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Back Roads Beat

Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

By Published: September 29, 2004
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6


Day 1: From the Big Apple to the Big Chill

Going to Iceland for its jazz probably sounds like going to Alaska for its beaches - but believe it or not my home state has some of the finest sand piles you'll ever see.



Surfing is legendary in some spots because of the enormous tidal range and summer actually gets warm enough to sweat while building sand castles across the bay from vast glaciers. So who's to say if a tiny northern island deliberately given a misleading name to discourage settlers can't host some of the finest jazz in the world?



Actually, that'd be me, at least for the next several days as I crash the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival, a trip motivated almost entirely by the fact I know virtually nothing about the country or the performers and therefore am destined to learn plenty before I depart. I recognize only one name from the list of musicians during the five-day event that starts today (Sept. 29): Van Morrison, who's the featured headline act. I can't say I think of "Brown Eyed Girl" in the same vein as "It Don't Mean A Thing If I Ain't Got That Swing," but a quick trip to Google and Apple's iTunes Music Store reveals he brought a sax with him on his most recent trip to the recording studio and is doing the European jazz circuit this year. See? One new nugget of knowledge already.




Scenery? What scenery? The author is zonked after two days of non-stop travel.

If all this preliminary stuff seems a little punch-drunk, it's because I'm writing this immediately after my second sleepless red-eye flight in a row, interspaced with a full-day layover at New York's JFK Airport. Thanks to frequent flier mile redemption policies that often assume the shortest distance between two points is a cube, I traveled halfway around the world via Seattle, Orlando and New York before finally reaching Iceland.



At least the second flight on an Icelandic jet instead of an American one proved markedly more promising thanks to the half-empty plane, four inches of extra knee room, and a notable absence of tots and infants enduring a night of hell as part of their family vacation to Disneyworld. So while waiting for this evening's festivities to begin with a ceremonial speech by the mayor I doubtless won't recognize a word of, the airborne journey seems as good a place to begin the music/cultural review as any.



Icelandair makes it easy by playing a remix of Kenny G's "Songbird" on the overhead speaker as travelers board, with some pan-flautist taking over half the duties for reasons that appear to be duplicating the original instead of improving it in any way. A better bet proves to be the 17-song "Jazz...Cool As Ice" mix on in-flight audio channel six, offering a mostly solid collection of favorites by Chet Baker, Django Reinhardt and Stefon Harris, with a few stumbles from the likes of George Benson and Diana Krall. In fact, I can unequivocally say it is one of the finest sounding airplane mixes I've heard - but this is largely helped by the fact planes were taking nearly an hour to taxi and take off for a reason not fully explained by the pilot.




The tourist area of Reykjavik - a town like any other town beckons for your money.

Still, this allows time for essential tasks such as getting caught up to speed on the headlines thanks to an assortment of newspapers provided free such as London's Financial Times ("Equities In Retreat As Oil Touches $50 Mark"), the New York Post ("Deadly Dud: Useless Gun Gets Man Killed By Cop") and Reykjavik's Frettabladad ("Atjan Slokkvilidsmonnum Sagt Upp A Flugvellinum"). It also allows leisurely browsing of the in-flight magazine, where you learn critical details about the country, such as the third-largest group of foreigners being Bjork fans who don't realize the techno diva actually lives in NYC.



Eventually we're airborne and, after NYC says goodbye with a final series of rattles from a nasty storm, it's time to settle in and watch the history of smooth jazz documentary that is part of the in-flight movie selection (mini-review: Anything that has me looking forward to "Around The World in 80 Days" with Jackie Chan as the featured film on the return trip can't be all that good) and eat the specially ordered low-calorie meal. Surprisingly, this is the one time Icelandair blows it, somehow misplacing me on their list (thankfully American Airlines excel at this nowadays by simply eliminating food service altogether). Truth is since I'm about the enter the land of lobsters and saunas I wasn't planning to fill up on airline fare.



So we land, the Kenny G music is back on and the quest for what, one way or another, will be some of the world's coolest jazz begins.



Tomorrow: Totally jet-lagged, in search of Icelandic jazz CDs and the festival begins.

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Day 2: Where Kenny G gets totally outclassed by "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"

I've been to a lot of countries, but Iceland is the first where a customs officer wished a newcomer happy birthday.




Another chilly day dawns in Reykjavik, as seen from the author's hotel window.

So begins a jazz-immersed initiation day that begins with a New Agey Kenny G clone and ends with a rightous "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The five-day Reykjavik Jazz Festival begins today (Sept. 29), although I don't know this yet as I stumble off the plane after a second sleepless night on a red-eye flight. My goal for the moment is keeping up with others making the long traverse common for foreigners at airports, wondering if any of them are part of the advertised three-day (!) festival package tour I signed up for.



The G-man clone gets left behind on the airplane speakers and customers is surprisingly fast despite the customs agent who exchanges sincere and pleasant remarks about tiny details he's obviously observing in passports such as birthdates and how buried among my stamps is one from the South Pole. It's that kind of pleasant first impression that makes one spend the prearranged bus ride to the city thinking a good trip is ahead, instead of reflecting the trip takes nearly an hour along a flat, dreary landscape with nary a tree - or even a volcano - in sight.



