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POLARJAZZ IN A PANDEMIC: Smaller lineup, bands and crowds – but it’s Svalbard’s first major music festival of the COVID-19 era thanks to a wonder of creative thinking and improvisation

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Photo of 2020 Vorspiel show courtesy of Polarjazz

Given it’s a marvel there’s a Polarjazz at all given the continuing COVID-19 circumstances, there’s some rather marvelous offerings what’s a limited schedule for the world’s northernmost jazz festival next month.

Many things will be different about this year’s Polarjazz festival scheduled to start Feb. 4, including audiences limited to 50 people and other mandatory COVID-19 restrictions. But at least the festival is offering custom (and probably historic) face masks that will be available at the opening concert. Photo courtesy of Polarjazz.

Famed Norwegian singer/songwriter Jan Eggum is the (already sold-out) headliner of the four-day festival, while genre purists will be able to hear a duo concerts by longtime Norwegian contemporary jazz legends Bugge Wesseltoft on piano and Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet.

For those craving a Svalbard touch, aside from the ever-popular opening Vorspiel show by a wide variety of local performers, there’s “an instrumental and verbal summary of the battle for the Arctic” from 400 years ago featuring notorious local legends – and as a plus for those left cashless by COVID-19 it’s free.

(See this year’s schedule | Watch/listen to this year’s artists)

The biggest downer: attendance is limited to 50 people per show, although as a slight “consolation” for those not dependent on tourism income only people over 18 years ago who are registered residents of Svalbard will be allowed in. Also, festivals organizers emphasize, they are “crossing their fingers” the government might relax some of its rules in time for the festival and thus allow more people to attend.

Restricting admission to residents and the 50-person limit are both part of a series of tougher restrictions Norway’s government enacted at the beginning of January and then extended for an additional two weeks on Jan. 19. Since Polarjazz is scheduled from Feb. 4-7 it is possible those limits will be lifted just before the festival.

Bugge Wesseltoft, who performed solo and with other visiting musicians during the the 2020 Polarjazz, returns this year for two concerts. Photo by Tore Sætre.

“We will follow the instructions of government rules closely and hope we can open up for more tickets to sell” Lasse Stener Hansen, the festival’s longtime director, stated in an online interview. “At the moment we are happy that we might be able to offer a Polarjazz at all, but are very sad for all those who will not get tickets as there are two reasons why we do not throw in the towel: the artists who have had a bad year and the people of Longyearbyen that have made it through these times as well as they have.”

Hansen said festival organizers are considering streaming the concerts, but because that would involve bringing people and equipment from the mainland it may not be possible due to the high cost.

The 50-person limit is due to the festival opting to keep its “table and chairs” setting at the main venue of Kulturhuset instead of using the movie seats, which would allow more people, Hansen stated. However, that would complicate the serving of food and alcohol inside the space – a key consideration since traditionally Polarjazz has been a social gathering as a musical one, with long intermissions between shows and a free-flow of attendees between the auditorium and cafe where food is also available.

“The next weeks will decide what we do as we, of course, feel sorry for those who would like to but not are able to get tickets,” Hansen noted.

The festival’s budget was half that of previous years – and even that was due to some sponsors “contributing more than we could expect in these times” – so choosing both the artists and number of concerts was a challenge, Hansen said.

“First of all economy does not allow much these days, so as few musicians as possible for as many concerts as possible was the rule,” he stated. “So the biggest groups are trios this year – and as always some jazz and some for the (popular) crowd.”

Finn Sletten, left, a drummer with roots both in Svalbard and Norwegian jazz scene, performs a drum exchange solo with Bjørn Jensen during the 2015 Polarjazz festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Having featured musicians play multiple concerts means a jazz fan unable to see Wesseltoft paired with Molvær, for instance, can experience him in a completely different setting at that “battle for the Arctic” show, accompanying Longyearbyen singer Mia Ekeblad Eggenfellner and drummer Finn Sletten (whose Svalbard roots include being one of the few surviving people to grow up in Ny–Ålesund when it was a mining community in the 1950s and early ’60s) in performing a musical tale about the whaling era of 1600s written by Arne O. Holm, a longtime Svalbard journalist and policy expert.

Absent are some longtime festival favorite venues and shows – such as concerts in Mine 3 and at Gruvelageret – plus events such as formal dinners featuring music. The unofficial and usually spontaneous post-concert jam sessions at various pubs also are likely to be largely or entirely absent since current COVID-19 regulations require establishments to close at midnight (and while alcohol is allowed at places that serve food, new customers cannot be admitted after 10 p.m.).

But the changes mean there will be some novel offerings such as the free gallery concert, including a Sunday “church” concert by acoustic singer Thea Wang that will actually be at Svalbard Museum due to construction at the church. Also, some past favorites such as a children’s concert are still scheduled, although the playful trio Lille Bille will perform at Galleri Svalbard instead of the usual location at Kulturhuset.


