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

Mark Sabbatini By

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My candidacy for a dogsledding Darwin Award began shortly after we arrived at the kennels, wearing thick head-to-toe clothing our guide gave us in town, when Jacobsen gave us instructions over the non-stop din of barking on getting the dogs from their shelters and attaching them to the sled. He warned it was vital not to let them get away, since about 20 of their 89 dogs were in heat. The kennel yard is separated in half by sex, but the yiping turns into an eardrum-splitting uproar if one gets loose among the other (one escapee was caught quickly by our guide). I struggled to keep my dog held steady between my knees while attaching the harness, which I kept hopelessly rotating like a sweater with four arms that I couldn't find the neck hole through. All told, I got three dogs attached in the same time Joe (in picture) harnessed six. Little wonder Kristan is with him now.

Then came the instructions for driving our three sleds: pulling up the stake-like anchor only when everything was truly ready to go, not throwing it so far when stopping it couldn't be reached from the sled, using body lean to help steer. There was no mention of yelling "mush" to get the dogs started ("It's like a motor that's always on and the only control is the brake," Joe said later), nor did we get whips to spur them on.

"The most important thing: Don't let go of the sled," Jacobsen said.

Kristan and I shared a sled, Joe and our guide had their own. Ours promptly overturned and dumped me painfully into the snow while she was trying to navigate away from the kennels on a downhill slope, the hardest kind to drive on. I made up for it a few miles later by nearly impaling her with the anchor when the sheer force of the dogs starting forward jerked me nearly over the handlebar I was clinging to with my free hand while all but throwing the anchor randomly forward so I could get a grip my other hand.

I stayed upright and (barely) managed to avoid falling while driving, although my vastly underweight 120-lb. body was terribly ill-suited for leaning during turns to keep it from overturning. Joe was less fortunate—and so was I as a result—when he took a spill and his dogs, now moving much faster with the lighter weight, dashed by and his sled hit me in the back. I was sitting in the sled while Kristan was driving and the impact ensured I wouldn't be at the helm again that day.

Which is a bummer, because driving is definitely better than riding. When you're standing upright you have clear view of the scenery, the bumps don't jolt as much and you have a good idea of what kind of terrain lies immediately ahead. In the sled you're sitting low—almost laying down—the view is obstructed by your knees, and the bumps are rough and unexpected (in this hasty and awkward self-portrait, I'm in the lower left corner and those are Kristan's hands on the sled). Plus it's much colder just sitting there. The only socks I brought were well-worn white tubers and I probably would have gotten frostbitten toes if our guide didn't put a down sleeping bag over me during the return trip.

The valley, even if it was a mere 10 miles outside town next to a coal mine, was an exceptional sight with sharply defined peaks of pure white on both sides of the path. The difference in the brightness of the twilight was astonishing from when we arrived only a few days ago, when a faint glow touched the sky for an hour or two. On this day the light was bright enough to see the peaks clearly to the horizon and it lasted twice as long.

"I'm very happy the light is back," Jacobsen said. "It's been a long season."

We went about 15 miles to where a hill started to climb out, with the out-of-shape dogs struggling mightily to get up the first slope that was our turnaround point. This is where the drivers had to step off their sled and run alongside (they've never have kept up speed on level ground), which is a damned hard thing to do for long on a slope with deep snow.

The return trip was relatively uneventful, experienced hands we were by now (cough), as was unhitching the dogs and returning them to their individual dog houses. Of all the tasks, this last one might be the hardest for me on an extended trip—caring for the dogs before thinking of your own comfort, even just a quick warm-up. Luckily, instead of pitching tents there was a cabin with a wood stove going and some hot water Jacobsen brought in thermoses. So we sat on benches around a wooden table while exchanging the kind of war stories one does after an expedition, mild as this was (Kristan and Joe returned a couple of days later for a full-day trip including a crawl through some ice caves). Us novices could least offer comparisons between Svalbard and our work experience in Antarctica, plus Kristan could talk about covering the Iditarod several years ago.