Iceland is roughly the size of Colorado (103,000 sq. miles) and has about half the population of Vermont (290,000 residents, 180,000 of them in or near the capital of Reykjavik). It claims to be a country of "striking contrasts" with lava fields and glaciers each covering about 11 percent of the landscape. There are hundreds of volcanos, enormous numbers of geothermal springs and a surprisingly green landscape that is mostly treeless due to lots of high winds. A tourist brochure boasts that Reykjavik averages two hours' more sunlight than Florida and January's average temperature of 30 degrees rivals New York City (ignoring how the July average of 51 is seven degrees colder than Anchorage, Alaska). It also assures that me that, despite smelling of rotten eggs, tap water here is perhaps the world's finest.



English with a Chekov-like accent ("we are looking for nuclear wessels") may be a second language here, especially among younger residents, but jazz apparently is not. A young taxi driver who rescues me after I get lost wandering the near my hotel with inadequate clothes for the frigid drizzle tells me the jazz festival has been widely advertised the past week and draws a decent crowd, but the real attraction is the multi-genre Iceland Airwaves festival a few weeks from now. She drops me off at the tourist office in the center of town, where to my surprise I learn the jazz fest actually begins today instead of Friday - and I have to buy tickets for the opening two days since they aren't part of my three-day tour package (spending extra money on a number of unanticipated "extras" - such as taxis to and from a hotel not quite as near downtown as implied - ends up being a common experience).



I'm wrecked and, facing a 5 p.m. opening reception at city hall followed by two concerts at a nearby restaurant, am wishing I could retreat back to the hotel for a nap. But I'm haunted by my own personal mandatory mission for the day - finding a collection of Icelandic jazz CDs, especially by those performing at the festival, to get a feel for the scene.



Finding a music store requires maybe half a mile of walking along a downtown that is much like any other tourist-oriented city sector, with wool sweaters, t-shirts with pictures of sheep and the Northern Lights, various art and dried fish seemingly among the more prominent wares. The jazz section of the music store is defintely on the small side and dominated by big-name mainstream artists from the rest of the world; still, I find and purchase the perhaps 20 CDs by Icelandic artists in the bins (fatigue can be a retailer's dream - my upcoming Visa bill will no doubt supply an interesting jolt of adreleline).



With a couple hours to spare, I wander slowly back toward city hall, discovering along the way that, in the true European tradition, while the coffee is exceptionally good, it comes in tiny cups compared to the "Venti" quanities hawked at Starbucks throughout the U.S. and therefore multiple purchases are necesary for enough caffine to keep me conscious for the next few hours. Much as I'm ready for the end of the day, the real stuff of course just beginning.



The free reception draws a decent capacity crowd of about 150 people who listen to the mayor give a speech I don't understand a word of, followed by one song each by four groups playing during the festival. It's a diverse and largely promising sampler of mostly modern straight-ahead playing highlighted by two trios. Cold Front, a guitar/bass/trumpet emseble of players from three northern countries that is the evening's opening act (see review below), appears to have real barn-burners on guitar and upright acoustic bass. Binary Orchid features pianist Harmen Fraanje of Holland playing a slow, well-spaced chord progression he sticks to and embellishes upon as drummer Lieven Venken of Belgium enters with a gentle hand-played world beat that provides a nice counterpunch. He picks up his sticks soon after and, along with bassist Gulli Gudmundsson of Reykjavik, spends the rest of the time getting increasingly frenitic as Fraanje sticks to his pacing of Monk-like proportions. His style is no question all his own, but inspires favorable comparison to the deeply intellectual and deceptively low- key European playing of Brad Mehldau. Their full performance, scheduled Thursday, appears promising. The other two performances include a high-tempo modernistic piece by the quartet Atlandshafsbandalagid and a fairly straightforward reworking of the Sting tune "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic" by Icelandic vocalist Kristjana Stefansdottir.



The opening two concerts are a five-minute walk away at a place called Kaffi Reykjavik and it's obvious immediately the crowd of about 100 is hear to listen, not talk or eat - indeed, the heavily advertised fish buffet is even not being served. Jazz may be a tiny part of the music scene, but those who are fans obviously are passionate about it.




Cold Front, a trio featuring guitarist Bjorn Thoroddsen (left), bassist Steve Kirby (center) and trumpter Richard Gillis play during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival at city hall.

First impressions about Cold Front from the city hall performance are quickly reinforced. Guitarist Bjorn Thoroddsen, recently named 2004 Icelandic Jazz Musician of the Year, and U.S. bassist Steve Kirby dominate the evening exchanging rapid-fire solos and exceptional rhythm support of each other. Canadian trumpter Richard Gillis possesses a modern mellow tone that makes a good lead voice for the choruses, but simply doesn't have the creative fire on solos as his bandmates.



Thoroddsen isn't revolutionary and he occasionally retreats into easy riffs, but he mixes melodic embellishment, blues, flamenco, classical and other styles so freely and effectively it's hard to put him in a box and say he sounds like player "X." Meanwhile, Kirby is The Man, at least this evening, giving the audience the full range of his upright with lightning-paced and seldom-repetitive phrasing throughout. On "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" he opens by playing an unaccompanied "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and, having captured the attention and amusement of the crowd, rouses them into a thunderous ovation with a subsequent solo whose thesis I cound't even begin to do justice to in my condition. The set's other highlight is Thoroddsen's original "Tango," where Gillis is at his tonal and artistic best, providing a near-perfect acoustic sweetning to a thumping hook that begs for the increasingly diverse embellishments from all three players. It makes the set's closing "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" feel like a bit of a letdown despite it's full-bore pace, lacking the originality of the highlight pieces.



