagaard’s vocals hard to discern.
Aagaard’s saxophonist (Gisle Johansen if her MySpace bio is current) stood out most consistently in quantity and quality, blowing modestly challenging but energetic streams of on-key runs and trills on alto and tenor. Guitarist Nils-Olav Johansen (Web site and free MP3 downloads) also was a frequent presence, rolling out more delicate soft-tone notes in a similar harmonizing vein. He also replace Aagaard as the lead vocalist on two songs and was, in a word, awful. Poor volume and pitch control made the audio problems Aagaard experienced even worse and, while his resume describes exotic influences such as Hawaiian and Balkan music, on the Polarjazz stage he was playing the pop dreck one hears from tired cruise ship veterans. The only redeeming aspects were some wordless harmonizing in collaboration with his guitar and stretching out on instrumental solos, opening “Out Of Nowhere” with a soothing sequence of dual note/chord lines and later walking a path of intelligent musings with constant detours into bright embellishments.
Aagaard returned for the final four songs, but some of the energy—and a noticeable portion of the crowd— was gone. A couple of rock/gospel numbers revived memories of some earlier horn section highlights, but two well-known standards, “For All We Know” and the encore “What’s Going On,” fell flat. The former plodded along at a slower pace than normal with minimal electric keyboard accompaniment and lacked enough emotional authenticity to warrant the pace. The latter was simply a poor match for her vocal talents, a regrettable ending since it was the one song I considered her delivery substandard.
The thinner crowd was something of a blessing for volunteers (many recruited on the spot) who cleared the chairs for the Mambo Companeros. The band’s eight members, six freelance Trondheim musicians and two Cubans living in Oslo, write a large portion of the music they perform and is as authentically Afro/Cuban as any band the untrained ear might hear. I can tell you they played enthusiastically, were more listenable than a lot of similar bands that play too loud for their audio rigs, there was a full dance floor at nearly 2 a.m.— and it utterly failed to connect with me in the way that vegans’ pallets clash with fois gras. I’m into elements of such music blended with mainstream, be it Michel Camilo or certain Paquito D’Rivera albums. I can’t explain the disconnect with the real thing, other than I was staggeringly bad when I took some classes with Kristan several years ago and recoil in terror at the nonstop urging from everybody to dance.
So I bailed on the revelers, the jam of standards involving what I hear was a strong plurality of the festival’s lineup and the party until the false dawn that began the few hours of twilight that day. But ultimately I outlasted many of those hardy souls in the final round of endurance.
A Divine Finale
A lot of people left town Sunday and the sparse schedule looked like something of an afterthought: a bargain-priced 5 p.m. performance at the local church featuring the children’s choir and some vocalist. Experience indicates such shows typically have little musical value beyond cuteness and gratification for parents.
I should have had more faith.
Randi Tytingvaag’s quartet joined the stage after two songs by the choir and pulled off the rare feat of playing a set of jazz appealing to all ages. Compositions were full of playful quips, melodramatic exclamations and quick-hook themes kids might associate with the heroine’s theme song of a Disney movie or the quavering atonality of twisted holiday specials. But stuff for grown-ups kept popping to the surface via uncompromising solos and complex improvised unspoken dialogue between Tytingvaag and/or her acoustic piano/bass/accordion mates. It revived memories of those classic inside jokes from the original Sesame Street (The Count: “They call me the Count because I love to count things.” Guy Smiley’s response: “Well, I’m Guy Smiley. They call me Guy Smiley because I changed my name from Bernie Liederkrantz.” The episodes are now sold as “adults-only” DVDs, by the way, thanks to characters like a bulimic cookie freak, closed gay couple and a Snuffleupagus who apparently was just a bird’s trippy hallucination).
Getting back to the band, did I mention Tytingvaag’s pianist is Aarum, appearing yet again in the way musicians in small circles and communities are apt to do? Playing in a setting more suited for showing off his talent than Aagaard, I finally felt redeemed for my sloth.
