LIVEBLOGGING POLARJAZZ 2019 (OPENING NIGHT): A bonanza of locals gets things started with a buffet of music at the ‘Vorspiel’ at Kulturhuset


8 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 30): I was first attracted to Svalbard 11 years ago by Polarjazz and, if this is to be the final year of the world’s northernmost jazz festival in its current form, that I’m hoping to capture as much of it here as possible during the next five days with these liveblogs. I’ll be offering my impressions from this and other festivals over the years, how what’s happening reflects what happened in Svalbard during that time, and of course my thoughts about the music as a longtime jazz journalist.

8:13 p.m.: And we’re off a fashionable ten minutes late with a “quintet” that’s actually a trio of women singing a swing to a backing track and a couple swing dancing on the floor. Over the years this “preview” show has often featured the most pure jazz of any night of the festival, so of course things need to start that way here. (Note: I’ll be revisiting this and other posts tonight and after to fill in names and other details when fitting.)

8:15 p.m.: So much for jazz. Second number is about ten teens from Longyearbyen Kulturskole (a.k.a. the local regular school students since there’s only one school here) doing a rock number. My most infamous Polarjazz journalism moment, of course, is where I offered harsh critique of such kids during my first festival when I was doing hardcore writing about festivals around the globe. As for this number…it’s rock – what do I know?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

8:23 p.m.: Adults are on (a quintet) and we’ve got a case of the blues, arguably Longyearbyen’s genre of choice to the extent one exists. Dark Season Blues, of course, has been the most popular festival for locals and visitors for many years. But, alas, as with Polarjazz it’s struggling in recent years due to the huge population changes, to the point there’s talk of putting it on hold this year. Almost impossible to imagine.

8:27 p.m.: Same quintet is now doing “I Will Try To Fix You” (whoa..shift to Norwegian lyrics in the second verse, still pretty much flows). Regardless, awesome song in almost all its forms and that four-chord guitar riff is the kind of thing beginner can actually crank loud on an amp without driving folks nearby nuts. Speaking of … hey, this one was way too short. 🙁

8:32 p.m.: OK, one of the really fun groups that have formed since I got here: an all-ukelele band of hospital employees (OK, they’ve got a bassist standing kinda out of sight at the edge of the stage). Playing “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Whatever it is it’s sure to sound cool – or at least catchingly unique.

8:37 p.m.: Alto sax guy! Sorry, actually, it’s a local female student singing a very well-known ballad by Liv Mari Schei (our best-known commercial musician), who over the years has produced a number of protégés who do remarkable versions of her songs (as well as teaching hundreds of hundreds of others about music). I got lured into jazz by a few alto sax players and tried myself for years to play (catastrophic fail) so I always lock onto them first. In this case he’s a background blip with a few bars at the end. Moving on…

8:46 p.m.: Sax action for real with a quintet of young/old male/female doing Dixie (and then the theme from the “Pink Panther,” a movie series it’s been way too long since I’ve watched). Fun stuff. But it reminds me of a question I keep forgetting to ask players – where do they buy their reeds and stuff? Having it mailed from the mainland has to be a nuisance (not like national headline stuff like running out of toilet paper like we once did, but still), so I’m wondering if the school or somebody has a cache someone for those in need now.

8:53 p.m.: Speaking of protégés, up now is Amalie Henriksen, this year’s winner of a scholarship that’s our top local youth culture award, fronting a group of seven (the Polarjazz “house band”) for “The Sunny Side of the Street.” The link details the many things she’s doing here, as well as what Liv’s been up to (and is now departing from).

9:02 p.m.: A couple more women doing songs with the house band, including one playing “Feelings” on trumpet (a song I’ll always associate with an insane rant by a cruise musician after a gig when he was asked to play it…but it’s the trumpet so, Miles and such). And now a rockish number (don’t know by who). Anyhow, the band is mostly locals I’ve seen play pretty much every type of music possible individually and in various groups. Which up here feels like kind of a given – if you can play chances are you’ll get lured into everything and anything whether it’s familiar or not.

9:07 p.m.: Speaking of, Lasse Stener Hansen, the festival’s longtime director and drummer for the house band, is now singing “Grapefruit Moon” as a duet with Liv Mari Schei while she plays piano. His enthusiasm for jazz has always made him fun to talk to over the years, although there’s always that twinge that comes with hearing who he’d like to bring here and what he’d like to do with the festival even though it’s not possible. Also, he’s never been shy about letting me know when he thinks what I’m writing is bullshit.

9:13 p.m.: So now we’ve got the “Monaband” doing a couple of songs, beginning with “What a Wonderful World.” Which brings to mind a constant gripe as a lazy journalist: at most festivals I had little trouble getting full names, setlists and such from the various bands. Here the lineups are usually only by first name (i.e. Lasse and Liv Mari) or band name – so if I really need all the names it ends up being a bit of a scramble. Yes, I admit it’s embarrassing not to be able to remember/identify everyone after all these years. In this case I have no idea if “Monaband” is the actual name or a reference to something in Norwegian – Google Translate suggests the former, but since it also refers to polar bears as teddy bears and snowmobiles as ships I trust its reliability less than a White House press briefing.

9:20 p.m.: Halftime! Or, as it’s known in the fine arts, intermission. Or in Norwegian, a “pause.” But this is Super Bowl weekend after all (even though I stopped watching football shortly after I got here despite being a lifelong Broncos fan…besides having better things to do, this year’s game starts at 12:30 a.m., which means right as Polarjazz is ending and I’ll be totally fried).

