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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.



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