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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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I've taken to polling taxi drivers to get a feel for how popular the jazz scene is as the 2004 Reykjavic Jazz Festival progresses. So far a disappointingly large number don't even know the five-day event is in town and none are planning to attend. Rock and pop, and surprisingly a killer New Year's Day celebration, are generally a far more dominant source of entertainment among locals, they say. As for the drivers, most are older men who've lived in Iceland's capital most or all of their lives and their interests lean toward fishing, soccer, and debating the merits of city's tourism- and industry-fueled construction boom.

As for the festival, so far I'd score it perhaps a B+ on musical merit, but something in the below average range for logistics, largely because various performances are taking place at various locations too far to get between conveniently and therefore attending one means missing large portions of others even when they don't overlap.

It also means expensive taxi rides between locations for visitors like myself who don't have a car or connections with locals who own one, hence the polling that might allow all those fares to be claimed as a tax deduction or something. As for the interest in soccer, do a Google News search for "Iceland" and it's obvious why - nearly all the headlines are related to the sport.

Thankfully, performances so far are all in the evening. Lingering jet lag pretty much wiped out my second full day, which they say is usually the roughest on travelers who've traversed a bunch of time zones. Supposedly it's a biological thing, or maybe just the adrenaline provided by novelty wears off. The cause doesn't exactly matter. I sleep past noon, waking only because the front desk calls to let me know my tickets for the concerts will arrive tomorrow.

Interesting development, since the festival started yesterday. But as I noted in yesterday's review, the advertised tour sells a three-day package and sort of lets early arrivers discover on their own about the couple of extra days requiring separate tickets to attend.

Stopping in a few book stores and writing one of these bloggish reviews takes the rest of the afternoon, which is fine because once again the weather is of the rainy and just-above freezing temperatures variety.

Robert Rodriguez (left) and his brother Michel leads the Rodriguez Brothers Latin Jazz Quintet during a Thursday evening performance at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival.

The first of two performances today is the Rodriguez Brothers Latin Jazz Quintet, unquestionably the main event if judged solely in terms of attendance, as a crowd well in excess of 100 crowds a ballroom at the Hotel Saga.

"My brother and I absolutely adore this country," says trumpet player Michel Rodriguez, who co-leads the group with his brother Robert who plays piano. "We were here a couple of years ago for a wedding in December and we stayed until New Year's. That's probably the greatest New Year's we had ever. You guys really know how to get down."

The audience gets an entertaining, if not mind-blowing, opening set high in energy and perhaps a bit short in creative fire. It actually speaks well of the talent at the festival as a whole, since a number of people back home were questioning just how good this event could be. This is hardly a landmark jam like the North Sea or Montreux festival, so achieving less than perfection by those standards is certainly no indication of a bad performance.

(OK, with the moral conscience disclaimer out of the way, on with the show.)

The New York City-based group focuses on originals by the Rodriguez brothers. It's not the compositions that come up short; it's the solos where my notes feature scribbles like "doesn't quite hit full potential of the structure" and "accessible but not amazing." Still, there are outstanding moments and the crowd doesn't hesitate to recognize and properly reward the group for them.

The opening "El Monje" ("The Monk" in Spanish, written by Robert Rodriguez in tribute to Thelonius Monk) is true to its name as Michel Rodriguez applies a razor tone to a series of straight-ahead passages with plenty of breathing space - it could almost be old school Miles regardless of the Latin canvas he plays against. It's a pleasing contrast, but one of the early crowd pleasers is Robert Rodriguez's somewhat more high-energy and in-depth follow-up in a similar vein. Drummer Einar Valur Scheving sets the pace for the evening with backings I note as "consistently fun - but maybe just a bit too consistent." But there's no weakness here, except bassist Hans Glawischig keeps getting overwhelmed in the mix by his fellow players.


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