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

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.

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