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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.).


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