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Polar Jazz: Longyearbyen, Svalbard, February 3-7, 2011

John Kelman By

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February 3: Solveig Slettahjell

Arriving at the Radisson Blu Hotel, and meeting up with a group of journalist and industry invitees that has, over the past several years, forged a strong bond, based on a shared fondness for the Norwegian scene—despite coming from locations as far afield as Canada, Japan, England, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Russia—there was little time to unpack before it was time to head over to Huset, a fine dining venue where a tremendous meal was served, with scallops starters and rare-cooked reindeer as the main course. As outstanding as the food and company were, however, even that opportunity to catch up with old and new friends was cut short, in order to get back to the hotel which, as the primary venue for Polar Jazz, was opening its doors for the first act of Polar Jazz 2011: Solveig Slettahjell.

From left: Solveig Slettahjell, Sjur Miljeteig

Slettahjell has been on the Norwegian scene for a decade now, since she released her first, self-titled album with her Slow Motion Orchestra in 2001, introducing a concept that has been at the heart of the singer/songwriter's music ever since. Whether it's her original material with a greater pop predilection, from recent albums like Tarpan Seasons (Universal Norway, 2010), or interpreting jazz standards on the earlier album Slow Motion Orchestra (Curling Legs, 2001), the tempos are invariably kept down. Way down.

Slettahjells' Kristiansand, Norway performance at Punkt Festival 2007 provided ample proof that power and dramaturgy needn't require the high energy and obvious nature of faster tempos. As capable of a whisper as it is a scream, Slettahjell's assured vocal instincts and dynamic control meant that songs like the cabaret-style "Precise Content," one of the highlights of her Polar Jazz performance, could evolve inexorably and inevitably, as drummer Per Oddvar Johansen—no stranger to ECM fans of The Source, pianist Christian Wallumrod and saxophonist Trygve Seim—drove the pulse to a simmering climax, with longtime trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig providing enough vocal support to allow her voice to soar.

The set was not without its problems. As fine a group as her current Slow Motion Orchestra was—in particular, keyboardist Morten Qvenild, of In The Country and Susanna and The Magical Orchestra, who layered almost subliminal synth washes and delicate, economical pianism throughout the set—compared to its 2007 Punkt performance, there were times when the group felt a little disconnected. Johansen's normally unshakable anchor sometimes got lost in the shuffle, as was also true of bassist Jo Berger Myhre. Guitarist Even Hermansen, of Bushman's Revenge, who plays with unexpected restraint on Tarpan Seasons, seemed to be searching more than finding; overplaying on a gentle tune like "Right as Rain," which works on the album because of the very sparsity of the accompaniment and a slow, inexorable build. And in a country of forward-thinking trumpeters like Mathias Eick, Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvær and Per Jorgensen, Miljeteig came off as merely competent.

Morten Qvenild

Still, as flawed as Slow Motion Orchestra's set became at times—clearly an anomaly in the singer's unfolding career—Slettahjell's Polar Jazz 2011 performance succeeded on enough fronts—carried, as it was, by her evocative voice and Qvenild's ever-tasteful work.

February 4: Snowmobiling in the Mountains

The following morning, it was up at the crack of dawn—except, at 6am in Longyearbyen during Polar Winter, dawn is a long way away—for a trip to the mountains in the surrounding countryside. At this time of year, as the end of Polar Winter approaches—with the sun making its welcome return to Longyearbyen on March 8 (and festivities already in the works)—there are an additional 28 minutes of light every day. Still, it's the middle of the night at 6am, and while it began to get light around 9am, as the group was taken to a cabin and outfitted with boots, one-piece snowsuits, balaclavas, helmets, goggles and gloves—there was a surreal kind of light, with no direct source. Even at its brightest, the luminescent glow of the sky caused no shadow, and as quick as it was to appear, by 2pm it was gone again.

A team of about 15 snowmobiles—with a few teaming up as passengers but most ready and willing to drive at speeds up to 40mph—took off on well-worn tracks which, while making navigation easy, did require adherence to some basic rules. Still, a few found themselves bouncing off ice patches or rocks, and either diverging off the path and having to find their way back, or actually tipping their skidoo, requiring the help of others to right the snowmobile back on its skis. Getting a feel for the power of the snowmobile took a few minutes, but it ultimately became as second nature as driving a car, with the convoy traveling into a valley about 15-20 miles outside Longyearbyen. Stepping off the snowmobiles for a break and a snack—the guides brought along hot drinks, including a delicious mix of a thick berry juice and hot water, as well as cookies and chocolate—many were surprised to find themselves sinking into the snow, which ranged from a light dusting over rocks to several meters deep. It might not seem so, sitting on a skidoo, but it was actually a surprising amount of physical work; combined with the fresh, crisp Arctic air, there was little doubt that everyone was going to sleep well that night.

It was a noisy trip but, even so, it quickly became easy to appreciate why some people arrive in Svalbard, ostensibly for a short term, and stay a lot longer. Once the team reached its destination—a warmer valley, protected from the wind by the surrounding mountains—and the snowmobiles were shut off, there was an incredible stillness and ensuing sense of calm. The pace may be slow on Svalbard, but equally, there's no messing around; this was rough terrain, far removed from any vestiges of civilization. Cell phones work in Longyearbyen, but once out of the town there's no guarantee, meaning that if something—anything—happens, people are entirely reliant on their own devices and those of their companions. While the clothing provided is enough protection for the trip, the cold remains an ever-present threat.

Still, these were only background concerns, because the tour guides ensure that everyone is up to speed on safety before heading out. For a first-timer, it was a profound experience to actually be out in the Arctic wild, to encounter it on a personal level; this stark beauty is, simply, unlike anywhere else in the world.


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