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Back Roads Beat

Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007

By Published: February 5, 2008
Besides the festival there are usually eight jazz concerts featuring local and imported talent, but no clubs or other places where jazz is played on a continuous basis, Williams said. Audience interest is generally strong, but occasionally turnout is disappointing.

"One New York band was pissed because there were more people on stage than in the audience," he said. But, he notes, "That's how Sting started."

Leading Off With The Main Event

After waiting nearly 20 years for Garbarek to make up for a cancelled appearance, Varangerfestivalen officials didn't hesitate to put him on stage right away.

Many small festivals starting mid-week open with a light schedule of lesser-known musicians, since most listeners don't arrive until the weekend. But Garbarek lauched things before a packed audience Wednesday night and proved the most popular jazz performer of the festival, especially for locals waiting to hear him since he was unable to make it when he was booked in 1988.

"They always have a big concert on opening night with big-name artists and it's almost always sold out," Williams said.

The long trip can be hard on any musician and for Garbarek, working something like his 70th day on a summer tour, was "a little more uptight than most" other players, Williams said. The band opted out of a sound check the night before and went to a crab feed on the beach—which the saxophonist "raved" about.

There was a boat trip after Wednesday's concerts as well for all the participants, who caught 12 more crabs, Ovensen said.

"I think we're having boats out every day," he said.

Whether the crabs helped Garbarek's playing as well as his mood is unknown, as his show received mostly positive—but mixed—reviews. My overall impression is he played it safe, offering a constant variety of soundscape densities in long and well-thought arrangements. But I didn't hear the stretching that made me feel—in the words of Miles—I was getting the meal that expands on the menu of his recorded material. Maybe two or three of the roughly 10 people I talked to afterward shared my opinion, the rest called it a first-rate effort.

I know enough of Garbarek's work to vaguely recognize most of it, but not provide song names without help, and the saxophonist played old and new material straight without talking to the audience. His bright and edgy contemporary tone changed surprisingly little as he alternated about evenly between tenor and sopronino saxophones, playing mostly loose, sparse and harmonious phrases that fit unchangingly into the textures from his colleagues.

Pianist Rainer Bruninghaus was more assertive, with long stretches of thick chordings and punctuating rolls that darted at least occasionally into off-color moments of individuality, finishing the evening with a wide- ranging pounding that last 15 to 20 minutes and earning a standing ovation that was the most enthusiastic of the evening. Bassist Yuri Daniel didn't get a lot of extended action, although a five-minute solo transition between pieces mid-concert offered a deceptively mellow tour de force of high-fret harmonics and multitonal counterrhythms.

Drummer/percussionist Trilok Gurtu was the most consistent highlight with wildly shifting jungle/ethnic backdrops heavy on hand beats and screw-twisting to adjust the tone of his kit. Tongue clicks and other vocals accompanied a wood block solo that got the audience into a clave-like 3-2 accompanying clap, and he kept them involved with stagecraft such as dunking shakers and other hand percussion in a bucket of water (which I can only guess serves some mute or echoing function).

Two late-night concerts brought a more communal feel in both setting and musicians who came from the extreme ends of the country.

Hallgeir Pedersen, a 30something guitarist billed as "Norway's King Of Bebop," played the first show with his trio at 9:30 p.m. in the Varbrudd hall, a simple rectangular building I can best equate with a Moose or Elks lodge. Maybe 200 people comfortably filled the picnic bench seating at the beginning, although a few more could and did wedge their way in later. There were plenty of talkers, none distracting enough to mar the on- stage happenings nearly everyone else focused on.

Pedersen's biography says his influences include Wes Montgomery, Thorgeir Stubø, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass and Jimmy Raney. But as a self-taught player Pedersen had to overcome less than ideal circumstances.

"(He) comes from the small village of Øksfjord (population 800), located on Norway's utmost northwestern shores and very far from any urban jazz environment," the biography notes. "Despite this isolation he has become a musician of world-class calibre. Hallgeir's truly singing guitarplaying is characterised by a particular powerful and warm sound. His rhythmic clarity, flawless technique and harmonic creativity conveys contagious joy for music."

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