9:25 p.m.: One of the great things about the Vorspiel since the festival moved to Kulturhuset a few years ago (more on that later) is it’s setup like a lounge with tables and candles, making it more easy to relax and socialize than the standing-room only space on subsequent nights. Here and at the Radisson hotel where it used to be held there’s also a separate space outside the stage area where folks can get their drinks and chat without being drowned out by the music, so Polarjazz has evolved into a mingling event as much as a musical one (I confess to being a spoil sport, since ever since my early college days when I was spending six hours a night in jazz clubs drinking no alcohol and listening to all the music I’ve been annoyed by all the chatter from nearby folks distracting me and not giving the musicians their full cred). Anyhow, a big change they’re doing this year is offering seating during the other nights here (for a surcharge) hoping it will lure more listeners. They were also hoping to return it to the Radisson since people preferred the setting (although the acoustics are far better here), but since it’s still going through a big reconstruction that wasn’t possible.

9:40 p.m.: Back in a big way, which could easily be taken as double (triple, quadruple, whatever) entendre since it’s the Store Norske Men’s Choir. “Store” being Norwegian for “big” or “great.” The size of the group is among the biggest here. One of its leaders is among the tallest residents here. And so on. I feel like I’ve heard them everywhere I’ve been able to make it to here, inside and out – including a bunch of them who sang at my surprise 50th birthday party last year (they just happen to go to the same pub we were in after their weekly practices and my fairy godmother called in a favor). They’re always consistent, even in the face of fierce storms, so the venue is often as memorable as the music. This year they’ll be part of the concert I’m looking forward to most at 5 p.m. Sunday when they join a trio of visiting artists doing a multimedia Svalbard-theme suite composed just for the festival. Especially for visitors, tickets are a huge bargain at 150 kroner. For that you get a bus ride to the mine (passing the seed vault as close as you’re allowed to get for those wanting too see/photograph it). Outside the mine are glorious near-panoramic views and there should be enough twilight for brilliant shots (and even better if its dark enough afterward to see the Northern Lights). And inside is all the aging mining stuff to look at while drinking frosty beer in the frosty air (there are heating fans, but they make way too much din to use during the show) and listening to what should be a pretty cool show in the acoustical sense.

9:50 p.m.: Liv Mari doing a piano/vocal ballad as part of a trio. Her bread-and-butter stuff that’s been the foundation of several albums, a musical documentary and all kinds of special projects.

9:53 p.m.: And…it’s Svalbard’s most legit true jazz band: Svajazz. A quintet formed in 2015 to ensure such a gig was offered at Polarjazz they’re exactly what they should be – comfortable and loose thanks to their familiarity with each other. As a critic they’re the definition of solid; enjoyable on their own merit with no need to puff them up because they’re locals or offer puffery by proclaiming they’re some secret gem nobody but a privileged few will ever get to hear. They’re doing a free gig at 5 p.m. Thursday at Svalbard Hotell and it’ll be one of my purist pleasures (pun not entirely intended) of the festival.

10:02 p.m.: And speaking of cool bands formed in recent years, now we’ve got Tundradundrene, a huge women’s pop group that does what we’ll just call “fun stuff.” Like the men’s choir, they’re starting to show up everywhere (they did a show at SvalSat last spring that was a blast – kinda literally since a blizzard caused the buses to get stuck and the audience had to trek a kilometer or two up to the station at the top of the hill. I had to hitch a ride since I had literally just broken a hip a few days earlier, but I still found it a warm experience despite near-shivering circumstances).

10:10 p.m.: The house band backed the women and now they’re finally doing one just on their own – basic fast, driving rock. It feels (in a good way) like listening to a hundred similar bands I’ve heard over the years that seem like they could just stay up there and play whatever they felt like for the next six hours with no gameplan of any kind. And the crowd would love all of it. Which brings me to a Big Secret for those still reading this insanity: a lot of times the house band will end up at Karlsberger Pub or somewhere for a post-concert jam session into the wee morning hours. How they do that and are fresh for the next day (especially Lasse with all his daytime festival duties) utterly eludes me, but then so do most other things.

10:17 p.m.: But they off the stage and on for a fitting three-song finale is the Longyearbyen Big Band. One of my favorite things about listening to them is the solos – they’re all over the map in terms of quality but, as with Liv Mari’s students, being here all these years lets you hear who’s gaining some real chops. One of the articles Lasse reamed me for (a look at the so-called “purpose” of Polarjazz, which he felt was both pointless and missed the mark) also was the year a great saxophonist from northern Norway named Håkon Skog Erlandsen visited and, between blowing listeners away, coached and conducted locals way up during their gigs. Question I should ask a few local festival veterans this year is how much (and what specifically) they’ve managed to acquire from all the “names” they’ve gotten to play with.

10:32 p.m.: We’re at the finale (at least as scheduled), a half-hour before the supposed 11 p.m. end of the show. While that might be a blessing for those needing to go to work early tomorrow, it feels kind of sad because it reminds me of a lot of familiar names I’d see every year who have departed in recent years due to the massive mining layoffs and other circumstances. And that’s why the festival itself is going through such a struggle – the folks who for years were lured as listeners and/or performers because of all the communal elements I’ve mentioned about (and much more) have been largely replaced by people who are probably working tonight in hotels, pubs, tours, etc. – or simply don’t have the money/energy/interest before another long day (maybe at two jobs) tomorrow.

But on a more cheerful ending note, it’s a safe bet that no matter what the festival looks like next year the Vorspiel definitely isn’t going anywhere. It’s still maybe the best one-night local musical showcase (as compared to a number of other gala evenings featuring dance and other performances) of the year and ensures things will always get off to a cool start.