LIVEBLOGGING POLARJAZZ 2019 (DAY 5): Svalbard’s version of ‘Footprints’ takes on a totally new blue hue in Mine 3


4:58 p.m.: I’m wrong about a lot of things. At the moment that includes the advice that folks coming up here should get a great twilight view before heading into Mine 3 for the finale of Polarjazz. It’s pitch black out, so any tourists feeling cheated out of photos should make their displeasure loud and clear to…well, I’d rather not have it be me. Maybe yell at you dog – I’m sure it’s done something to deserve it.

Hopefully I’m not wrong about my hopes this will be the most intriguing concert of the festival, due to the rustic location and the performance of a Svalbard-specific suite composed just for Polarjazz. Titled “SPOR” (“footprints”), it featured Norwegian actress Juni Dahr reciting verse, acclaimed Norwegian musicians Tore Brunborg and Per Oddvar Johansen on a variety of instruments, and the Store Norske Men’s Choir as accompaniment.

5:02 p.m.: Underway on time (the free bus here departed at 4 p.m.) so folks are plenty settled. The workshop of the mine is set up differently than any other concert I’ve been here for, with the stage on floor area instead of…well, the stage.

It opens, as one might expect, very gently, with the three featured visiting artists. Actress Juni Dahr is reciting verse as Johansen bows a saw (as in the carpentry kind, which it seems odd to say I haven’t heard before). It emits various hums as he strokes it. Brunborg comes in after a couple of minutes on tenor sax offering a variation of Dahr’s lyrics as instrumental prose. Johansen switches to drums as a synth vamp loops, giving the whole thing the ambiance of a musical poetry recital. Brunborg switches to very simple fingerings on a synth of his own as Dahr resumes her narrative. And so the progressions and handoffs continue…

5:12 p.m.: As best as I can tell, the space is full to the capacity allowed by the setup (people are seated in front of the performers and on the stage) Normally far more people can fit in since everyone’s standing in front of the stage. Then again, all those shows tend to be rock, blues or something loud and driving. I’ve never heard anything close to what’s happening now except when the Svalbard Kirkes Trio was recording their (album) here a few years ago. Also, it’s worth noting the Store Norske Men’s Choir is standing along the wall furthest from the performers. It’ll be interesting to see how/where they’re used.

5:16 p.m.: By the way, I guaranteed this would be the coolest concert of the festival in at least one way. At least I’m not wrong about that. It’s not exactly chilly in here, but heavy clothes or a coat are being worn by most. The heaters in the room have to be switched off because they’re far too loud even for a rock show. That’s more likely to be felt an hour from now but – like a frog dropped in a pan of water being heated – with luck everyone won’t realize/feel the gradual chill until they’re already dead (OK, that makes no sense, but I’m not going back to come up with better wording).

5:21 p.m.: Things are ramping up with Brunborg and Johansen doing an aggressive dialogue that’s pure jazz funk. While this is a composed suite, clearly there’s plenty of passages open to solo and group improvisation and variances. And now we have verse by Dahr without instruments. Right now that’s what this show is all about – dancing and weaving between all kinds of verbal and instrument passages. The overriding aura is somewhat dark yet harmonious, much like a series and emotive soundtrack. I didn’t really arrive with any expectations, but this certainly isn’t far from what I inferred might happen from the artists’ description provided before the festival.

5:27 p.m.: Something a lot of players performing in here have talked about are the acoustical challenges/opportunity the metallic walls and other aging infrastructure present. Even though this is quieter in volume than most music performed in here and very soft sounds such as sax breathing and barely-touched keys are part of the suite’s structure, I’m not hearing anything affected by the surroundings in a notable way, say perhaps a very light overall reverb (that could just as easily be part of the soundboard mix).

5:33 p.m.: Having heard several Svalbard-themed suites over the years (and without meaning to demean, they all seem to share certain elements of a dark and sweeping aura), this strikes me as one of the more musically accomplished, especially in terms of variety and complexity – which is saying something since it’s still just the three main artists. The narrative, while touching on the seemingly always-present themes of light/dark and man/nature, asserts itself more individually with passages about real-life experiences of women here.

5:37 p.m.: Interrupting that thought as the men’s choir comes in for the first time (still at the back of the room, but then walking around the walls to the left and right of the trio up front). their forte is rugged and roudy workman songs, of course, but this is a soothing atmospheric recital you’d associate with a normal suite/sacred performance. They go quiet as the trio resumes its mix-and-match, but at intervals become part of it with choral hums and recited lyricism.

