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

John Kelman By

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February 5: Svalbard Museum, University of Svalbard

The final full day for most, February 5 started with a morning off for the international guests; a chance to rest up and prepare for the busy day and evening ahead. After lunch, everyone met up and took a quick, brisk walk to the Svalbard Museum, where a brief tour provided some perspective on the history of Svalbard, a series of islands that form an archipelago which, with nearly 60% of its landmass covered in ice, sports a relatively temperate climate for this latitude. The result is that Svalbard is the breeding ground for millions of birds during the four summer months of midnight sun and, while not always easy to find (and a good thing, at that), home for more polar bears than people.


Svalbard Museum

Discovered in the late 1500s, it became a focal point for whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries, with Pomors (Russian settlers) also establishing hunting stations on the islands. While closer to Norway than to Russia, Svalbard would become a Russian outpost for many years, even though Norwegians were also settling there, and the Islands ultimately became part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1925, when the Svalbard Act was signed.

The land is covered in tens of meters of permafrost, and there are no trees to be found, contributing to Svalbard's rugged, stark landscape, but life on and around the islands, thanks to the Gulf Stream and meeting of warm and cold waters, is rich and varied, creating a food chain whose influence ripples far from its northern latitude. Dovetailing with the exhibits at the Museum, a presentation by the Eva Therese Jenssen—the Information Officer of the University Centre in Svalbard (part of the same building complex as the Museum)—provided even greater insight into the challenges and opportunities of life on these northern islands.

With over 2,000 students, UNIS offers exceptional courses in four Arctic studies: biology, geology, geophysics and technology. Field activities dominate, and the international demographic of the university mirrors that of Longyearbyen. There are stringent requirements to obtain admission, but funding isn't one of them, with several programs making it possible for qualified students to obtain the necessary financial support to enroll, after completing a few years of study at other institutions.

One of the most enlightening aspects of Jenssen's presentation was her discussion of surging glaciers, which are different than the glaciers with which most are familiar, and are found specifically on Svalbard, and in the Canadian Arctic, Iceland and Alaska. Throughout the entire trip it became increasingly clear that the kind of environmentalism being practiced on Svalbard was of a most practical and pragmatic kind—one that deals in reality, not armchair conjecture. That images of a surging glacier on Svalbard have been used by Greenpeace, for example, to bring attention to global warming/climate change, is clear evidence that the activist organization is either misinformed or is misinforming its readership. Unlike other glaciers, which rest on water, glaciers in Svalbard attach directly to the permafrost, and their surging forward and shrinking back has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with weight distribution. Surging glaciers do, indeed, surge forward—in the case of Svalbard, relatively slowly, compared to elsewhere, but their recession is equally gradual—and inevitable.


February 5: Arctic Mood

And so, after two days and a bevy of activities musical and otherwise, the reason why a group of international guests was invited to Longyearbyen. A collaborative project between clarinetist/composer Brynjar Rasmussen and photographer Werner Anderson, commissioned by the Nordnorsk Jazzsenter, Arctic Mood is a celebration of Svalbard in general and Longyearbyen in particular; a multimedia presentation that brings nature and technology together, supporting the premise that man is, indeed, only a guest on this unique archipelago. With its debut performance in Longyearbyen, and the coincident release of the CD in a full-size, 45-page hardcover book with gorgeous reproductions of Anderson's images, the ultimate goal is to make Arctic Mood a movable feast; a project that can be taken on the road to destinations abroad, to help spread the word about this remarkable place, the important work going on there and the stark but stunning nature all around it.



Rasmussen's nine-piece ensemble (the same as on the recording) featured a group of musicians who collaborate regularly in various permutations and combinations—many, including trumpeter Ole Jørn Myklebust, guitarist Bjørn Charles Dreyer and drummer Gunnar Augland, past and present collaborators with internationally renowned Norwegian traditionalist, singer Mari Boine. The music was what might be expected from a group of players with one foot in Norwegian folk music and the other in more modernistic concerns; a 70-minute performance that, at double the length of the recording, expanded significantly on the music and allowed more room for focused improvisation. Noted Norwegian actor, Bjørn Sundquist's participation was also expanded, his spoken word entirely in Norwegian, though the book does contain English and German translations of the text.

Performing at Longyearbyen's Konserthus— a tremendous, thoroughly contemporary venue with an open coffee house/restaurant on the ground floor—before a capacity crowd, Rasmussen's group was seated along the front of the stage, with a large theater screen behind them. Like the book's images (but using far more of them), the performance encapsulated the history of man's involvement with Svalbard, including pieces of the Russian history that were particularly moving for one of the festival's guests from St. Petersburg, who later commented on the power of the performance.

Beginning in near ambience—Rasmussen's deep and processed bass clarinet interacting with pianist Jørn Øien (heard the previous evening with Beady Belle)—the music took longer to resolve into more defined form, but, timed with the images, a stronger lyricism ultimately emerged over a relaxed pulse from Augland and bassist Svein Schultz (the album's producer), as fiddler Ragnhild Furebotten sang wordlessly in unison with Myklebust, Rasmussen and accordionist Herman Rundberg's winding melodies. The music ebbed and flowed, with solo features for most, but notably Myklebust—who, it seems, lives unfairly in the shadow of more internationally known Norwegians like Henriksen, Eick, Jørgensen and Molvær, but, based on this performance, clearly deserves greater attention and consideration. Dreyer was clearly cut from the same cloth as guitarists like Eivind Aarset, paying as much attention to texture as he did melody and harmony, and while the music had a clear roadmap, there was plenty of opportunity for him to color the canvas with broad sonic swatches, elsewhere being more pointillistic in his approach, combining with his band mates to create larger landscapes driven by no single instrument; more like a house of cards where the final result, delicate as it was, ran the risk of falling apart if but a single part were to shift.


Ole Jørn Myklebust

Ending almost anticlimactically—with Sundquist's final words echoing into silence as a coda, featuring Dreyer and Rasmussen, dissolved into the ether on a pad of synth colors—the rehearsals for Arctic Mood during the course of the past week clearly paid off. The performance, despite its riskier extemporaneous passages, went off without a hitch, as Anderson's vivid imagery and Rasmussen's compelling music combined for a performance that will surely make 2011 a particularly memorable year in the history of Polar Jazz.

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