And with that I sadly conclude I'll never last through the second act by Atlandshafsbandalagid, scheduled to begin at 10:30, and decide it's time to call it a day. So it's off to another cab and, after nearly falling asleep during the 10-minute ride, I lurch into my room and chew on a bit of dried fish (better than you'd think, actually) before crashing hard, vowing tommorrow I will be among the crowd that makes all those places serving after-midnight hangover food necessary.

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Day 3: There's no debate - winners give cash handouts and play down expectations

The poll results are in and the results overwhelmingly one-sided and grim - most people aren't even aware my preferred choice even exists.



Substance dominants character. A few nights of exposure won't change any minds. And what makes them happiest are generous cash payoffs.



The survey has an error margin of...uh, whadda mean implications of bribery? I don't know where your mind is, but I'm talking about jazz and Icelandic taxi drivers. Those CNN talking heads in various hotel lobbies going on endlessly about some election-related square-off are talking about an event that doesn't occur until 1 a.m. local time - and there's no way anyone's going to read a review by me of that sort of thing anyway (but here's my full unabridged text, just in case: Ugh.).



I've taken to polling taxi drivers to get a feel for how popular the jazz scene is as the 2004 Reykjavic Jazz Festival progresses. So far a disappointingly large number don't even know the five-day event is in town and none are planning to attend. Rock and pop, and surprisingly a killer New Year's Day celebration, are generally a far more dominant source of entertainment among locals, they say. As for the drivers, most are older men who've lived in Iceland's capital most or all of their lives and their interests lean toward fishing, soccer, and debating the merits of city's tourism- and industry-fueled construction boom.



As for the festival, so far I'd score it perhaps a B+ on musical merit, but something in the below average range for logistics, largely because various performances are taking place at various locations too far to get between conveniently and therefore attending one means missing large portions of others even when they don't overlap.



It also means expensive taxi rides between locations for visitors like myself who don't have a car or connections with locals who own one, hence the polling that might allow all those fares to be claimed as a tax deduction or something. As for the interest in soccer, do a Google News search for "Iceland" and it's obvious why - nearly all the headlines are related to the sport.



Thankfully, performances so far are all in the evening. Lingering jet lag pretty much wiped out my second full day, which they say is usually the roughest on travelers who've traversed a bunch of time zones. Supposedly it's a biological thing, or maybe just the adrenaline provided by novelty wears off. The cause doesn't exactly matter. I sleep past noon, waking only because the front desk calls to let me know my tickets for the concerts will arrive tomorrow.



Interesting development, since the festival started yesterday. But as I noted in yesterday's review, the advertised tour sells a three-day package and sort of lets early arrivers discover on their own about the couple of extra days requiring separate tickets to attend.



Stopping in a few book stores and writing one of these bloggish reviews takes the rest of the afternoon, which is fine because once again the weather is of the rainy and just-above freezing temperatures variety.


Robert Rodriguez (left) and his brother Michel leads the Rodriguez Brothers Latin Jazz Quintet during a Thursday evening performance at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival.

The first of two performances today is the Rodriguez Brothers Latin Jazz Quintet, unquestionably the main event if judged solely in terms of attendance, as a crowd well in excess of 100 crowds a ballroom at the Hotel Saga.



"My brother and I absolutely adore this country," says trumpet player Michel Rodriguez, who co-leads the group with his brother Robert who plays piano. "We were here a couple of years ago for a wedding in December and we stayed until New Year's. That's probably the greatest New Year's we had ever. You guys really know how to get down."



The audience gets an entertaining, if not mind-blowing, opening set high in energy and perhaps a bit short in creative fire. It actually speaks well of the talent at the festival as a whole, since a number of people back home were questioning just how good this event could be. This is hardly a landmark jam like the North Sea or Montreux festival, so achieving less than perfection by those standards is certainly no indication of a bad performance.



(OK, with the moral conscience disclaimer out of the way, on with the show.)

The New York City-based group focuses on originals by the Rodriguez brothers. It's not the compositions that come up short; it's the solos where my notes feature scribbles like "doesn't quite hit full potential of the structure" and "accessible but not amazing." Still, there are outstanding moments and the crowd doesn't hesitate to recognize and properly reward the group for them.



The opening "El Monje" ("The Monk" in Spanish, written by Robert Rodriguez in tribute to Thelonius Monk) is true to its name as Michel Rodriguez applies a razor tone to a series of straight-ahead passages with plenty of breathing space - it could almost be old school Miles regardless of the Latin canvas he plays against. It's a pleasing contrast, but one of the early crowd pleasers is Robert Rodriguez's somewhat more high-energy and in-depth follow-up in a similar vein. Drummer Einar Valur Scheving sets the pace for the evening with backings I note as "consistently fun - but maybe just a bit too consistent." But there's no weakness here, except bassist Hans Glawischig keeps getting overwhelmed in the mix by his fellow players.



Michel Rodriguez's tone, if not always pace, seems to soften on most of the remaining songs, but the overall impact is little affected. His brother continues on a somewhat higher level, mixing classic Latin and contemporary modern mainstream seamlessly. It's not just the brothers who perform with more than a touch of mainstream; Scheving's extended solo on the samba original "Merry Go Round" is more rock/mainstream than Latin - and unfortunately stuck a bit too much in neutral with too much repetitiveness.



