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

John Kelman By

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February 5: Halvdan Sivertsen

Tromsø's Halvdan Sivertsen may not be known on an international level, but he clearly doesn't need to be. After grabbing a relatively quick bite to eat following the premiere of Arctic Mood, returning to the concert room at the Radisson Blu, it became immediately clear that this singer/songwriter was a local hero to Longyearbyen residents. Hitting the stage to huge applause, it wasn't long before Sivertsen had the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing at his copious jokes (again, in Norwegian, but the only assumption that could be made, based on the response, was that he was having a truly "on" night) and singing along to the many anthemic songs in his repertoire.

Backed by a crack trio—bassist Trond Viggo Solaas, drummer Rune Mathisen and guitarist Håvar Bendiksen, especially impressive as he moved from acoustic guitar to electric, pumping out power chords as easily as he did rock-edged solos with tasteful aplomb—Sivertsen also delivered the longest set of any artist at Polar Jazz thus far, a bit of a surprise given he was opening up the evening, with two more bands to follow, and then the all-night jam session. But Sivertsen's position as the evening's opener—as was the case with Solveig Slettahjell and Beady Belle, the two previous nights—clearly had nothing to do with ranking; but he did warm the crowd up for the long night to follow.

Sivertsen spent as much talking between songs as he did performing them; in some cases, his brief, radio-friendly tunes, ranging from folk rock to power pop, were shorter than his introductions, but nobody seemed to mind, as the beer and wine flowed freely and Silvertsen put everyone in a jovial mood.

Silvertsen may have been the star of the show, but the members of his group were no slouches, either. In the lengthy set-closer, Bendiksen took an extended solo, scatting along to his rapid-fire guitar lines à la George Benson, only to be matched by Solaas during his own feature that followed. But it was when Mathisen took his solo that things really went off the hook. Starting with a conventional solo, Mathisen went to hell in a, well, fruit basket, when he suddenly began pounding his kit with bananas...then cucumbers...then celery. Silly? Yes. But like his leader, Mathisen clearly understood the value of music as entertainment, a truth not lost on any of Silvertsen's group when, after exiting the stage to thunderous applause and demands for an encore, the quartet suddenly reappeared onstage to a hip hop beat, all in white hoodies, doing its best rapper imitation. Their best wasn't all that good, truthfully, but it didn't matter; the crowd loved it.


February 5: Stian Carstensen

Stian Carstsen is one of those rare musicians who can be as deep and profound as any, and as virtuosic as the best but, with a healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation, the multi-instrumentalist makes light of it all, as he proves himself truly capable of anything. With his longstanding Farmers Market group, he traverses more music per second than John Zorn in his cartoon heyday. Polka, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, film themes, folk, rock and more are twisted, turned, subverted and perverted to Carstensen's agenda: humor, engagement and complete and utter fun. Solo, it's no different, though the repertoire is. In a whirlwind set of outrageous playing, delivered with the timing of the best comedian (once again, in Norwegian, but with occasional outbursts in English), Carstensen turned his performance—switching between accordion, banjo and pedal steel guitar—into an unexpected feel-good set.



That Carstensen was capable of delivering classical repertoire on accordion, with blinding speed and accuracy—while stopping at various moments to interject some tale or comment, without ever losing a beat—was outrageous enough; it was easy to get wrapped up in the levity of the performance and forget just how talented a player he is. Throughout the set, he seamlessly and effortlessly extended the possibilities of his instruments, whether it was bending notes impossibly on his accordion, detuning and retuning strings on his banjo midflight, or playing a chord on pedal steel and sending the slide bar rolling up the strings in a horizontal kind of free-fall, while still managing to make it arrive at the right place at the right time.

It was clear that this final night of Polar Jazz was meant to be something of a party night, and it was hard to believe that a solo performer on accordion was part of the plan. Still, Carstsensen managed to keep the energy levels high, engaging the audience with his jokes and getting everyone to sing along with what sounded like a drunken bar tune, building the energy to a resounding conclusion that set the stage for an entertaining set of Manouche music from guitarist Jon Larsen and his Hot Club de Norvege. It also became apparent that Carstensen is a guy who just loves to play, as he sat in with Hot Club, later in its set, and then showed up at the late-night jam session that began around 1am and continued well into the wee hours of the morning, as Svalbard residents, tourists and Polar Jazz guests partied until what would have been dawn anywhere else, but in Longyearbyen was still the deepest, darkest night.

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