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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: February 5, 2008
The wind-down feeling was more scholarly than sedate. Lande's altos whispered rather than cut through the room, capturing attention with a sense of storytelling rather than just reciting lyrics. Husby, a composer for TV and big band in Oslo since 1980, dominated the instrumentals with wide-ranging runs and leaps played densely with both hands. Bassist Konrad Kaspersen, who's played with many of northern Norway's notables since the "golden era" '70s, took a similar heavy handed path. Guitarist Hans Mathisen, who leads his own band and is an arranger for major Norwegian classical orchestras, allowed listerens' minds a bit of breather with engaging, accessible Charlie Christian-like timbres. Similarly, tenor saxophonist Odd Andre Elveland soothed with lyrical thoughts while avoiding trivialities, his smooth-tone more characteristic of an alto in range.

An already packed day reached a crescendo—in theory—with the final 11 p.m. concert by the second of two Norwegian jazz giants at the festival, trumpeter Nils Potter Moelvaer. But there were apparent delays getting the longtime ambient/techno master and/or his gear to town and the main stage, and they were still performing sound checks well past the scheduled start of the show. Workers at the door said they hoped for a midnight start, which seemed way too optimistic. I had seen Moelvaer a few weeks earlier at the North Sea Jazz Festival and, since he wasn't a vital part of the local jazz scene, did a late-night bailout so I wouldn't be fried going into the final day. A couple of people I spoke to the next day, including a journalist for one of the regional newspapers, described it as fine but unremarkable—a lot like the gig I was at.

Mass Demand For Volunteers And Refugees

The welcome-to-all mentality of Vadso peaked on the festival's final day.

The late-morning to past-midnight concert schedule stretched the genre boundaries to the point of making jazz a definite minority. The headliner show was a Genesis-type rock band that outdrew everything else at the festival. Tellingly, while throngs of youths were navigating roadblocks and exchanging tickets for admission wristbands (both a first), most of the festival's core people were eating dinner a few blocks away.

The eccentric mood was set with an early afternoon concert by the Finnish quartet Kvalda. The group, winner of the 2004 Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition, saturated the Rica hotel meeting room with originals whose extremes consisted of pounding punk and classical sophistication. Far from being grating or sedate, the group's creative impulses were consistently smart and engaging, making for for one of the best low- profile sets of the festival.

Vocalist Aili Ikonen fronted most of the songs in either Finnish or English, maintaining a clean presence from alto lyrics to an aggressive and varied range of high-pitch scats. "Basically the best vocalist we've had by a fair amount," is how my notes read, no small thing given the much-promoted appearances of Boine and Hukkelberg. Pianist Antti Kujanpää was mostly dense and harmonic during the opening songs, then branched out with harp-like strums directly on the strings, satirically dramatic operatic sweeps and other sound/texture explorations. Bassist Jori Huhtala was the quietest presence, but hardly short on accomplishment with full-board, rapid-finger plucking of non-standard progressions and pronounced cadences from shuffling to stuttering. Drummer Hanne Pulli supplied a foundation for of full-kit workouts, but generally in subsets allowing heightened focus of her techniques on each.

The final element elevating the performance to exceptional was all this occurred in conversations throughout the body of the songs as well as extended solos. Combined with the wide variety of moods in the compositions, virtually every offering seemed to expose a new element of the band's abilities. Still, the most audience-pleasing moment was probably one of the least challenging, a melodic temper-tantrum Ikonen introduced as "You know when you have a really, really bad day? This is it."

What followed was several minutes of chaotic discordance, controlled-volume screams and pounding instrumental exchanges, all at a speed and turbulence suggesting someone was trying to jump-start a bad day by mixing instant coffee, Jolt cola and Alka Seltzer.

"I've never heard a bad day better than this," one listener told the band afterward.

The players said afterward they weren't bothered coming so far to play one gig in a partially filled room with about 60 people.

"It's not about the amount of people," Ikonen said. "I think it's enough if you look at the audience and see them appreciating it."

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