The set's highlight is the closing "Luminescence" by Robert Rodriguez, where nearly everything comes together and proves the group capable of the elevated expectations previously hinted at. The composition is somewhat darker and both Rodriguez brothers wring an almost aching feeling out of it early, and support from everyone turns far more interactive than the early tunes. But the stage is stolen at the end by percussionist Samuel Torres, who brings enough fury to his skins to alarm his hometown PETA chapter and send me out of the building thinking "where's he been hiding that all night?" The roar from the audience could have been heard at the end of a $15 taxi ride - which is unfortunately where I am when they begin their next set.




Binary Orchid, featuring pianist Harmen Fraanje (left), bassist Gulli Gudmunds (center) and drummer Leiven Venken, perform Thursday during the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival.

The reason for cutting out early is the second billed event by Binary Orchid, easily my pick for best performance during a series of individual songs by various groups during an opening reception the first day of the festival. Pianist Harmen Fraanje kept a slow and deeply intellectual vamp and embellishment going as bassist Gulli Gudmunds and drummer Lieven Venken went from a slow counterpunch rhythm to absolutely going nuts in their against-the-grain pacing. There was no chance of missing the full show, or at least as much of it as I could stay awake through.



It was both a thrill and a slight disappointment, if only because they broke a cardinal rule all those debate gurus were practicing back home: Play down expectations before the big event so the real thing seems that much better.



Their reception tune (I believe it was called simply "L") closes the Thursday's opening full set and proves to be another show-stealing highlight; everything else is merely very good, if such a phrase is not totally contradictory. Venken dominates much of the set by laying down thick and cymbal-heavy textures which Gudmunds colors with various meditative thoughts from his piano and Fender Rhodes. At times it edges closer to electronica/New Age than the European-style modern mainstream of their best moments and sometimes I felt myself pulling against their natural appeal in wishing they'd actually pick up the pace a bit. Also, everything about the show is dark from the compositional tones to the stage itself. For the sleep deprived listener late at night, this is not a good thing. Hence an analysis short of "fingerings similar to the late-to-mid stage of Monk's middle career" is what you get here. Stay tuned for a thorough analysis of any and all albums, since I intend to hunt for anything they've issued.



Getting "home" means another cab ride that could pay for one of those albums, but for once I'm feeling good when I climb out because I've located my first driver who actually has listened to jazz at some point in life. He's a former longtime cargo ship mate who occasionally visited famous jazz clubs during stopovers in New York City. He says classic legends such as Woody Herman and Jimmy Smith were favorites, but notes with gruff amusement that drinks cost 25 cents before performances and $3 during them. But with an evening job to do nowadays, he isn't planning to attend any of the Iceland festival events.



Makes sense. With my night job I won't be driving inquisitive strangers anywhere for...well, actually maybe three days. I'm hitting the countryside in a rental car for a few days when the festival madness ends and probably will look for more tax breaks by picking up and interrogating any roadside stragglers I see along the way. At least they can't say they weren't warned.

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Day 4: A cow's-eye view of elves, trolls and all things semi-formal

For $25,000 one gets three hours at the South Pole, much of it waiting outside a gift shop so small only a few people are allowed in at a time.



So if I claim that for $100 I spent a day in Iceland spelunking, horseback riding, elf hunting, viewing an actual troll, hearing an overview of the country's folklore and eating a genuine Viking meal I'd probably look pretty good, right?



Well, I often say it's all in how you tell the story. In this case I ought to quit while I'm way ahead.



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.



Moo.



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.



Equally rewarding are their rotating shifts as leaders, including each playing an unaccompanied piece during the middle of their opening set. A better reviewer would know the names of the compositions; instead I'll just note Egilsson morphs a slow and thoughtful melody into a rapid-run piece with a bit of Spanish/flamenco flair, Orstead gets seductive with a piece ("has the sound of a great treatment of some rock/standard, but no idea what it actually is," my notes state) that stays mostly in the lower ranges with some pleasing sudden breaths into the upper regions and Darling put his chops nicely on display on another bunch-o-notes solo jam.



The whole group gets back into the swing of things, so to speak, for the closing songs of the set, hitting their peak with the closing Egilsson original "You Gotta Be Kidding." It opens with a playful walking bass rhythm that needs no percussionist before pianist Fritz Paul takes over with an R&B romp and, having caught the crowd's attention, nails them between the eyes with an all-out free exchange with drummer John Hollenbeck that gets them roaring. Great stuff that shouldn't have been under wraps that long.



The evening's second act, at the now-familiar-to-me Kaffi Reykjavik, is also a step up from previous nights. The place is more decorative, food is on a buffet table, and again the crowd is bigger and better dressed. They get what seems like a pretty decent performance by Eyjolfur's Jazzband, an octet led by tenor saxophonist Eyjolfur Porleifsson, although logistics kept me from hearing all of it.



They have an intelligent bit-of-old-school approach that recalls memories of the promising but sadly short-lived Harper Brothers from the late '80s and early '90s, although they're more diverse, mixing Latin and some other styles in their their horn-heavy straighthead compositions. Bits of Coltrane, Rollins, Frissell and even Doc Severinsen at one point come to mind, all meshed into something more modern. What it can't do during the relatively short time I'm able to hear it is stand out from some of the more unusual and distinctive ensembles featured so far. My guilt at leaving early - and writing such a pathetic assessment - is alleviated somewhat after talking to a few listeners the next day who offer similar "good group/decent performance/didn't totally blow me away" comments.