That's how one learns about the difference between Alaskan Huskies and Greenland dogs (the latter aren't as fast, but they're smarter and better for driving in bad weather). Also, there hasn't been a polar bear attack on the kennels since they opened in 1997, since most of the creatures are on the east coast, on the other side of town. Jacobsen said tours there, especially on snowmobiles, are in high demand, to the chagrin of some locals. A couple bears have been shot recently during attacks, which are generally the result of visitor stupidity.

"There are a lot of people who want to get a little bit closer on a CX37," he said. "They turn off their engine and they think they're going to take some pictures."

Shooting a bear results in serious inquiries and plenty of potential trouble if unjustified, but the locals also have enough sense to let regret overcome practicality. Polar bear is advertised as an as-available dish on the Raddison's and possibly other menus, although none was offered while we were there.

Jacobsen said he was heading out that evening on another half-day tour, this time facing the challenge of keeping eight or nine sleds together, but the former chef said the day-in, day-out routine of rigging and driving dogs in the cold amidst people who usually don't know what they're doing hasn't lost its allure. "It's a big change from 40 degrees in the kitchen," he said. "Now sometimes it's like minus 40."

Warming Up

At even the most remote and obscure festivals, there's almost always at least one "find."

Sometimes it's a total unknown, sometimes an established musician lost amidst the masses. Stuboe, the Oslo guitarist and composer, proved one of the latter and his new trio was the highlight of this year's Polarjazz festival, at least for me and my traveling companions.

He coaxed unaccompanied serene warblings by running a glass over his fretboards, drew laughs with the '70s camp tribute "San Francisco" to oversize cars known for bottoming out on bad shocks and gave jungle rumble treatment to the much overplayed "Summertime." I thought he sounded strongly of John Scofield, Joe thought he was more like Al Di Meola ("with a keyboarist they'd be Return To Forever," he said). Stuboe said the trio is influenced by Jim Hall's trios from the early 90s.

"The idea here is to use an acoustic sound because it feels freer" than when an organ is part of the group, he said.

Stuboe, whose early influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis, graduated from the Jazz Conservatory in Trondheim. His professional work ranges from the organ groove group Jupiter, led by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, to leading a trio paying tribute to Wes Montgomery. At Polarjazz he explained many of the songs about to be played, then built them piece-by-piece starting with solo sound explorations (light percussive-like harmonics, sometimes right at his tuning keys, for the opening song; high-note questions and bass-string answers on the John McLaughlin tribute "John Deere"). From there Stuboe, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Torstein Lofthus accelerated into various syncopated funks, some drawn from compositions with few such roots such as "Lahppakobbal" ("I can't pronounce it properly myself," Stuboe said), influenced by small Sami village in Finland and its traditional pentatonic Yoik music.

Arntzen provided a smart, stable foundation of soft, thick-tone notes which hit a sprinter's pace during solos. Lofthus went for a less-is-more approach on many solos, emphasizing one or two tones at a time, moving through a few rotations of new ones, then finally bringing them together for the climax. Interplay between the three was consistently strong and seemed to connect well with the audience, which sadly was noticeably lower in number than several featured rock/pop bands.

Among such groups was the evening's opening rock/folk concert led by Vidar Johnsen and Peter Nordberg, two established Scandinavian vocalists/guitarists who began collaborating on projects more than a decade ago. The songs, either originals or covers I didn't recognize because they were in Norwegian, were a decent assortment of arrangements from ballads to mild reggae.They were obviously known and popular among the crowd, but I found myself taking very few notes.

Jazz might not be the most appreciated music in Longyearbyen, but Stuboe said he believes listeners do more than just show up because it's a novelty.

"I think the general atmosphere here was really positive," he said. "That's the most important thing. I think in general when the music starts happening everyone is paying attention."

Frozen Whales In The Tropics

Free tropical fruit. Palm trees. A serenade. What more could one want in the Arctic?

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.


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