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

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The main isle of the Svalbardbutikken supermarket turned into an agricultural wonderland to begin Day 3 of Polarjazz, complete with a street market line of boxed produce and greenery (much of it paper) everywhere you looked. It was more a nose-thumbing than an escape from the Arctic winter, especially since I was lugging frozen whale and reindeer in my basket.

Besides the free fruit, the main attraction was a free mini-concert in the aisle by the eight-man a cappella group Kaarstadbygget (MP3 samples), which did a mix of serious and whimsical pop classics in Norwegian and English. The notable crowd-pleasing moment was second tenor Oddvar Aalde doing a comically exaggerated serenade of "Oh, Carol" to his wife. They sang for only 20 minutes or so, but it was intended as a preview of their opening concert that night at the Raddison.

Their full show branched out considerably in their vocal explorations and repertoire. The opening "Let's Go Walking Down The Street" featured remarkable life-like high-hat and bass sounds to pace the lyrics, and the "percussion" section got a denser workout during a-ha's '80s hit "Take On Me." A few more playful arrangements were stirred in, from the barrage of dog barking on "You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog" to the astounding one-man "Radio Show," where lead tenor Hallgeir Omarhus emulated a channel surfer by jumping every few seconds from beat-box grooves to nonsensical narratives to stormy sound effects to static.

The second concert was Oslo singer Unni Wilhelmsen (official site with audio and video), a Norwegian folk/rock star whose first two influences on a long list are Susanne Vega and Simon & Garfunkel. Her guitar and maybe some other instruments suffered tuning problems caused by the exposure to the cold. One result was some timely lyrics, with "my piano is out of key and so I'll weep" earning some laughs at the recognition of the reality of the situation. It may have also eventually worn down her level of performance: she played a solo vocal/electric keyboard ballad for the finale before the encore, ending it with a rather limp flourish of keys and a resigned shrug toward the audience. But the gestures were fitting of Wilhelmsen's seemingly open communication with listeners, in the voice of someone who still finds much of the experience new after starting her music career started relatively late in life.

"Music didn't exactly play a prominent part in our family life," she writes in a lengthy Web biography, and while her parents gave her a guitar at age 12, it was no substitute for the piano she craved and bought at 20.

"I had been writing stuff for a while," she notes. "Pieces of thoughts, comments or quotes from books I'd been reading. Stuff that gave me associations to be curious about. But the words seemed naked to me. Something was missing, even if some pieces surely could pass as poems."

The usual procession of open mikes and small-time club gigs followed, until a journalist recommended her to a record company without her knowledge in the summer of 1995. In February of 1996 she released her debut, To Whom It May Concern (listen to one song here), which won Norwegian Grammies for Best Female Of The Year and Album Of The Year. She started her own label, St. Cecilia Music, in 2003 and released her sixth album, Til Meg (hear samples, in 2006, the first featuring Norwegian lyrics.

There were definite similarities to Vega during her Polarjazz concert, although Wilhelmsen sings in a higher register, with intriguing stories among the fluff. Things suffered when she tried to rock harder (think about "Tom's Diner" and how awful the dance-floor remix is; voices like these are assets that should dominate rather than the instrumentation or arrangements). Then again, she drew as large a crowd as any performer at the festival and if there was any comparative lack of enthusiasm, I didn't detect it.

The place remained completely jammed with people standing all the way to the lobby as the Urban Tunells Klezmer Band took the stage just before midnight. Billing themselves as one of the few such Norwegian bands, the quintet promotes itself as respecting Klezmar's traditions while touching on modern deconstructions into Jewish jazz, hip-hop and "klezcore" made popular by groups such as Balkan Beat Box. Urban Tunells' set came nowhere near BBB's club-beat intensity, although some of that can be heard on their 2007 album Upnorth Balkan Beats—The Kohib Remixes (10 MP3s from this and their other albums are at their Web site). Instead the performance was free and frenetic in a more acoustic roots vein and, while personally a fan of both groups, this was probably a better listening experience for those seeking more than immediate gratitude.

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