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Back Roads Beat

Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

By Published: October 13, 2005
Among his albums with is 1989's Addeq, an eight-part suite with players and themes from the relatively sparsely populated east coast of Greenland, with drums from the region, dandelion stems and polar bear calls among the instrumentation credited to players. Those interested in music from the region will find it worth diving beneath the album's surface-level New Age feel, as the vocal/percussion combinations on songs with titles like "Parnaaliraaingaase" have genuine edge. It's conceptually interesting to hear Blak's piano flourishes, but too often the sonic result is a blunting that makes it more suitable as background music.

Milne's work also falls largely into the contemporary - the only example of his playing I encountered is the out-of-print 1994 Green Ice, White Land; White Ice, Greenland, a mix of substandard New Age and more accomplished fusion that is surprisingly inconsistent. Listening to the syrupy synthesized bells of the opening "Northern Light" might keep serious listeners from probing further and the next song, "The Arctic Revolutionary," is simply awful lightweight pop fusion. It's a shock, therefore, to reach "Full Moon Jazz" and hear a reasonably complex modern swing/fusion arrangement. The rest of the album dips into tango, 19th century folk, the Orient and more, all with similarly mixed results. The constant change-up of instrumental arrangements also means this probably isn't the place to start for those looking for a showcase of Milne's piano skills.

I was unable to track Milne down to get further insight into his work (he helped compose a number of songs on Moller's album, for example), but Rosenberg says he is still active with his own studio in Nuuk. That was disappointing, especially since Rosenberg calls his former mentor "one of the greatest jazz pianists I've ever heard."

"Jim decided to quit his musical career to become a missionary for the Bahai religion in Greenland," Rosenberg wrote. "If he had continued his career, I'm sure he'd been up there with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock."

Milne isn't a Greenland native - he moved there from the U.S. - and allowing for some movement there and away is necessary for compiling a decent-size list of accomplished musicians. Rosenberg, for instance, moved to Denmark after achieving his breakthrough work with rock acts during the 1980s, but tours Greenland and plays with a variety of band from there regularly (samples of his rock, blues and fusion work can be heard at his Web site).

The transient mentality is far more prevalent among younger and more urban dwellers than longtime residents living the traditional life of long-ago ancestors in small villages, hardly a surprise in culturally diverse areas worldwide. But all Greenlanders share more of a connection to the outside world then they might like to admit.

Most of the non top-40 music I saw for sale was by Danish musicians, as was nearly all of the downloadable music I searched for on the Internet with Greenlandic connections. One item of note is a free demo album by Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra (in RealOne format, but the songs can be saved and played without streaming), a burning modernistic freeform romp that happens to have a Greenlandic singer among its credits. Another site with at least loose connections include the Arctic Artists Network And Affiliation.

"Many Greenlanders already think they are independent," said Milne in a Nov. 30, 2000, article in the New York Times. But, interviewed at a Danish-funded cultural center in Uuk, he noted "the thorn is the money from Denmark. Everything you see that rises from the ground has been shipped in from Denmark, and paid by Denmark."

The hunt for jazz in Greenland: Scant opening notes

Jens Ole, 11, is proof musical talent can unexpectedly turn up anywhere.

It took a couple of hours after landing in the tiny East Greenland village of Kulusuk to encounter Ole, the youngest of a group of students doing instrumental jams in a barren room serving as the community center. The discovery was pure chance and little different than walking into someone's garage after hearing people rocking out inside, but rooting out such things proved necessary for profiling the jazz character of a land where many consider it all but nonexistent. Besides, if Lauryn Hill and Lionel Ritchie can headline jazz festivals on my travel itinerary, cutting some slack here seems acceptable.

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