5:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 31): Tonight’s rant opens at the close – although nobody’s about to die since it’s just the end of the first set for the first gig. Real life meant arriving a bit late to the free concert by SvaJazz at Svalbard Hotell, the first of two early evening shows by local musicians today and Friday. While passes for local festivals can be pricy for those on a budget (1,650 kroner for this year’s Polarjazz), there’s almost always an effort to include free events letting anyone get a taste of the action. For this gig, it’s a truly priceless opportunity to hear one of the very few pure straighthead jazz performances heard in Svalbard during the year.
6 p.m.: The updates are coming at a mellow pace because, while that’s almost entirely what the quintet of locals is playing so far, getting set up and settled is a bit more frenetic. There’s also the matter of trying to do things like get photos which, if you’re trying not to annoy others like the person next to the stage trying to video the whole thing on a smartphone, takes a bit of doing. Like waiting for breaks between songs to step in front of her. Discovering you left you photo card in the computer. Waiting for another break to get the card. And another to get back in position. While at times I have intruded on folks unwittingly with loud stutters, stumbles and whatnot, after roughly 20 years of covering festivals I really do have a long list of things I do to try to not to be a jazzhole.
6:16 p.m.: Speaking of people doing stuff with devices, there’s a guy a few tables back from the stage with some wine on ice and mini iPad which he’s using to mix the show (by which I mean the iPad, not necessarily that the wine is a necessary part of the job). One of the things I love about technology here is how it vastly expands our possibilities for “extreme living off the grid” (as a certain infamous reality show stereotyped us). I’ve aways wanted to write a “biography” of a Nord synthesizer the city has owned forever that seems to show up at every gig indoors or out in some role. From getting seriously hammered endlessly for days during the blues fest to feeling to the chill of frozen fingers from an intrepid youth playing a celebratory sing-along at Solfest, it’s hard to image a lot of the live it has lived has been according to the manufacturer’s spec manual.
6:40 p.m.: I was expecting mellow ballads when I arrived during the first few songs and got them, but pretty much the whole gig is remaining in that gear in contrast to shows from earlier festivals where upbeat swing, more intense solos and maybe some dancing was the norm. I’m not complaining since I was wired when I got here and need the comedown – and maybe the same could be said for the audience and venue since only about 30 people can fit into a quaint hotel restaurant that now specializes in sushi (the existence of which is long story about that in itself, probably to be told at tomorrow’s show when there’s more time). There’s also what expeditioners call “the mood of the party.” Elisabeth Gjelsten Eines, the band’s singer/pianist who as usual was wearing the prototypical slinky red dress for the occasion, said afterwards that on this occasion her mood was set on mellow so that’s what they worked on and went with.
7:30 p.m.: When I said I spoke to Eines afterwards, that was actually just before my last post since the gig was a wrap. Thus began the migration by musicians, volunteers and listeners to Kulturhuset for the evening concerts – some far more leisurely than others. I was one of the “others,” getting here about 7 p.m. to a near-empty theater while Janove was doing a sound check. As with a long list of photo habits, there’s rituals I try to follow every Polarjazz such as arriving way early so I can get a space in the upstairs balcony (where the sound crew normally is, but during the festival they’re on the floor level) to set up my newspaper’s corporate headquarters (which tonight is a laptop, camera, bottle of water, a grapefruit and some tiny squeeze pouches of lasagna in baby food form the store was shoving out the door for five kroner each). In addition to getting a overview of everything and everyone, it ensures the glow of my laptop is away from listeners who might find my typing distracting and intoxicated folks who might (and have) spilled their spirits to me and my Mac in a most unwelcome way.
7:53 p.m.: One of the reasons I get to the balcony area early is that’s also where the artists and other VIPs get to watch the festival if so inclined. Right now they’re just outside the theater in a reception area where the lavish buffet consists of…hot dogs. Yup, we may have the latest in high-tech, but when it comes to band riders anyone demanding no green M&Ms is going to find themselves in a cold, dark place (um, I guess so is everyone else, but play along). Still, ever since my first Polarjazz and at pretty much every other event the visiting artists are here at least as much for the novel experience as the gig. In lieu of salt-free seltzer water (which I once had to search all over a Canadian town for while volunteering for a fest long ago), dogsledding, boat trips to see glacier, snowmobile trips to see polar bears and post-concert gigs into the outdoors to see the Northern Lights. For years Polarjazz got away with paying a pittance to players (and some paid their own way) for suck perks, but in recent years that hasn’t been the case for the big names…hence the financial struggles now hampering it.
