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

Mark Sabbatini By

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Nothing was painful, and Kristan and Joe agreed talent exceeded the annual Icestock festival at the 1,200-person McMurdro Station in Antarctica. The Svalbard crowd—while bigger and louder on subsequent nights—was unmatched in individuals and subgroup fervor.

"it's like going to see a play in Juneau," Kristan said. "Half the drama is in the audience."

The jazziest portion of the evening featured the Storband (16-17 members, by my count) playing standards, the first an instrumental followed by five songs with different lead singers. The band was par for casual players who gather once a week to practice, with straightforward arrangements and no solos beyond brief embellishments. There were a few moments of confusion about the timing of parts, none throwing things seriously out of whack.

Most of the singers sounded fuzzy, making me think it was a soundboard problem until Susanne Hansen (introduced in paragraph two) showed a superiority in skill and clarity leading the finale, "Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?" The band stepped it up a notch with the well-timed hit-and-pause arrangement, although they weren't always on-key with Hansen. She mostly kept her vocals in a safe mid-range register, faltering only when some of her clarity was lost when she tried to stretch into higher pitches and volumes.

Hansen also performed a couple of songs with an instrumental quartet at the evening's midpoint, getting more acclaim for an aggressively bluesy "Feeling Good" and Arctic-themed ballad "The Other Side Of The World." Joe compared her to former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant. Hansen, who works as a clerk at an all-purpose store in the Lompensenteret that is one of the few places to buy CDs, said she's never heard of Merchant.

Her evaluation of her mini-set? "Not bad for rehearsing only three times," she said. The band also had to work around a guitarist who was supposed to join having his flight held up because of bad weather.

Hansen said she grew up singing in choirs, furthered her music skills while living on the mainland for a few years, and now performs in concerts every other month. She said she became a fan of jazz only three years ago, citing Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as influences, but rock and pop remains her dominant interest. She doesn't have any specific long-term musical goals and, while she thinks she might return to the mainland at least temporarily in a few years, her young child and other family ties are keeping her rooted in Longyerbyen for now.

"It's a very special place," she said.

Among the evening's other noteworthies was a six-man a cappella group that Kristan thought might be the local ski team. They did a few peppy, apparently hokey, numbers in decent harmony, concluding with a female pianist joining to punctuate what seemed to be a parody of a dark death march. "if tonight is a traditional smorgasbord, that was the ham," Kristan said.

The worst of the evening was almost certainly a dragging, melancholy "Born To Be Wild," lacking any apparent satirical intent by a foursome (female singer, two men with guitars and a drummer) in their 20s. Another questionable arrangement came from the final group which, after opening with "Rocky Top," delved into something where Joe's condensed factual summary says more than analysis possibly can: "This is a Norwegian band playing AC/DC and they're doing it bluegrass style."

They saved face by getting back to conventional shitkicking, including a whirlwind fiddle-and-clapping number at the end, earning loud applause on merit and setting the stage for a final song at 11:30 p.m. with all of the evening's performers doing a sing-and-clap thing in a line through the audience to the stage.

Intermission

In Jack London's Call Of The Wild, I'd be the cheechako who drives his dogsled into the lake and drowns.

Comfy as the Radisson is, one might as well vacation in Cleveland if going outside isn't in the plan. So Day 2 of Polarjazz got off to an early and chilly start with a half-day tour through a valley outside Longyearbyen. It's little more than a sampler for novices wondering if a longer trip is something they can endure, the sort of thing I felt offered little insight of the "real" experience when leading hiking and skiing primers of similar intent.

It does sort out the truly inept.

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