All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Back Roads Beat

Dear All About Jazz Readers,

If you're familiar with All About Jazz, you know that we've dedicated over two decades to supporting jazz as an art form, and more importantly, the creative musicians who make it. Our enduring commitment has made All About Jazz one of the most culturally important websites of its kind in the world reaching hundreds of thousands of readers every month. However, to expand our offerings and develop new means to foster jazz discovery we need your help.

You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky Google ads PLUS deliver exclusive content and provide access to future articles for a full year! This combination will not only improve your AAJ experience, it will allow us to continue to rigorously build on the great work we first started in 1995. Read on to view our project ideas...

2,145

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

Mark Sabbatini By

Sign in to view read count
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.

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.

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

Related Articles

Read The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway Back Roads Beat
The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008...
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: March 19, 2008
Read Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007 Back Roads Beat
Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at...
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: February 5, 2008
Read The 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Almost Free For You Today Back Roads Beat
The 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Almost Free For You...
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: January 30, 2008
Read Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan Back Roads Beat
Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: August 13, 2007
Read 2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Days 9-12: Land-ho! Causing Waves At The Festival Back Roads Beat
2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Days 9-12: Land-ho! Causing...
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: July 30, 2007
Read 2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 8: School Daze With McCoy Tyner, Amateurs And A 'Ship Pianist' Back Roads Beat
2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 8: School Daze With McCoy...
by Mark Sabbatini
Published: July 26, 2007
Read "Another Timbre Celebrates Its First Decade" Multiple Reviews Another Timbre Celebrates Its First Decade
by John Eyles
Published: December 9, 2017
Read "Take Five with Vincent Eury" Take Five With... Take Five with Vincent Eury
by Vincent Eury
Published: June 24, 2017
Read "Stefano Bollani at Asti Musica 2017" In Pictures Stefano Bollani at Asti Musica 2017
by Nicola Sacco
Published: July 18, 2017
Read "European Jazz Conference 2017" Live Reviews European Jazz Conference 2017
by Ian Patterson
Published: October 2, 2017
Read "Charles McPherson: The Man and His Muse" Catching Up With Charles McPherson: The Man and His Muse
by Joan Gannij
Published: March 15, 2018
Read "Nicole Henry with the John Toomey Trio in Norfolk" In Pictures Nicole Henry with the John Toomey Trio in Norfolk
by Mark Robbins
Published: October 14, 2017