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

Mark Sabbatini By

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The second concert was Oslo singer Unni Wilhelmsen (official site with audio and video), a Norwegian folk/rock star whose first two influences on a long list are Susanne Vega and Simon & Garfunkel. Her guitar and maybe some other instruments suffered tuning problems caused by the exposure to the cold. One result was some timely lyrics, with "my piano is out of key and so I'll weep" earning some laughs at the recognition of the reality of the situation. It may have also eventually worn down her level of performance: she played a solo vocal/electric keyboard ballad for the finale before the encore, ending it with a rather limp flourish of keys and a resigned shrug toward the audience. But the gestures were fitting of Wilhelmsen's seemingly open communication with listeners, in the voice of someone who still finds much of the experience new after starting her music career started relatively late in life.

"Music didn't exactly play a prominent part in our family life," she writes in a lengthy Web biography, and while her parents gave her a guitar at age 12, it was no substitute for the piano she craved and bought at 20.

"I had been writing stuff for a while," she notes. "Pieces of thoughts, comments or quotes from books I'd been reading. Stuff that gave me associations to be curious about. But the words seemed naked to me. Something was missing, even if some pieces surely could pass as poems."

The usual procession of open mikes and small-time club gigs followed, until a journalist recommended her to a record company without her knowledge in the summer of 1995. In February of 1996 she released her debut, To Whom It May Concern (listen to one song here), which won Norwegian Grammies for Best Female Of The Year and Album Of The Year. She started her own label, St. Cecilia Music, in 2003 and released her sixth album, Til Meg (hear samples, in 2006, the first featuring Norwegian lyrics.

There were definite similarities to Vega during her Polarjazz concert, although Wilhelmsen sings in a higher register, with intriguing stories among the fluff. Things suffered when she tried to rock harder (think about "Tom's Diner" and how awful the dance-floor remix is; voices like these are assets that should dominate rather than the instrumentation or arrangements). Then again, she drew as large a crowd as any performer at the festival and if there was any comparative lack of enthusiasm, I didn't detect it.

The place remained completely jammed with people standing all the way to the lobby as the Urban Tunells Klezmer Band took the stage just before midnight. Billing themselves as one of the few such Norwegian bands, the quintet promotes itself as respecting Klezmar's traditions while touching on modern deconstructions into Jewish jazz, hip-hop and "klezcore" made popular by groups such as Balkan Beat Box. Urban Tunells' set came nowhere near BBB's club-beat intensity, although some of that can be heard on their 2007 album Upnorth Balkan Beats—The Kohib Remixes (10 MP3s from this and their other albums are at their Web site). Instead the performance was free and frenetic in a more acoustic roots vein and, while personally a fan of both groups, this was probably a better listening experience for those seeking more than immediate gratitude.

The opening was a deceptive bit of plodding melancholy by pianist/vocalist Tor-Petter Aanes, whose deep coaxing voice reminded me for some reason of Brazilian stalwart Joao Bosco. There wasn't a lot of time for reflection, however, as with a heavy vibrato flourish the rest of the band leaped in with a series of instrument shots and overlapping quips. Clarinetist Morten Michelsen fired off a succession of rapid Klezmer vamps punctuated by some sustained high screams, brought it back down to the dirge, then accelerated back up to the expected fast finish. Accordionist Jovan Pavlovic displayed intense jazz chops a couple of songs later with a thick, atonal barrage against a simple pounding cadence, which Morten wrapped up with a series of screams that broke down into rapid-fire snippets. Double bassist Sondre Meisfjord's most memorable moment came a song later by going on a multitude of short-term, sparse-note journeys from a common starting point. Drummer Stig Rennestraum's work escaped scrutiny in my notes, but I did pen something about there being a lot more "movers"—plus some actual dancers—compared to the two earlier shows.

The Ultimate All-Night Party

When night lasts four months, staying up until 7 a.m. is nothing.

The final full day of Polarjazz concerts went way late, but that didn't deter most of the participants. The final concert, a salsa dance party, was full despite starting more than an hour after its scheduled 12:30 a.m. time, and musicians from various bands followed up with a jam session until nearly 4 a.m.

"Everybody went after that to a party," Hansen said.

I'll take the director's word for it, since my endurance has a more mortal limit.

That limit manifested itself in the worst possible way when a mid-morning nap lasted until mid-afternoon, causing me to miss a concert by pianist Anders Aarum's quartet at the university. His albums (five MySpace songs) are the quintessential example of scholarly modernism that characterizes the best Scandinavian jazz musicians, possessing a style people more informed than me call an individual voice evolved a few generations from McCoy Tyner. Aarum's three albums explore everything from spare acoustic poetry to electric funk and none of it smacks of artistic compromise.

While seriously bummed, I found out later not all was lost. But I had to subcontract the afternoon review to Peter, the Australian tourist checking out the winter scene after his summer visit.

"It was a mixed bag, but I enjoyed quite a lot of it," he said. It was "more the ruckus" side of mainstream in the vein of John Coltrane, thanks to Aarum playing an electric keyboard (safer from a tuning perspective), two guest vocalists and some dominant work by saxophonist Gisle Johansen (name is my guess, based on who Aarum's been playing with at recent festivals).

The trio of evening concerts started with vocalist Kari Bremnes, apparently known as the "voice of northern Norway," who managed to attract a bigger crowd than the already beyond-capacity masses who'd squeezed sardine-like into some previous shows. The reason quickly became obvious, as she put on a loud, showy Norse rock/pop tour with a lot of shifting themes and beats ("call this a moneymaker show," I noted). Songs transformed from slow folksy ambiance to well-known dance beats to blues guitar solos to drumwork on truck tire rims or emulating Latin hand percussion on a standard kit. Her voice, in the low mid-range, almost always seemed to be trying to seduce regardless of setting. As Joe put it, she sounded like a Norwegian Enya.

"She was a really good vocalist, but there wasn't a musicianship," he said. At times the band's strategy seemed to be "if you make a mistake play it repeatedly and the audience will think you're doing it on purpose."

I'm willing to call it an off night since Bremnes' 2007 Live album (sound samples at official site) and others I've heard from her 20-year career are considerably more refined.

The next act offered some redemption for my midday slumber.

Oslo singer Julie Dahle Aagaard's horn-heavy band was more interesting than Bremnes from a jazz perspective and featured Aarum on a rack of keyboards. Doing a set of originals and covers ranging from ballads to funk, her husky voice reminded me of Alanis Morissette, although she lists Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz and Angie Stone among her influences. Her band got plenty of solos, usually quality fusion stuff, although Aarum didn't quite fulfill hopes due in part to sound problems that also constantly made Aagaard's vocals hard to discern.

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.

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