But most of the buzz by now has little to do with Friday's concerts or anything else not related to a single subject: Van Morrison. Turns out nearly all of the newcomers are here for his long-ago sold-out performance Saturday night. That hearing him means a trip to Iceland and/or the chance to hear some Scandinavian jazz is often a nice but not totally necessary element to the whole experience. Considering my feelings are exactly the opposite I'm a bit taken aback by all this, but I also have my own agenda to pursue tomorrow: Is he worthy of headlining a jazz fest and how legit are his recent wanderings into the field? No matter what I write, I have a feeling it won't be sufficiently complimentary and insightful for the faithful.



And so I approach my impending doom...



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Day 5: Kids, fans who act like them and the Main Event

"Van Morrison is nothing if not punctual."
~ John Lappen, Sept. 2 concert review, The Hollywood Reporter



It's the day of the main event and, no matter what I write the faithful will score it a knockout



Nearly all the talk on day four of the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival is about the evening Van Morrison concert, which makes me feel a bit sorry for the other groups performing today. They have their share of fans, but it's got to be obvious to them how outnumbered they are by those who've come to listen to a rock and blues guy who just happens to be headlining a jazz festival.



This isn't happening because the Iceland folks couldn't get anyone else: The Van's been playing jazz fests all summer and apparently has real interest in taking his chops there, at least for a bit. Considering the fest's previously headline talent in recent years has included Diana Krall and Dave Holland, I think it's safe to say they booked him on merit.



In some ways it's not going to matter how good or bad the concert is - the faithful are making it a full weekend thing just by being part of the scene. A Minnesota couple who's seen him repeatedly seems to get as big a thrill out of meeting a guy who runs one of the major fan sites (who asked to remain nameless for reasons I'm not sure of) as they're likely to at the concert. And so it goes - people with a common connection bonding with each other throughout the day and doubtless forming alliances they'll share after going home.



As a follow-up the next morning, by the way, I do the Google thing for "Van Morrison" and "Iceland," hoping the faithful have beaten me to the punch with some raves/rants/photos/whatever from the concert. No such luck. Instead I learn:





  • "Iceland's Internet traffic saw a substantial decrease this week as police raided the homes of 12 individuals suspected of sharing massive amounts of copyrighted material over a private, local DC++ hub that was infiltrated by SMAIS, the Association of film right holders in Iceland."



  • "A study of 15,555 men and women in five Scandinavian countries (including Iceland) found that people who smoke are more likely to snore, even if they have quit smoking."



  • "The Presidential residence has very little security - there are no gates or walls, or even visible security, and the Inquirer was able to wander straight in. The President commented that he believed in operating a policy that was a stark contrast to much of the western world where, for example in the U.S., a visitor to the White House is assumed to be a threat until he proves otherwise. Constant suspicion, he suggested, was detrimental to democratic society."



So that means doing some actual work and returning to what happened beginning Saturday morning. Luckily, the day's opening acts make it bit easier since the theme seems to be music for the young - a brunch concert with that theme followed by a children's jazz performance.



The brunch belongs to vocalist Kristjana Stefánsdóttir, whose father was apparently an Icelandic jazz legend, and she apparently is getting decent acclaim on her own merits judging from a preliminary comments from attendees. A sellout crowd pays upward of $30 apiece for the privilege of eating beans and toast while listening to her at the Hotel Borg (for all you Trekkies, here's something to debate: "Borg" means "city" in Icelandic - did the Next Generation folks rely on this when crafting their so- called "ultimate" villain that gets defeated during the opening moments of "Star Trek VIII?").



Unfortunately, it's an average performance. Stefánsdóttir has a well-controlled voice in the Diana Krall range and is steady throughout, but a lack of real zing combined with a set heavy on contemporary pop/soft rock results in a setting that...well, is appropriate to eat brunch by. It occurs to me after the opening four songs that the audience isn't really reacting to anything she or the musicians are doing; it's not until she performs the Alan Parsons Project's "Old And Wise" toward the end of the first set, with drummer John Hollenback taking a bit of a rockish solo, that the crowd finally interjects some applause at some point other than the end of the songs.



The good news is a bit of extra energy seems to be infused into everyone after this, including the audience, especially once the plates are cleared and the second set is underway. Her up-tempo cover of Sting's "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic" is a crowd favorite and the highlight comes at the end with a swinging version of "Addicted To Love." More interpretations like that - jazz takes on pop - almost certainly would have made for a stronger outing.



The most whimsical stretch of the festival is unquestionably the subsequent free children's jazz concert at the Reykjavik town hall. Anna Palina Arnadottir is more storyteller than jazz vocalist in this setting, but she has the crucial element of a strong stage presence down pat and gets the kids sitting on the floor up front clapping when they should and listening when she's telling tales. There's the other necessary touches along the way as well, such as pianist Gunnar Gunnarsson donning a punk wig for some role I know nothing about since the whole thing is in Icelandic. About the only thing it doesn't do is offer much hope in winning over the youths to jazz - there isn't much happening with the instrumentalists other than giving Arnadottir the support she needs.



