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

Mark Sabbatini By

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Aagaard's saxophonist (Gisle Johansen if her MySpace bio is current) stood out most consistently in quantity and quality, blowing modestly challenging but energetic streams of on-key runs and trills on alto and tenor. Guitarist Nils-Olav Johansen (Web site and free MP3 downloads) also was a frequent presence, rolling out more delicate soft-tone notes in a similar harmonizing vein. He also replace Aagaard as the lead vocalist on two songs and was, in a word, awful. Poor volume and pitch control made the audio problems Aagaard experienced even worse and, while his resume describes exotic influences such as Hawaiian and Balkan music, on the Polarjazz stage he was playing the pop dreck one hears from tired cruise ship veterans. The only redeeming aspects were some wordless harmonizing in collaboration with his guitar and stretching out on instrumental solos, opening "Out Of Nowhere" with a soothing sequence of dual note/chord lines and later walking a path of intelligent musings with constant detours into bright embellishments.

Aagaard returned for the final four songs, but some of the energy—and a noticeable portion of the crowd—was gone. A couple of rock/gospel numbers revived memories of some earlier horn section highlights, but two well-known standards, "For All We Know" and the encore "What's Going On," fell flat. The former plodded along at a slower pace than normal with minimal electric keyboard accompaniment and lacked enough emotional authenticity to warrant the pace. The latter was simply a poor match for her vocal talents, a regrettable ending since it was the one song I considered her delivery substandard.

The thinner crowd was something of a blessing for volunteers (many recruited on the spot) who cleared the chairs for the Mambo Companeros. The band's eight members, six freelance Trondheim musicians and two Cubans living in Oslo, write a large portion of the music they perform and is as authentically Afro/Cuban as any band the untrained ear might hear. I can tell you they played enthusiastically, were more listenable than a lot of similar bands that play too loud for their audio rigs, there was a full dance floor at nearly 2 a.m.—and it utterly failed to connect with me in the way that vegans' pallets clash with fois gras. I'm into elements of such music blended with mainstream, be it Michel Camilo or certain Paquito D'Rivera albums. I can't explain the disconnect with the real thing, other than I was staggeringly bad when I took some classes with Kristan several years ago and recoil in terror at the nonstop urging from everybody to dance.

So I bailed on the revelers, the jam of standards involving what I hear was a strong plurality of the festival's lineup and the party until the false dawn that began the few hours of twilight that day. But ultimately I outlasted many of those hardy souls in the final round of endurance.

A Divine Finale

A lot of people left town Sunday and the sparse schedule looked like something of an afterthought: a bargain-priced 5 p.m. performance at the local church featuring the children's choir and some vocalist. Experience indicates such shows typically have little musical value beyond cuteness and gratification for parents.

I should have had more faith.

Randi Tytingvaag's quartet joined the stage after two songs by the choir and pulled off the rare feat of playing a set of jazz appealing to all ages. Compositions were full of playful quips, melodramatic exclamations and quick-hook themes kids might associate with the heroine's theme song of a Disney movie or the quavering atonality of twisted holiday specials. But stuff for grown-ups kept popping to the surface via uncompromising solos and complex improvised unspoken dialogue between Tytingvaag and/or her acoustic piano/bass/accordion mates. It revived memories of those classic inside jokes from the original Sesame Street (The Count: "They call me the Count because I love to count things." Guy Smiley's response: "Well, I'm Guy Smiley. They call me Guy Smiley because I changed my name from Bernie Liederkrantz." The episodes are now sold as "adults-only" DVDs, by the way, thanks to characters like a bulimic cookie freak, closed gay couple and a Snuffleupagus who apparently was just a bird's trippy hallucination).

Getting back to the band, did I mention Tytingvaag's pianist is Aarum, appearing yet again in the way musicians in small circles and communities are apt to do? Playing in a setting more suited for showing off his talent than Aagaard, I finally felt redeemed for my sloth.

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