Just getting there requires extra effort since Svalbard Church, a red mini cathedral, is semi-isolated on a barren hillside about half-mile from the center of town (putting it near the Huset’s massive wine cellar). It has a cheery rather than somber character, with a fireplace, secular magazines and newspapers to read in the cozy common room chairs, and a communal dinner of Norwegian waffles on Tuesdays. On this day, big platters of cured meats and huge bowls of sour cream porridge known as roemmegroet were served an hour before the concert as part of the 100 krone (roughly $18) admission that was a separate fundraiser from the festival. As someone who’s dietary restrictions involves eating so much oatmeal I can distinguish brands the way those with perfect pitch can transcribe recordings, I consider the filling simplicity of this Norwegian peasant dish—suitable for sweet or savory stir-ins —among the world’s best.
Parents and other adults filled the pews and then some, as plenty of chairs in the adjacent common room remained occupied, so kids not on stage took all the free space in the center aisle. A profusion of cameras and camcorders captured the 25-member choir as they sang an opening song in Norwegian and “This Little Light Of Mine” in alternating English/Norwegian. They were like any well-rehersed such group, with their sheer numbers smoothing out perceptible imperfections. A couple performed solo verses and, while short of prodigy-like, there wasn’t the hesitant shyness from them or the others commonly heard from those elsewhere of similar talent.
“They have fun and they are safe with each other, so they are free to sing out,” said Tore Oerjasaeter, the choir’s director for the past year and a half.
Tytingvaag’s band joined the kids for something bouncy and simple, Aarum giving little hint of what was to come with a simple harmonious minute-long solo. After the kids departed, accordionist Espen Leite launched into a thick and melancholy melody in a simplistic quarter-note march to open “Rat Race.” Tytingvaag’s alto lyrics rang richly through the despite the primitive acoustics, conveying the mood of a cartoon heroine in her moment of despair. Leite and Aarum soloed through a series of spiraling downward progressions, accented with some freeform bursts, and embellished well off Tytingvaag’s lines. The succeeding “Ghost” featured an ascending audio profile of the heroine finding hope and/or courage, apparently regarding something she wants to be when she grows up. The character and plot weren’t suggested by the musicians, incidentally, but the progression of themes made constructing one in my head easy enough.
The mental storylines weren’t G-rated as Tytingvaag’s band didn’t just give the kids fluff, frequently exploring dark and chromatic themes. A quavering accordion on “Everyday Monsters” bore great resemblance to “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” including some lyrics about a character named Jack. The lyrics of “War” could describe the daily life of Anne Frank, and Leite’s and Aarum’s freeform interlude on “So Long” bore whiffs of an late-night acoustic acid basement gig. A tugging of moods was constant, as songs like “Between Us” strived for hope in meeting challenges (“have you ever considered going for a swim in the ocean between us”).
The choir joined for a cheerful finale whose name and lyrics escaped me and, while it was intended to speak more directly to the kids in the audience, a lot had strayed from their seats on the floor to the less restrictive possibilities of the common room. If there was a weakness from the youths’ perspective, it was the lack of material encouraging them to be directly involved through singing, clapping, dancing or whatever. But it’s the show I’d take my (hypothetical) kid to, in the same way other parents play those “Baby Einstein” tapes in the hope their offspring will someday become members of Mensa.
Oerjasaeter said he has no doubt about the children’s musical commitment.
“We have a solid group,” he said. “They come every time, unlike some other places.”
He said they rehearse once a week, perform once a month during family services and participate in about a half-dozen special events such as Constitution Day in May. The choir recorded a CD—largely common children’s songs rewritten with Norwegian lyrics—under a different director years ago that’s sold locally (outsiders might be able to buy a copy by e-mailing the church at email@example.com), but Oerjasaeter said no future such projects are on the horizon.
Oerjasaeter, a self- taught pianist, said he worried about being good enough to direct the choir, but his work with groups while living in Oslo about a decade ago “was good enough because this is a special place to live, so sometimes you have to improvise.”
Among the challenges, he said, is the constantly fluctuating population. “Last year we had 11, so (this year) was a big growth,” he said.
Oerjasaeter said the lure of overcoming his personal challenges (“Will I be able to work with people? Will I be able to enjoy the dark season?”) brought him to Longyearbyen. He said he doesn’t know his long-term plans, but even after a long winter he has no regrets.
“The snow and the light, it’s beautiful, but it’s the people that keep it going,” he said.