Of course, I'm probably one of the least qualified people in attendance to judge the performance. So for a knowledgeable opinion we turn to Bergthoraosk Elason, 5, of Reykjavik:



"Very nice. It's so lovely," she says, adding the last song, apparently called "Krusilius" is her favorite.



Whew. It's always good to have an expert bail you out.



Actually, scratch that thought, since we've now reached the portion of the festival and/or review where countless readers (ha - I flatter myself) will no doubt be clamoring to set me straight.



"Ladies and gentlemen: Please welcome to Iceland - Van Morrison!"



In some ways this is both the most and least important event of the festival from my perspective. He is, after all, the headline act. I'm also interested in knowing if he's earned legitimate jazz credentials and those spots at various European venues. And it's probably what most of the people attending the festival want to read about - assuming, of course, I agree with them.



On my way to the Laugardalshöll arena I figure there are two options: take extensive notes, work my way afterward through a recently acquired collection of his albums, peruse writings about recent concerts, and try to put it all in some kind of thoughtful context. Or I can just give my overtaxed brain and rear a rest and see what impressions the living legend has on a newbie (meaning he has to earn respect rather than going off his rep). I opt for the latter, figuring no matter how hard I work at the first approach I'm never going to come off among knowledgeable fans as anything other than a ignoramus trying to sound more intelligent than he really is.



So here's the gist: The Van isn't even close to the best act of the day, much less the highlight of the festival. He finishes behind, in descending order of my preference of the day's performers, the Seamus Blake/B3 Trio collaboration (more on them in a bit), the children's concert and some ratty-but-talented old guy performing classic rock tunes for spare change on the main drag I encounter near the Hotel Borg just before catching a cab home for the night. Much as I want to put Stefánsdóttir here, sadly the Van's first-rate production and presentation elevates him above her. If she'd performed a few more standards and/or originals instead of modern pop...



For all you "he-can-do-no-wrong" types, I'm not alone in this assessment. Consider the following blurbs:



"It was something nice to be able to offer his fans."
- A festival-type official whose shall remain nameless out of mercy



"He was in a hurry."
- Another festival performer who delivered a superior (and longer) concert



At the same time, to do the "fair and balanced" thing (can't we stick that in the overused phrases bin yet?), I offer the following:



"Brilliant."
- Attractive blonde employee at the band's hotel who scored a free concert ticket from the Van's sax player



Furthermore, never let it be said I'm not critical of my own. My seat, booked by clicking a banner ad at allaboutjazz.com, is six rows from the back. A lot of others around me seem to be part of the same tour package, including Mr. Anonymous Web Guy across the aisle.



I again wrestle with two choices as I assess the rather lengthy distance to the stage. Part of my brain says sit down and take things in from the viewpoint of the typical anonymous fan, the other is tempted to try to find some event staff and use my so-called press credentials to work my way onto the main floor where I can take some pictures and - gasp - maybe even try to capture a few rare and exclusive words from the Van himself for all the world to see.



The hell with it. This isn't Chick Corea or Pat Metheny. I take my seat.



Positive impressions gleaned from the 90-minute performance:



A) There's no question he's a first-rate blues vocalist.



B) Everything about the show is presented in tip-top professional fashion, from the sound mix to the tonal qualities of all the players. There's two big screen TVs so those in the cheap seats can see things close up and beer at inflated prices for those devastated at being so far from legend.



C) Nobody screws up, at least in a grade-schooler-who-forgets-his-lines kind of way.



D) He scores points by not playing "Brown-Eyed Girl" (although he sends the crowd home with the requisite rousing version of "Gloria").



E) Hopefully all those folks here exclusively to hear him are getting a decent indoctrination into the Scandinavian/global jazz scene as well.



On the other hand:

  • It's nice he decorates himself with all those instruments (an alto sax, harmonica and guitar at various points), but he needs to try playing them once in a while. He limits his sax mostly to a heavy growl during the opening and closing vamps, although proves himself capable of more exactly once when he mellows his tone and actually plays a solo during some ballad I don't know the name of.



  • I know blues has a typical 12-bar or 16-bar or "ABBA" structure, but how about giving fellow players more than eight bars at a time for solos? The most detailed analysis I can offer of his tenor sax and trumpet players is they have nice fusion tones and may be capable of some pretty good instrumental blues. Big acts may be safer by not taking chances, but there seldom are many rewards.



  • What was the point of hyping his so-called experimentation with a big band type of thing (roughly a dozen players - about twice the usual)? Other than a thickly layered blues canvas for the Van's vocals, I could probably count on my thumbs the number of times I saw something probably outside the norm (the only one I remember immediately is eight bars of a mandolin solo by someone who otherwise was largely anonymous).



  • Is "This is the first time I've been to Iceland - it's good to be here" really all that needs to be said to the throngs of fans who traveled overseas for the concert? As I understand it the Van doesn't exactly return the love that his fans shower on him, but still...



OK, hosing a big name who could care less what the press says about him isn't a terribly gutsy thing to do - sort of like a hometown newspaper opposing the war in the Congo rather than showing balls on local issues by, for instance, endorsing prostitution to offset the mayor's latest tax cut. But big names who act big generally don't impress me - I'm a huge Metheny fan, for instance, but he mailed it in the last time I paid $50 to see him (and I mean those final few words in more ways than one).



