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The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

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That's how one learns about the difference between Alaskan Huskies and Greenland dogs (the latter aren't as fast, but they're smarter and better for driving in bad weather). Also, there hasn't been a polar bear attack on the kennels since they opened in 1997, since most of the creatures are on the east coast, on the other side of town. Jacobsen said tours there, especially on snowmobiles, are in high demand, to the chagrin of some locals. A couple bears have been shot recently during attacks, which are generally the result of visitor stupidity.

"There are a lot of people who want to get a little bit closer on a CX37," he said. "They turn off their engine and they think they're going to take some pictures."

Shooting a bear results in serious inquiries and plenty of potential trouble if unjustified, but the locals also have enough sense to let regret overcome practicality. Polar bear is advertised as an as-available dish on the Raddison's and possibly other menus, although none was offered while we were there.

Jacobsen said he was heading out that evening on another half-day tour, this time facing the challenge of keeping eight or nine sleds together, but the former chef said the day-in, day-out routine of rigging and driving dogs in the cold amidst people who usually don't know what they're doing hasn't lost its allure. "It's a big change from 40 degrees in the kitchen," he said. "Now sometimes it's like minus 40."

Warming Up

At even the most remote and obscure festivals, there's almost always at least one "find."

Sometimes it's a total unknown, sometimes an established musician lost amidst the masses. Stuboe, the Oslo guitarist and composer, proved one of the latter and his new trio was the highlight of this year's Polarjazz festival, at least for me and my traveling companions.

He coaxed unaccompanied serene warblings by running a glass over his fretboards, drew laughs with the '70s camp tribute "San Francisco" to oversize cars known for bottoming out on bad shocks and gave jungle rumble treatment to the much overplayed "Summertime." I thought he sounded strongly of John Scofield, Joe thought he was more like Al Di Meola ("with a keyboarist they'd be Return To Forever," he said). Stuboe said the trio is influenced by Jim Hall's trios from the early 90s.

"The idea here is to use an acoustic sound because it feels freer" than when an organ is part of the group, he said.

Stuboe, whose early influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis, graduated from the Jazz Conservatory in Trondheim. His professional work ranges from the organ groove group Jupiter, led by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, to leading a trio paying tribute to Wes Montgomery. At Polarjazz he explained many of the songs about to be played, then built them piece-by-piece starting with solo sound explorations (light percussive-like harmonics, sometimes right at his tuning keys, for the opening song; high-note questions and bass-string answers on the John McLaughlin tribute "John Deere"). From there Stuboe, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Torstein Lofthus accelerated into various syncopated funks, some drawn from compositions with few such roots such as "Lahppakobbal" ("I can't pronounce it properly myself," Stuboe said), influenced by small Sami village in Finland and its traditional pentatonic Yoik music.

Arntzen provided a smart, stable foundation of soft, thick-tone notes which hit a sprinter's pace during solos. Lofthus went for a less-is-more approach on many solos, emphasizing one or two tones at a time, moving through a few rotations of new ones, then finally bringing them together for the climax. Interplay between the three was consistently strong and seemed to connect well with the audience, which sadly was noticeably lower in number than several featured rock/pop bands.

Among such groups was the evening's opening rock/folk concert led by Vidar Johnsen and Peter Nordberg, two established Scandinavian vocalists/guitarists who began collaborating on projects more than a decade ago. The songs, either originals or covers I didn't recognize because they were in Norwegian, were a decent assortment of arrangements from ballads to mild reggae.They were obviously known and popular among the crowd, but I found myself taking very few notes.

Jazz might not be the most appreciated music in Longyearbyen, but Stuboe said he believes listeners do more than just show up because it's a novelty.

"I think the general atmosphere here was really positive," he said. "That's the most important thing. I think in general when the music starts happening everyone is paying attention."

Frozen Whales In The Tropics

Free tropical fruit. Palm trees. A serenade. What more could one want in the Arctic?

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