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Back Roads Beat

Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

By Published: September 29, 2004
Day 3 of the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival begins with what I call a "cattle tour," one of those absorb packages sold to tourists that sounds appealing, but frequently turns out to be an overpriced hoax and/or disappointment where large groups of people are herded through various high-profit venues. Back home tourists float by a couple miles of suburban neighborhoods during an alleged Alaska wilderness rafting trip. In Thailand I signed up for a popular one-day botanical garden/elephant riding/ ox wagoning/river rafting/Thai buffet/cultural mountain village tour that sounds impressive but is roughly equivalent to an overcrowded children's petting zoo.

This is an Icelandic cave? This lava-created hole is a "featured" attraction during one of the many day tours sold by various tour organizations in Reykjavik. Not recommended (try the Golden Circle if time is short).

To put my Iceland day in another short, concise perspective: I fell in the mud walking into a small volcanic hole by the side of a road, stopped briefly at a horse riding school, took a walk with a local storyteller around a suburban block and got dropped off in a not-quite-open-yet restaurant with a piece of bread and an hour-long wait for my shuttle back to the center of town.


The good news, which I don't realize as I shower and change my mud-soaked clothes, is the festival is about to do some serious next-level stuff. Not necessarily in terms of artistic talent, but the names, crowds and presentation make the first two days feel like a warm-up act. It may be that the package tours feature the Friday and Saturday events, or just that Icelanders are great weekend warriors. Either way an interesting chance of pace is in store, not to mention that stupid-yet-smug feeling of being one of the "true" devotees who's doing the entire festival.

The moment I walk into the still nearly empty ballroom at the Hotel Saga it's clear tonight's a different animal than what I thought was a decent well-attended performance Thursday by the Rodriguez Brothers Latin Jazz Quintet. For starters, there are name tags and elaborate place settings at the tables. I'm going to be writing, not eating, so I don't bother looking for mine and drop my gear on one of the overflow seats - something else not there the night before.

A crowd of maybe 500 people - roughly triple Thursday's - packs the room during the next hour and there's some noticeable differences there as well. The first two days featured audiences largely uninterested in diversions like food and conversation; tonight nearly everyone is dining and many are dressed up for the occasion, save a number of casually outfitted folks who appear to be obvious imports participating in the package tour.

Bass Encounters, featuring acoustic bassists Arni Egilsson (left), Niels Henning Orsted (center) and Wayne Darling play one of the featured concerts at the Hotel Saga during the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival.

What they get is one of the better and intriguing performances of the festival so far by Bass Encounters, consisting of three upright acoustic bassists backed by a piano/drums combo. Their mix of compositions, tonal collaborations and individual solo styles makes nearly every song feel fresh even when the playing isn't top end.

That a diverse mix is in store is readily apparent from the opening two originals by Arni Egilsson, who writes much of the group's material. "Basses Three-Oh" alternates a swing/walking bass and a simple melodic hook, while the following "Whoppie Do, Whoppie Don't" is a get-down funk/fusion jam to a world beat percussion backing. Coming from a group of players somewhat older than many of the youthful contemporary mainstream ensembles featured at the festival, it's both a refreshing and instructive tour of old and new genres.

"I don't want the double bass to die out," says Wayne Darling, who teaches in Vienna and has formed numerous ensembles featuring acclaimed bassists, between sets. "Put it this way - it was never the first instrument a kid would choose."

He says the modernist playing is targeted at audiences, but he also tries injecting a more instructive approach to his songs and teachings when possible.

Harmonizing among the trio, either with or without one playing a lead line, offers a variety of distinct canvases and each has their own soloing style which, at the risk of generalizing a bit, stays pretty consistent. Niels Henning Orsted plays clean, well-spaced and easily accessible phrases; Egilsson's pacing is similar, although his runs tend to be more varied and require more attention to follow; Darling is the rapid-fire guy who lays down the most notes, but is always going places those paying attention can follow.

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