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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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Michel Rodriguez's tone, if not always pace, seems to soften on most of the remaining songs, but the overall impact is little affected. His brother continues on a somewhat higher level, mixing classic Latin and contemporary modern mainstream seamlessly. It's not just the brothers who perform with more than a touch of mainstream; Scheving's extended solo on the samba original "Merry Go Round" is more rock/mainstream than Latin - and unfortunately stuck a bit too much in neutral with too much repetitiveness.

The set's highlight is the closing "Luminescence" by Robert Rodriguez, where nearly everything comes together and proves the group capable of the elevated expectations previously hinted at. The composition is somewhat darker and both Rodriguez brothers wring an almost aching feeling out of it early, and support from everyone turns far more interactive than the early tunes. But the stage is stolen at the end by percussionist Samuel Torres, who brings enough fury to his skins to alarm his hometown PETA chapter and send me out of the building thinking "where's he been hiding that all night?" The roar from the audience could have been heard at the end of a $15 taxi ride - which is unfortunately where I am when they begin their next set.

Binary Orchid, featuring pianist Harmen Fraanje (left), bassist Gulli Gudmunds (center) and drummer Leiven Venken, perform Thursday during the 2004 Reykjavik Jazz Festival.

The reason for cutting out early is the second billed event by Binary Orchid, easily my pick for best performance during a series of individual songs by various groups during an opening reception the first day of the festival. Pianist Harmen Fraanje kept a slow and deeply intellectual vamp and embellishment going as bassist Gulli Gudmunds and drummer Lieven Venken went from a slow counterpunch rhythm to absolutely going nuts in their against-the-grain pacing. There was no chance of missing the full show, or at least as much of it as I could stay awake through.

It was both a thrill and a slight disappointment, if only because they broke a cardinal rule all those debate gurus were practicing back home: Play down expectations before the big event so the real thing seems that much better.

Their reception tune (I believe it was called simply "L") closes the Thursday's opening full set and proves to be another show-stealing highlight; everything else is merely very good, if such a phrase is not totally contradictory. Venken dominates much of the set by laying down thick and cymbal-heavy textures which Gudmunds colors with various meditative thoughts from his piano and Fender Rhodes. At times it edges closer to electronica/New Age than the European-style modern mainstream of their best moments and sometimes I felt myself pulling against their natural appeal in wishing they'd actually pick up the pace a bit. Also, everything about the show is dark from the compositional tones to the stage itself. For the sleep deprived listener late at night, this is not a good thing. Hence an analysis short of "fingerings similar to the late-to-mid stage of Monk's middle career" is what you get here. Stay tuned for a thorough analysis of any and all albums, since I intend to hunt for anything they've issued.

Getting "home" means another cab ride that could pay for one of those albums, but for once I'm feeling good when I climb out because I've located my first driver who actually has listened to jazz at some point in life. He's a former longtime cargo ship mate who occasionally visited famous jazz clubs during stopovers in New York City. He says classic legends such as Woody Herman and Jimmy Smith were favorites, but notes with gruff amusement that drinks cost 25 cents before performances and $3 during them. But with an evening job to do nowadays, he isn't planning to attend any of the Iceland festival events.

Makes sense. With my night job I won't be driving inquisitive strangers anywhere for...well, actually maybe three days. I'm hitting the countryside in a rental car for a few days when the festival madness ends and probably will look for more tax breaks by picking up and interrogating any roadside stragglers I see along the way. At least they can't say they weren't warned.

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Day 4: A cow's-eye view of elves, trolls and all things semi-formal

For $25,000 one gets three hours at the South Pole, much of it waiting outside a gift shop so small only a few people are allowed in at a time.

So if I claim that for $100 I spent a day in Iceland spelunking, horseback riding, elf hunting, viewing an actual troll, hearing an overview of the country's folklore and eating a genuine Viking meal I'd probably look pretty good, right?

Well, I often say it's all in how you tell the story. In this case I ought to quit while I'm way ahead.


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