The equipment is rigged up in the fireplace room on the second floor of the mess hall in Ny-Ålesund. A few hundred meters away sits the airship mast, and the black-and-white photos on the walls inside the concert venue show the airship Norge hovering. In a corner of the venue, the legendary polar explorer Roald Amundsen looks over the setting on this Saturday as Sondre Lerche sits on a couch and sings as he plays guitar.
Absolutely 'had to'
The band is finally in Svalbard and now they are performing a concert at 78.5 degrees latitude north. It's not practically possible to have a concert farther north if you want an audience.
"Hee-hee. Yes, an audience is something one might prefer."
Sondre Lerche preparing for concert at 78.5 degrees north. His last concert was in Brazil. FOTO: Eirik Palm
"This has been an ongoing thing within the band, really since we started playing together five years ago," Lerche says. "Especially my drummer is pushing for a lot of things and one of the things he has wanted was to go to Svalbard. So they have had a campaign and asked me, 'is it this year, will it be this year,' but it had to fit with the bookings and my own schedule. Now we have half a year free and thought that we will take a little break from the break."
The day before, drummer Dave Heilman was running around out on the tundra in just his underwear because he "had to" and later on this Saturday they plan to go dogsledding with Svalbard Husky. When the rest of the band moves on, the drummer says he thinks he will remain a few more days.
"Absolutely incredibly great," he says.
André Jenssen with his saxophone during vorspiel. FOTO: Eirik Palm
Fell from the stage
But first, back to the start: on Wednesday evening was the launch. The Polarjazz board has been busy lately and soon the payoff is coming. A soundcheck inside Kulturhuset is made and the public is starting to arrive. It's the vorspiel, a preview show the day before the official festival. But the evening has evolved into a major event and local musicians are lining up to contribute to a night of quality performances.
Barentsburg Band. FOTO: Eirik Palm
On the ground floor in the cafe all the chairs are occupied, and upstairs in the gallery people are looking and listening. There is anticipation in the applause when Jazz General Lasse Stener Hansen welcomes the crowd. Then the music comes as if on a conveyor belt; from big band to country, rock to pure jazz. One band has traveled by snowmobile from the Russian settlement. Blåmyra – a Longyearbyen bluegrass band whose members included Atle Husby, who was killed during the Dec. 19 avalanche – makes a return appearance to the stage.
"The feeling on Wednesday was very good," Hansen says.
"Standing in front of the public audience was all right until I fell down," he adds jokingly.
Cowboys: Sveinung Lystrup Thesen and Hans Olav Stegarud, each of them with a 'horse' for the occasion. FOTO: Eirik Palm
In the midst of an introduction with a microphone in his hand, he took an errant step and fell from the stage. Concern filled in the hall. Then it was quiet for a second or two before people rushed toward him.
A minute later he stood on stage again. To great acclaim. And a little later he played the drums. He kept doing so throughout the five-day festival that ended Sunday.
"But I was probably more beat up more than I thought," he says. "There was enough adrenaline to keep going, but I do not think it was for the good of the knee, the treatment I gave it the rest of the festival."
Svajazz, one of the year's most jazzy touches. FOTO: Eirik Palm
The figures aren't final, but as of now the board is reporting the concerts at Kulturhuset, Svalbard Church, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund were attended by more than 2,500 guests. In addition, there was concerts at Kroa, Huset and Gruvelageret.
"What we can say now is that we at least will break even," Hansen says. "We are quite convinced that we are going to make a profit."
Concert in a packed church. Longyearbyen big band invited to the concert at the end of the festival. FOTO: Eirik Palm
It was sold out at Kulturhuset on Friday and Saturday. More than 400 people attended Thursday's concerts there and there were about 450 listeners at the vorspiel. About 70 people filled Gruvelageret for a Saturday afternoon concert. In addition, about 150 attended a concert Sunday at Svalbard Church and 230 listened to Hekla Stålsrenga on Sunday night at Kulturhuset.
An evening concert at the performing arts center on Sunday may become a permanent conclusion to Polarjazz in the future. Even Hansen said it was good to sit down, relax and listen after four hectic days.
"Then I think there are some who came to the concert who did not go on the rest of Polarjazz, but who wanted a concert," he says.
Saturday again: The band is about to start the sounds in the fireplace loft in Ny-Ålesund. The day before, Sofia Jannok visited Barentsburg and performed a concert in the settlement's cultural hall, with dynamic rhythms and lyrics in Sami and English. Meanwhile, Lerche was performing another concert, this time at the Longyearbyen Youth Club.
Concert with a view: Sondre Lerche with the band during the concert in Ny-Ålesund on Saturday. The airship "Norway" on the wall and Kongsbreen in the background. FOTO: Eirik Palm
Now things are ready for the smallest concert during the festival. Lufttransport flew the musicians to Ny-Ålesund and turnout among those staying at the international research settlement is close to 100 percent. It is mentioned in passing there are 47 people living here at the moment, most of who are watching Lerche and his band with a guitar and keyboard – plus a red bucket, a coffee mug, some firewood and a teaspoon as a drum kit plus any other percussion. Feet are moving, heads are nodding and the premises is swinging. Heilman even features an authentic drum solo.
"We have our albums because we realized that there are no record stores in Ny-Ålesund. It is perhaps a sign that the record industry is declining," Lerche jokes, adding he may well reduce the value of the albums by signing them.
Then the 45-minute intimate concert concludes with "Bad Law" ("It is allowed to clap on two and four. Not on one and three, because then it confused us.")
"Exceptional!" Lerche says afterward about his stay in Svalbard as Dornier gets ready for the return trip.
"We have been taken very good care of and have experienced quite outrageous things," Lerche says. "Yesterday when we were on snowmobile I think everyone agreed that this was one of the coolest things can experience."
Their last concert was in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a few months ago. Svalbard is a complete contrast.
"It's a privilege to experience such diverse corners of the world," Lerche says. "And that we may take a little bit of time to get a few extra days. This is so special that we should have been here even longer."
And the crowd?
"Completely fantastic," he said. "The main concert Thursday. And yesterday at the youth center I think was maybe even more inspiring and even more fun. And improvising a little concert here was fun."
"We will now continue the break," Lerche says. "I'm working on a new disc and will perhaps have some concerts in the summer. We'll see. Then I'll return all of a sudden."
Despite Longyearbyen being in festival mode and with many late nights, things have been relatively peaceful. The only nuisance was Saturday night when a woman was driven home. Otherwise, there has been little to do, according to Christian Svarstad, a police chief lieutenant for The Governor of Svalbard.
The event's board has been upfront about admitting the jazz festival has increasingly become a music festival. It's a practical decision to lure visitors and keep the event viable.
Content: Lasse Stener Hansen believes in surplus for this year's festival. Here he is toghether with some of the members of the board: Hilde Holtet, Eva Theree Jenssen and Kristin Furu Grøtting.
The most jazzy performances this year were by local artists. The crowd knew to appreciate the jazz tunes that filled Svalbard Church on Sunday when the Longyearbyen Big Band – under the guidance of visiting tenor saxophonist Håkon Skog Erlandsen from Tromsø – got into full swing. The big band, normally led by Hans Gunnar Skreslett, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year. They were also joined by the Svajazz quintet with Elisabeth Eines on vocals before Strålstrenga's finale concert at Kulturhuset.
It's not inaccurate to declare the closing concert at Kulturhuset will become a tradition?
"No, then you have the words in order," Hansen says.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini