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

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.

Just getting there requires extra effort since Svalbard Church, a red mini cathedral, is semi-isolated on a barren hillside about half-mile from the center of town (putting it near the Huset's massive wine cellar). It has a cheery rather than somber character, with a fireplace, secular magazines and newspapers to read in the cozy common room chairs, and a communal dinner of Norwegian waffles on Tuesdays. On this day, big platters of cured meats and huge bowls of sour cream porridge known as roemmegroet were served an hour before the concert as part of the 100 krone (roughly $18) admission that was a separate fundraiser from the festival. As someone who's dietary restrictions involves eating so much oatmeal I can distinguish brands the way those with perfect pitch can transcribe recordings, I consider the filling simplicity of this Norwegian peasant dish—suitable for sweet or savory stir-ins —among the world's best.

Parents and other adults filled the pews and then some, as plenty of chairs in the adjacent common room remained occupied, so kids not on stage took all the free space in the center aisle. A profusion of cameras and camcorders captured the 25-member choir as they sang an opening song in Norwegian and "This Little Light Of Mine" in alternating English/Norwegian. They were like any well-rehersed such group, with their sheer numbers smoothing out perceptible imperfections. A couple performed solo verses and, while short of prodigy-like, there wasn't the hesitant shyness from them or the others commonly heard from those elsewhere of similar talent.

"They have fun and they are safe with each other, so they are free to sing out," said Tore Oerjasaeter, the choir's director for the past year and a half.

Tytingvaag's band joined the kids for something bouncy and simple, Aarum giving little hint of what was to come with a simple harmonious minute-long solo. After the kids departed, accordionist Espen Leite launched into a thick and melancholy melody in a simplistic quarter-note march to open "Rat Race." Tytingvaag's alto lyrics rang richly through the despite the primitive acoustics, conveying the mood of a cartoon heroine in her moment of despair. Leite and Aarum soloed through a series of spiraling downward progressions, accented with some freeform bursts, and embellished well off Tytingvaag's lines. The succeeding "Ghost" featured an ascending audio profile of the heroine finding hope and/or courage, apparently regarding something she wants to be when she grows up. The character and plot weren't suggested by the musicians, incidentally, but the progression of themes made constructing one in my head easy enough.

The mental storylines weren't G-rated as Tytingvaag's band didn't just give the kids fluff, frequently exploring dark and chromatic themes. A quavering accordion on "Everyday Monsters" bore great resemblance to "The Nightmare Before Christmas," including some lyrics about a character named Jack. The lyrics of "War" could describe the daily life of Anne Frank, and Leite's and Aarum's freeform interlude on "So Long" bore whiffs of an late-night acoustic acid basement gig. A tugging of moods was constant, as songs like "Between Us" strived for hope in meeting challenges ("have you ever considered going for a swim in the ocean between us").

The choir joined for a cheerful finale whose name and lyrics escaped me and, while it was intended to speak more directly to the kids in the audience, a lot had strayed from their seats on the floor to the less restrictive possibilities of the common room. If there was a weakness from the youths' perspective, it was the lack of material encouraging them to be directly involved through singing, clapping, dancing or whatever. But it's the show I'd take my (hypothetical) kid to, in the same way other parents play those "Baby Einstein" tapes in the hope their offspring will someday become members of Mensa.

Oerjasaeter said he has no doubt about the children's musical commitment.

"We have a solid group," he said. "They come every time, unlike some other places."

He said they rehearse once a week, perform once a month during family services and participate in about a half-dozen special events such as Constitution Day in May. The choir recorded a CD—largely common children's songs rewritten with Norwegian lyrics—under a different director years ago that's sold locally (outsiders might be able to buy a copy by e-mailing the church at prest@svalbardkirke.no), but Oerjasaeter said no future such projects are on the horizon.

Oerjasaeter, a self-taught pianist, said he worried about being good enough to direct the choir, but his work with groups while living in Oslo about a decade ago "was good enough because this is a special place to live, so sometimes you have to improvise."

Among the challenges, he said, is the constantly fluctuating population. "Last year we had 11, so (this year) was a big growth," he said.

Oerjasaeter said the lure of overcoming his personal challenges ("Will I be able to work with people? Will I be able to enjoy the dark season?") brought him to Longyearbyen. He said he doesn't know his long-term plans, but even after a long winter he has no regrets.

"The snow and the light, it's beautiful, but it's the people that keep it going," he said.


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