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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: February 5, 2008
Showing up for a jam without understanding all that history or the plot? No sweat, said Andersen, since the music itself is based on simple and interactive concepts.

"It's very easy to take a sami song to jazz or blues," he said.

A Finnmark singer incorporating a blend of modern elements into yoiks more successfully than anyone in the region was the featured performer at Friday night's main concert.

Mari Boine proved a strong example of Scandinavia's proclivity for cultivating artists who excel at deceptively understated, intelligent and progressive music. Hers is a blend of traditional chants and folk narratives to a frequently shifting backdrop of rock and world instrumentation ("not jazz as much as light electronica or aggressive New Age," is how my first-impression notes describe the latter). Long throaty cries, spoken transitional poetry and doubling up on sampled loops were among the many nuggets in the bag of tricks for Boine's wide-ranging but mostly alto vocals. The mostly lengthy instrumental arrangements remained consistent enough to absorb, but seldom stayed that way for long.

These descriptions probably don't do justice to her yoik interpretations, many accompanied by simple rhythmic dance steps which received frequent and enthusiastic responses from an audience close in size to Garbarek's top-drawing concert.

Boine opened with a folk ballad (in Norwegian) accompanied by Georg Buljo's light electronic guitar riff, joined later by breathy whispers by trumpeter Ole J?rn Myklebust so flute-like in character I scanned the stage twice, sure I was missing a player among the six I saw. She ended the song with some unaccompanied lyrics for a couple of minutes before percussionist Gunnar Augland and Myklebust, working some electronics, stepped in with a low-volume rumbling transition. Buljo rejoined the mix with a strum on a tiny guitar-like instrument of obvious ancient origin and the ensemble spent the next couple of minutes building to full-volume with Myklebust and Augland tossing hand-percussion rhythms between them while Buljo and Boine's wordless vocals blended into an amazingly well-harmonized lead tone resembling a synthesized calliope.

Other songs progressed similarly, ranging from operatic rock to something sounding like a hybrid Afro/Inuit beat. Probably the least complimentary assessment of the concert I heard afterward was "unique," and that from a Norwegian music journalist acknowledging her talent, even if it wasn't his cup of tea.

For listeners finding Boine too sedate, or needing a jolt afterward, the billing on one of the later concerts down the street said it all: JazzKamikaze.

The Danish free jazz quintet, winner of the 2005 Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition and two audience-choice awards at Spain's 2006 Getxo Festival, played to a sparse audience of maybe 30 people at the Rica Hotel. Having the first half of their concert overlap with Boine's didn't help, nor did having a number of other mostly Norwegian bands playing blues and other non- jazz music in nearby venues.

"Speedball" blistered the walls from opening notes with a hard-rock beat and lightening-fingered guitar and sax bursts by Daniel H. Davidsen and Marius Neset, respectively, with a few longer-note stomps to vary the rhythm. Neset kept a similar pace with varying approaches on other songs, from Coletrane-like post-bop to crowd-pleasing low-note/high-note alternating phrases to extreme upper-register screams. Another audience winner was mouthing a tenor and alto simultaneously for something that begin as a funeral dirge but quickly resurrected as hard fusion.

JazzKamikaze proved adept at more than hard and loud on "Everest," opening with Davidsen's moody but harmonious musings and a simple piano riff by Morten Schantz (who spent the "kamikaze" tunes pounding intervals with both hands that seldom sought refuge in easy repetition). The rest joined in with a series of rising notes possessing the character, if more sophistication, of a mountain film soundtrack. Less successful was their take on something by The Bad Plus (name escapes me, my bad), with everyone opting for solos that were straight fusion or near straighthead instead of the original's infamously twisted notes.

Next in the Rica's room was a chance to mellow out between high-energy gigs—or for early crashers to wind down for the night—with pianist Per Husby's quintet and guest vocalist Anne Lande. The set was mostly mellow standards or originals influenced by them, at least as best I could understand from the Norwegian introductions to each song.

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