For what it's worth, I'm not even close to the first person out of the arena and I'm pretty sure all those folks weren't squeezed into the Hotel Borg 15 minutes later for the evening's "other" main event, featuring saxophonist Seamus Blake and the B3 Trio. I considered blowing off the performance since I'm tired, have covered the main event, am looking at four more concerts Sunday - and I'm not getting paid to do any of this. In the end duty - and, more important curiosity - wins out.



Good call.



The group doesn't necessary turn in the best performance of the festival, but it ends up being a personal favorite because they crank out a high-energy high-intelligence brand of fusion that I devoted my life to hunting down during college years ago. It sort of felt like the underrepresented portion of the festival, now I'll go home feeling considerably more complete.



Blake is one of those players with an impeccable diamond-hard Brecker-type tone who's able to work everything since Coltrane into a funk-filled canvas. B3 is an organ/guitar/drum trio, a nice departure in tonal color from the norm in this setting and all part of what makes a great "find."



Need these guys are here to have a good time? Consider their opening song is the Blake composition "Fear Of Roaming"

"It's dedicated to my cell phone bill," he tells the audience. "My cell phone works here, but I'm so afraid to make a call because I know it would be s-o-o-o-o expensive."



The composition is your basic up-tempo fusion with a bit of a syncopated beat, but true jazz fans know that's hardly where players harvest their grades. Blake builds early solo tension doing the repetitive phrase thing, lets it out with a few long phrases and then earns his "Get Out Of Radio Jazz Jail Free" card with an extended thesis in rapid phraseology from the bop-to-fusion era.



The B3 players aren't quite on the same plateau. Agnar Már Magnússon turns in the best work, essentially giving the Hammond tone to an straightforward electronic keys solo on "Fear Of Roaming" before doing a more thorough Jimmy Smith-like twisting of sound on subsequent pieces. Guitarist Ásgeir J. Ásgeirsson holds up his end competently and has a nice tone with shades of Metheny/ Scofield/Montgomery to it, but there's a sense he's doing version 1.0 of a Blake performance that's already gone through a few upgrades. Drummer Eric Qvick is the prototypical working man - he's backing numerous bands at this festival - but during this set he's not getting sufficient air time to strut his stuff.



The only letdown of the opening set - all I can stay awake for - is the closing "The Badlands," only because Blake builds it up as a "really ugly" tribute to the seamy side of New York City that visitors never see. I'm not sure what I was expecting - maybe another "Tutu," but it doesn't really do more than offer a slightly dark twist on fairly conventional playing. Without the build-up it'd be a great closer.



So with one day to go I realize I need to start assessing the state of Icelandic jazz, which a handful of people openly mocked when they heard I was coming out here solely for that reason. For the full verdict you'll need to read the final rant to the bitter end, but I offer the following build-your-own-preview kit with the following phrases: "exceeds," "anticipated," "quality," "diversity," "reasonable" and "cost."



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Day 6: The grand finale

I was not grievously wounded, but bruised all over in the most remarkable manner."
- Harry Hardwigg, from Jules Verne's "Journey To The Center Of The Earth," upon conclusion of a journey that begin with a descent into an Icelandic volcano.



The challenges of journalism never cease. In this case a hangover is necessary and I don't drink alcohol.



I figure there's no way to cover the properly cover the final day of the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival sober, since Saturday is a huge party night and anyone going through a series of concerts during a nearly 12-hour stretch Sunday will likely be suffering. Luckily the task proves easier than expected, as a second straight night with almost no sleep due to late-night concerts and pain from an injury to the ribs leave me in a suitably disoriented state.

.

Most of the festival crowd likely spends the day packing their bags, as tour packages generally included only two of the event's five days, ending with Saturday's rather pedestrian Van Morrison headline concert. Too bad for them, because the Sunday lineup features a decent collection of largely local performers who in many ways outshine bigger names from previous day.



It starts with the second brunch concert of the weekend led by a female vocalist, in this case Estonian singer Margot Kiis. The room doesn't seem as full as Saturday, but she turns in a better performance. Her bits of scat during a set of standards such as "Can't Help Lovin' 'Dat Man" and "Body and Soul" feel natural instead of contrived, and she possesses the gift of knowing how to make them sound fresh without being overly contemporary. She also gets good interplay with her backing trio of pianist Kjartan Valdemarsson bassist Gunnar Hrafnsson and drummer Eric Qvick.



The next concert is equally rewarding, as a Manhattan Transfer-like vocal quintet leads a set of gospel songs in a jazz setting. It's remarkably free and up-tempo, especially given the church setting, and guitarist Ásgeir Ásgeirsson stands out among the instrumentalists with some fine Wes Montgomery/Lee Ritenour-type playing. Unfortunately, it's also an example of poor festival logistics that have imposed a variety of scheduling and financial hassles during the week. The one-hour performance takes place at a church that is a 10-minute walk from the other two Sunday afternoon concerts (and with 40 mph winds it feels longer than that). It's inevitable listeners have to leave one show early or arrive at another one late (maybe both), an irritation made all the worse by having to buy $15-$25 tickets for all of the performances since they're not part of the festival tour packages most people have.



