If Van Morrison is the headline act of this year's Reykjavik Jazz Festival, then maybe it makes sense that trip-hop diva Björk is Iceland's biggest name with a jazz album.
And here's a further shock: it's a pretty good one.
Gling-Gló is available in the US for the first time following its rerelease by One Little Indian late in 2003. It is one of Björk's first albums, recorded three years before her 1993 solo debut, and her minimally processed vocals accompanied by a simple trio will probably shock and dismay some fans. General audiences, however, will find this a playful and consistently enjoyable disc that easily surpasses many other mass-market jazz vocal performances in artistry and novelty value.
Björk has a light and playfulalmost childliketouch on many of the songs. She's singing in Icelandic, but translations can be found online at bjork.com . An example from the opening title track: "Tic toc, the clock chimed/Moon smiled above the clouds/Lasi from Leiti was on his way/To Lina awaiting him." She mixes lilting effectively with a fair amount of gritty growling, so even though she doesn't display the range of many jazz vocalists, things seldom feel dull, even if most listeners have no idea what she's singing about.
Imagination becomes part of the listening process on songs like the bouncy "Bella The Operator," where one wonders just who this "Bella, Bella, Bella" is Björk keeps going on about: "(She) knows something about everyone/Tells you how long you've been on/In love calls she'll put you thru at once." Björk also proves worthy beyond the fun and games, singing quality English renditions of "Rudy Baby" and "I Can't Help Loving That Man" to close out the album.
She's backed by competent players in a more supportive than assertive role. Pianist Gudmundur Ingolfsson delivers some short and basic straight-ahead interludes, but generally he's more interesting offering lively boogie-woogie and boppish interactions during Bjork's vocalizing. The combination of play-it-straight piano with Scandinavian-flavored vocals provides much of the album's charm and almost always succeeds on styles ranging from swing to ballads. His high energy, Michel Camilo-like run on the Latin-themed "Litli Tonlistarmaourinn" is a standout moment, like his wistful meditations on "Pao Sest Ekki Sætari Mey."
Drummer Gudmundur Steingrimsson brings a few extra sounds beyond the basic kit, but nothing not heard before, and bassist Pordur Hognason is regrettably no more than a role player here, as Björk's dominant vocals don't exactly offer an ideal forum for low-end subtlety.
This album isn't high art, but like a high-quality paperback, it delivers plenty of immediate gratification and is worth digging out on occasion. As a change-of-pace album during an evening with company, it'd certainly get noticed, especially by fans of jazz and/or Björk. One might like to see more albums like this from the singeran unlikely prospectbut the ability to obtain it easily due to its re-release is enough to be thankful for now.
Author's note: This is part of a planned series about the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival and Iceland's jazz scene, including history, reviews, interviews, and online resources such as songs and scores available as free downloads. Stay tuned...