5:52 p.m.: While taking pictures at the back of the room I noted there’s really a fourth player in the mix-and-match – rather literally, as the soundboard man is changing things up as frequently as the players (thank heavens for digital assistance since it’d be impossible to change all the sliders/knobs at once otherwise, but he’s still doing plenty of nudging individual components as the performers intensify/decelerate their parts.

6:01 p.m.: The men’s choir is highlighted “front and center” for the first time with a gentle vocal piece as the trio goes silent. Interesting note: it appears they’re doing a mix of their own songs and some written for this suite at various points.

6:07 p.m.: The performance is being filmed by a single fixed camera at the back, although since there’s been a few people passing in front of it and standing up in the audience for photos, so I’m assuming it’s not for a performance video. And I’m also guessing if this is being recorded through the soundboard it’s not for an album release. The website narrative for the piece says “this is the first part of a larger work that will be developed during 2019 with the theme “Listen to Svalbard,” so of course one of the main questions I’ll ask afterwards is what else is happening, and if people will get a chance to hear this performances and the others in some non-live form in the future.

6:15 p.m.: I started this post mentioning I’m wrong quite a bit, so this seems like a good spot to insert a few tidbits from when I was surfing other stuff written about the festival before I got here. Maybe most important, festival director Lasse Stener Hansen wrote in a post today on the event’s Facebook page that ticket sales/attendance ultimately weren’t as bad as organizers feared beforehand.…

6:23 p.m.: Putting that thought on hold for a minute as the show is ramping up to might be the finale. In any event, it’s gripping. Dahr and Johansen launch a fierce volley of verbal/percussive exclamations for several minutes before Brunborg starts working his way in and then the chorus joins in during the final minute or so. Very aggressive and urbanish, quite in contrast to the rest of the suite. And very captivating.

6:27 p.m.: And that’s it, with a hasty exit by the performances after the applause. Doing the same here to go do the Enquiring Minds thing.

6:55 p.m.: Talked to Brunborg and Dahr, and got a bunch of stuff I’ll be writing in a separate article about the concert (and more of their project that will be performed here in September) on Monday. Also planning an article to get into what Hansen had to say about this year’s attendance and where the festival goes from here. Meanwhile, anyone who’s read these idiotic rants all the way through the end deserves some kind of prize – I strongly advise treating yourself to some therapy.

All in all I thought it was a solid festival without hitting the peaks or lows of past years I’ve been here. Certainly the last concert will be the most memorable for me, much as the Svalbardmesse performed by the Svalbard Kirkes Trio and accompanying musicians was during the finale in 2015. The sparsely attended GURLS show was my favorite jazz and “find” of somebody I’ve never heard of before. And J.G. Hansen clearly was my favorite local gig as well as the “where he hell has he been all this time?” discovery.

As for what I got wrong (gotta close by returning to the opening line…) it seems my impression of attendance didn’t match Hansen’s whose Facebook post Sunday suggested he didn’t see any big gaps on the floor during any of the concerts (I stand by my observations, wrong as they’ll be perceived to be).

Also, a writeup of the festival by a Norwegian cultural magazine was far kinder to the gigs I criticized. Good example is their summary of Ola Kvernberg’s Steamdome, which I thought was cluttered, overprocessed electro-synth mediocrity. The magazine asserted “the power, the energy, the many layers of sound and, not least, the interaction are impressive. It is as if the intense expression ties up the nerve threads in the spinal cord and then merge them together in a new way.” I’ll admit that’s a better job of evaluating them with far fewer words – then again, they weren’t doing it in real time. Again, I stubbornly stand by my wrongness. Kvernberg’s a first-rate jazz violinist, and the concert was a lost opportunity to showcase his talents and those of others in the ensemble in a way to truly distinguish them from various other jazz electronica ensembles.

But in the end I enjoyed this year’s experience as much as any I’ve experienced, perhaps because of the possibility it might be the last such time. But the fact there were a lot of at-the-door ticket sales suggests at least some of them were moved by the concerns expressed by organizers before. Which hopefully means even if next year’s Polarjazz is abbreviated it will continue instead of following Dark Season Blues in taking a year off (if that happens). Whatever else, I’m guessing that’s one thing that I, Hansen and other festival devotees can agree on.