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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.


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