Polarjazz 2021 artist profiles and performances

Jan Eggum
Official website | Live benefit concert in Oslo

One of Norway’s best-known singers/songwriters whose recording career dates back 45 years. Promoted as an artist who “gives melancholy a face” who “on stage…oozes a sense of humor, warmth and life experiences,” he has won multiple Norwegian Grammy and other awards.

Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvær
Wesseltoft’s official website | Molvær’s officials website | Full 2006 album “Mélange Bleu” featuring Wesseltoft and Molvær w/ bassist Lars Danielsson

Wesseltoft is a Norwegian pianist/composer who has been a stalwart of Norwegian jazz since the early 1990s, implementing heavy elements of techno/electric into his music. Molvær is a Norwegian trumpeter and hailed as a pioneer of jazz/electronic “future jazz” beginning with his award-winning debut album “Khmer” in 1997 (video of live 1998 performance).

Holm, Wesseltoft, Sletten and Eggenfellner
YouTube video of performance by Longyearbyen singer Mia Ekeblad Eggenfellner

A unique trio of nationally known and local musicians will perform a unique concert at Galleri Svalbard narrating a tale of the fiercely competitive and dangerous whaling era in Svalbard during the 1600s, written by longtime journalist Arne O. Holm.

Gisle Børge Styve Trio
Official website | 2012 album “Here Right Now” on Spotify

The Norwegian jazz trio of Gisle Børge Styve (piano, vocals, ukulele), Per Willy Aaserud (trumpet, choir, melodies) and Helge Harstad (bass, choir) has been performing originals, standards and covers since 1998, with a style described as warm and interactive with both each other and audiences. They have released multiple albums and won awards both as a group and in collaboration on other projects.

Trio de Janeiro
Official Facebook page | Live video 2020 performance w/ guest musicians of “Tristeza”

A Norwegian jazz/bossa nova trio formed in 1998, they received a Norwegian Grammy for their 1993 debut album “Brazilikum.” The trio’s performance at Kulturhuset will also feature guest bassist and former Svalbard resident Finn Sletten as part of a two-concert evening with the Gisle Børge Styve Trio.

Ingrid Bjørnov
Official websiteLive “home concert” to benefit World Down Syndrome Day. March 21, 2020

Norwegian singer/songwriter/pianist whose 1980 debut album with Benedicte Adrian  won a Norwegian Grammy.

Official Facebook page | Video of 2012 mini-concert broadcast by NRK

The Norwegian trio of Ola Kvernberg (fiddle and viola), Stian Carstensen (accordion and banjo) and Morten Vågan (bass) performs a wide variety of music with elements of jazz, classical, blues, bluegrass, English pop and Balkan rhythms. They are described as highly improvisational and light-hearted.

Lille Bille
Video of 2020 concert on Vidmo

A Norwegian children’s music trio that has been performing for nearly 20 years which won a Norwegian Grammy in 2004 for their self-titled album “Lille Bille.” Ole Jørn Myklebust (vocals and trumpet), Håvar Bendiksen (guitar) and Hallgrim Bratberg (guitar) have played more than 2,000 concerts and collaborated with a wise variety of Norwegian musicians on other projects in a variety of genres.

Thea Wang
Official website | Free live and recorded tracks on Soundcloud

A Norwegian singer who “writes about long summer evenings, English texts about life and love, sunlit eyes and lemon juice.” She has spent extensive time in New York and Italy, and recorded her 2020 debut album in the U.S. in January of 2020. She is scheduled to perform this year’s Sunday evening “church concert,” which will take place at Svalbard Museum due to construction at the church.



Polarjazz 2021 schedule

• 8 p.m.: Vorspiel show featuring various local performers. Kulturhuset.

• 5 p.m.: Thea Wang. Svalbard Museum
• 8 p.m.: Trio de Janeiro & Gisle Børge Styve Trio. Kulturhuset.

• 1 p.m.: Lille Bille concert for children. Galleri Svalbard. FREE.
• 4 p.m.: Holm, Wesseltoft, Sletten & Eggenfellner. Galleri Svalbard. FREE.
• 6 p.m.: Gammalgras. Kulturhuset.
• 8 p.m.: Wesseltoft & Molvær. Kulturhuset.
• 10 p.m.: Jan Eggum. Kulturhuset. SOLD OUT.

• 6 p.m.: Ingrid Bjørnov. Kulturhuset.

About Post Author

Mark Sabbatini

I'm a professional transient living on a tiny Norwegian island next door to the North Pole, where once a week (or thereabouts) I pollute our extreme and pristine environment with paper fishwrappers decorated with seemingly random letters that would cause a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters to die of humiliation. Such is the wisdom one acquires after more than 25 years in the world's second-least-respected occupation, much of it roaming the seven continents in search of jazz, unrecognizable street food and escorts I f****d with by insisting they give me the platonic tours of their cities promised in their ads. But it turns out this tiny group of islands known as Svalbard is my True Love and, generous contributions from you willing, I'll keep littering until they dig my body out when my climate-change-deformed apartment collapses or they exile my penniless ass because I'm not even worthy of washing your dirty dishes.
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