8:19 p.m.: A fashionable 19 minutes late we’re off and running at the evening’s first main concert as Janove Ottesen (who fashionably goes only by his first name these days) takes the stage. He was at Polarjazz in 2012 when he was a frontman for the Norwegian alt-rock Kaizers Orchestra. My preview article that year noted he was billed as the hightlight act with a promo of “oil drums, gas mask, pump organ and a live band…a complete experience, a six-head monster, a coarse and fine machinery.” He’s since gone the “solo” route, showing up with a band of four others who are fashionably vague amidst a rather hazy stage (as a journalist I hate trying to photograph this stuff, especially with all the bright lights shinning right into our eyes/lenses).
8:30 p.m.: As for the music…um, it’s rock. You know that really awful and horribly inaccurate cliché about two types of people in the world. For me it’s those who are loaded for jazz and those who dig. Janove digs. Now of course the nonsense in that is I’ve known and loved music of all types all over the world – even rock at Polarjazz. I’m just not even vaguely qualified to write anything about it. I ran into a Svalbardposten journalist yesterday who was taking some photos and leaving rather quickly that night because he didn’t feel fit to write much about jazz. And since his vibe is in line with roughly 99 percent of the rest of the population (based on actual preference polls), it’s definitely me, not you, if the updates for this show are more about sights than sounds.
8:40 p.m.: With Polarjazz organizers saying next year’s festival is likely to be shortened, that means the Thursday evening shows that are officially the first day are the first facing the chopping block (the locals’ evening on Wednesday is known as the vorspiel because’s that’s the Norwegian word for prelude (or foreplay). So a few ground rules about what the evening typically features (disclaimer: if ticket sales really do drop off this year your experience may be different). It draws a somewhat smaller crowd – I’ve usually been able to move around the audience area without too much trouble, whereas on subsequent nights folks are packed in to the point aggression often is required. It’s also often a “stretch” evening for the audience in that lesser-known artists playing non-rock/blues genres are featured, including usually one legit jazz band. Many years it’s the night things end the earliest (probably not this year since the vorspiel was rather short, as I mentioned last night). That’s a plus so everyone from players to workers to listeners to sad souls like me don’t get too fried before things really ramp up for the weekend (it also helps the first gig Friday is at 5 p.m., while Saturday’s start at noon).
8:58 p.m.: Interesting…just took a look at the touted first-ever “seating section,” which festival director Lasse Stener Hansen thought might attract 20 to 30 percent of the audience, and unless I’m missing something there’s all of seven people sitting along one side of the room – and nothing looks roped off other otherwise indicative of being a restricted area. Again, this may be a Thursday one-off – or even a one-off just for this show – but it’ll be interesting to see how much the idea does/doesn’t catch on.
9:19 p.m.: Well this is weird. Janove just said his thank yous and departed (shaking hands with a few of the crowd first), and there’s no encore. Maybe he had to be done at a certain time, but given that the breaks between concerts are pretty long compared to other festivals (and it doesn’t feel like the stage changeovers require that much time) it’s not exactly a way to go out with a bang. As for a useful critique, the Svalbardposten guy I mentioned last night is next to me and his opening comment was “he was good, wasn’t he?”
10:14 p.m.: Time for the main event as Ola Kvernberg’s Steamdome takes the stage. He’s a jazz violinist and multi-instrumentalist who, like so many first-tier players in Norway, is a wiz of intellect and creativity. But I agree with my colleague at the “other” paper that what’s he’s opening with is bullshit. Long, slow, synth heavy stokes with lots of ambient lighting. To what purpose I don’t know or have ever been able to figure out at countless shows by others. Dramatic buildup, I suppose. That works if you’re U2 opening with “The Streets Have No Name.” Or the London Symphony Orchestra playing “The Rite of Spring.” But if you’re a legit jazz cat – large electric ensemble or now – just bring the real stuff.