So my stint at the church is relatively brief, after which I'm back in the hotel ballroom from brunch to hear maybe the most entertaining - if not artistically accomplished - performance of the day. Thora Bjork, a 24-year-old vocalist, leads a student trio through two sets of standards and all of them - Bjork in particular - deliver the rewards (and occasional pitfalls) of the raw and talented in action. Bjork sings with more emotion than nearly any other festival performer and a skill equal to plenty of them, occasionally going a bit too far and loud during more intense moments. It's something the self- described "rocker at heart" should overcome with time; hopefully she'll maintain her emotive qualities at the same time. Guitarist Ragnar Emilsson throws passages of energetic indulgence into his already lively support of Bjork, and goes through studious runs on his own that probably aren't fully appreciated in the sleepy late-afternoon setting. Same goes for bassist Pétur Sigurarson - I'm somehow enjoying his backing, full enough to make the absence of a drummer a moot point, without being able to fully appreciate it.



Sadly, the evening finale isn't quite up to the others (and attending means another pricey ticket and cab ride across town to a different hotel). Guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel spends the opening 40 minutes of his concert performing solo experimental music that basically consists of overdubbing himself with samplers. A muddled sound canvas is the too-frequent result; at one point he spends 10 minutes playing a Beetles tune he says we should all recognize after a few minutes - but nobody sitting near me figured out what it was. The latter part of the show, where he was joined by the Beefolk fusion group, proves to be a much better effort. Muthspiel concentrates on his playing instead of special effects and makes a decent lead voice for Beefolk, sort of a Rippingtons-meet-world-music group. Their sound is tight, but not overly restrictive, with violinist Klemens Bittman, saxophonist Georg Gratzer and accordion player Christian Bakanic all making decent impressions during their solo time.



And that wraps up the festival. All in all, I'd say it's definitely a worthwhile event with a higher quality brand of Norsk jazz than I might have expected, but there are definite problems potential attendees ought to consider before making plans to attend future shows. The biggest are the logistical and financial pitfalls. Putting all of the shows within walking distance of each other and ensuring there's enough time between them will greatly reduce both cost and frustration. Also, paying for a large number of individual shows after buying separate festival passes starts feeling like a rip-off and makes it hard to appreciate the performances. Selling individual tickets is fine, but a one-pass-buys-all option is sorely needed.



Finally, if there's enough interested participants and space available (their city hall seems ideal), it makes sense to have some sort of central "anchor" place for the festival where attendees can find tickets, information and CDs by the musicians, get questions answered and just in general have a place where they can mingle and feel like festival goers. Right now it feels more like a continuous string of events, or even just a night of bar hopping in a city with a good jazz scene, than an actual festival. Organizers no doubt may have some explanations why the above suggestions won't work, but, hey, it's a wish list...



Coda: Under suspicion of terrorism after going on a puffin hunt



Author's note: This is a very brief and incomplete log of my minimal opportunity to see a few sites, with no real music stuff included. It's included as a "hey, what's the harm" supplement without any expectation people might actually want to read it.



Monday was my day to explore, followed by a pack-and-fly-out day Tuesday. Both days were somewhat less than a total success, thanks in large part to stormy weather with gale-force winds. A drive around the famous "Golden Triangle" set of attractions (geysers, waterfall, something else I missed) resulted mostly in carsickness as my tiny rented compact car was tossed all over the roads, which varied from modern freeways to unmarked gravel surfaces that had me convinced I was lost. The only real site of note was the geysers - and even then I found it rather ironic they had to label them as such since there wasn't much other a small whiff of steam coming from most of them.



Evening was devoted to finding the one Icelandic meal I knew I couldn't get elsewhere: puffin (you know, the old travel joke about going to strange lands, seeing exotic animals and then eating them...). As as former worker in Antarctica who's read endlessly about the likes of Shackleton living off penguins - and described them as horrible - curiosity has me wanting to try one or its nearest equivalent. This seemed like a promising opportunity, but all the places advertising it turn out to be fine dining establishments charging $80 a plate. Even for Europe's most expensive country this is too much to swallow. I wind up in the student section of town ordering a pizza with snails instead - highly recommended over anything Domino's has to offer.



Ideally, departure days are uneventful - pack, fly, be glad you're home - but the weather literally blew that plan away. Gale winds blew me over in the airport parking lot, resulting in severe bleeding/ bruising/cracks to the knee/rib/forehead areas. In the way that minor stuff often occupies your brain at such times, I was mostly irritated about bleeding all over clean clothes I had to wear for my 40 hours of flights and airport waits to Alaska. The fact that a disheaveled-looking guy covered with blood and holding a one-way ticket might have a problem with security never occurred to me until I got there....



So my trip to Iceland didn't exactly end on a complimentary note, unless you count all the sweet things I said to security about them/their country/anything I could think of. I spent much of the flights home with newspapers on my lap to keep the blood stains out of sight.



So now I'm back home with a few dozen new CDs (look for a lengthy set of mini-reviews of them in the near future) and some insight into a new country's music scene. Was it worth it and will I return? Let's just say the best headline I saw upon returning - with the possible exception of the new Batman movie being filmed there ("It's [expletive] cold in Iceland. And they eat whales — they eat anything - puffins!" lead actor Christian Bale exclaimed.) - was Icelandair will begin flights there from San Francisco next spring, so I can bypass New York and all the other stopovers. My next trip (probably with my significant other in tow) will no doubt include volcanos, hot springs, lobsters and plenty of other things I missed that the country is famous for. Also, Greenland is only a short hop away by plane. Hmmm...wonder if they have jazz fests there....



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