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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: February 5, 2008
Pedersen's gig of standards and originals with a modest modern slant was more prose than narrative, a sequence of ideas progressing naturally without an overall sense of storyline. He was comfortable, smooth and generally free of empty notes while pontificating, although with a tendency to linger too long on repeating phrases to fill transitions.

Bassist Bjørn Alterhaug, who's played with numerous international legends and released a few albums between the late 1970s and early 1990s, had nice moments working the extreme ends of his fretboard, with a few wide-ranging solo note runs and, on "My Shining Hour," a high-low buildup of contrasting yet harmonic plucks. Drummer Trond Sverre Hansen kept the pace aggressive and broad, but didn't get many opportunities to develop beyond a minute or so of frenzied full-kit pounding.

It would have been easy for an outsider to miss the subsequent gig, around 11 p.m., when a guy brought his bicycle on the empty stage and starting tinkering with it using some tools. Especially since nothing subsequent was listed.

But it turned out to be one of the various noisemakers used by world/pop vocalist Hanne Hukkelberg's quintet, originally listed as playing at the same time as Pedersen in another location. Hukkelberg, a native of Kongsberg who won a Norwegian grammy for her 2006 album Rykestrasse 68, draws comparisons to Icelandic singer Bjork, but with a more global and experimental brush. I stuck around for a bit and got an engaging dose of world pop progressing through ensemble-like stages of pace and intensity, but left after a few songs made it clear there wasn't much of a jazz element in the set (thus missing the chance the appreciate the musical nuances of those bicycle spokes).

Schoolhouse Rock and String Theories

After the opening sprint, it was time for a breather.

Only a couple of evening events were scheduled for the second day of Varangerfestivalen, the main one being a student rock/pop performance on the main stage that was predictably popular among the mostly peers and family members attending. But only about half as many chairs were set out as the previous night and even then there was ample empty seating.

The 14 students, including a male/female vocalist duo and a six-member horn section, mostly performed straight arrangements of classic rock/pop like "Mustang Sally" and "Too Many Fish In The Sea." It was no better or worse than a typical concert by youths in their mid teens but, as is often the case, at least one noteworthy talent stood out.

Korren said he's a self-taught singer—his father tells him he was humming the national anthem as a tot—who's been performing in concerts since the first grade. He hopes to pursue a music career, but expects it will be away from Vadso.

"I need to go the city if you want to go there," he said.

Jazz isn't a big thing for Korren and his friends, festival or not, and while he said he enjoyed what he heard during the school ensemble's rehearsals, it's not a direction he intends for his career.

But giving audiences something of an education was the goal of a few Varangerfestivalen performers, including violinist Ola Kvemberg, during his late-night Day 2 gig at the filled-to-capacity Kolibri pub. He talked the audience through the themes and storylines of songs that blended elements of Grapelli, folk, modern straight-ahead and fusion, playing them with a dense, aggressive tone full of pitch shifts, quavers and other tonal colorings.

"I never know what to expect of a festival in the countryside," said the Tronheim resident, adding both he and audiences have changed during the three festivals he's played here. When trying to relate to audiences "half of it is trying to explain it to them. I'm just sort of trying to help them on the way. I realize it helps people get something out of it they wouln't normally get out of it."

Kvemberg grew up in a family that played folk music, although interest in jazz was whetted when he heard Grapelli at age 17. Among the pieces he performed at the festival was the lengthy folk-to-funk-to- meditative "Adoption Suite," which Kvemberg said he wrote for his grandfather in the hopes of convincing him of the artistry of improvised music (his grandfather passed away before hearing it). He's been playing in more tradition jazz ensembles the past six or seven years, and his gig featured some standards like "Nambia" and "What Is This Thing Called Love," but said his current trio is striking out in a different direction (videos and downloadable MP3s of old and new songs are at his Web site).

"i was missing the violin to be a flexible solo instrument, and just kind of me and another instrument and percussion," he said.

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