10:23 p.m.: Maybe five minutes in they shift into the next gear and I can safely say not everyone here’s gong to go for it. Very thick, synth-draped textures and beats, so it’s all about the composing and arranging (and being a Tangerine Dream fanatic way before electronica was cool I can grok that if done right). My quibble when it’s done by a jazz master is all the nuances that make him/her stand out are lost. A real fanatic can listen to a brief snippet of “real” jazz and know blindfolded (literally in a monthly Downbeat feature) who the players are by their distinctive timbre and improvs. Here with Kvernberg still playing those slow strokes (but with great showmanship!) over the intense techobeat he could be playing a Stradivarius or a cheap student Suzuki – or a kazoo – and it’d sound pretty much the same. OK, opening song and it’s supposed to be catchy, but at some point the real purpose of this is supposed to be the nuances he can coax out of a delicate instrument and his ability to converse with others in the band about it.
10:41 p.m.: Stuff like the paragraph above, by the way, is why nobody here likes me when I write as a critic and why no girl ever went out on a date with me if the previous one involved a jazz club. Which is why I’m trying to look at the larger stage known as life and music in Svalbard as I write these rants throughout the festival.
10:44 p.m.: The crowd size looks pretty typical for a second show on Thursday featuring jazz – less crowded than the rock crowd earlier with plenty of space to move and gaps at the back. Very few people in the VIP balcony and the cafe area outside the stage where the socializers tend to hang. During years when the gig has been right it’s always been when I’ve felt the sharpest twangs, knowing that which thrills me most doesn’t go with the flow. And it’s definitely not just a Svalbard thing. At jazz festivals from New Orleans to Amsterdam to Stockholm I’ve had to accept the reality of artists like Lauren Hill and Amy Winehouse (impaired divas who were serious late-arrivers or no-show) being headliners. At least Svalbard tends to attract folks open to new experiences in life, so if there’s something happening they have time for and can afford (ouch – a harsh reality if you’re trying to stage a festival you’re not personally billed for if it loses money) they’ll show up. And no, it’s not just because there’s nothing else to do. In the same building tonight there was a book club meeting that started a half hour before the first concert (although a weekly knitting group in the next building over was cancelled). At the moment it’s also -1C with little wind, so an evening ski/dogsledding/snowmobile is also something family/friends in most of the world can’t do. And, of course, thanks to our-high, we can watch SEAL Team like the rest of the normal world.
11:03 p.m.: But since I’m getting back to high tech, one of my favorite Polarjazz tales involves a bass player I interviewed on the Thursday of the first festival I covered. He left his upright acoustic outside in the extreme cold (back when -25C to -30C was a regular thing, not the stuff of breaking news and official alerts), only to have it explode. Which probably isn’t technically what happened, but the visual and structural effect was the same. He was on stage that night because of course – ugh, I can’t believe I’m writing this – the show must go on. But it’s cautionary tale I’ve shared with players ever since, as well as an entry to asking my ubiquitous question “what’s an experience you’ve had here that has never happened elsewhere?”
11:46 p.m.: And that’s the end (if there’s no encore). Long break because tonight is also the last day for a GoFundMe effort an 11-year-old named Rishi Gokhale started for me to help save my newspaper when I was suffering from severe physical and financial hardship. I had to send him a proper thank you since I’ve been too busy toward the end of the campaign to offer any truly useful last-minute effort. But I will offer the link here for those who want to contribute before it ends at midnight in the U.S. (6 a.m. Friday in Svalbard).
11:50 p.m.: Yea! There’s an encore. And double yea! It’s the first song all evening where Kvernberg is playing unplugged, first solo and then with fairly light layering from the band. But only for a couple of minutes and not enough to really get a vibe for his violin before things ramp up again, and so while the show was fine as entertainment I’m not coming away feeling like I got something a different player with a different instrument might have brought with a similar-size group. and while it’s perfectly fair to ask why I can’t just be glad a band with this talent is here playing such music, I’ll end with a pervasive thought I’ve always retained from Miles Davis. He said listening to a recorded jazz song is like looking at a menu, but listening to it live is the actual meal. So unlike a rock show where fans want greatest hits, famous covers and other stuff that fulfills their familiarity, it’s the opposite of what I seek in my discordant world. Right now Kvernberg is doing his solo and it’s a mix of simple plucks and strums, along with some sharp hits that trigger responding lights/beats from the rest of the stage. None of it feels particularly spontaneous or interactive. And he might be able to say I’m just not hearing him (not the same as listening to him) and he’d be right – he could be playing the most complex solo with the most unorthodox technique and it’d be impossible for me to know amidst all the reverb and echo.
But, again to close out on a high note, our local beer guru (making, not drinking it) just wandered by and opined “wow..this group was really good.” He also promises “Saturday is the best” based on who he knows is coming, so stay tuned to see if that’s the case.