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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.


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