Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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On my way to the Laugardalshöll arena I figure there are two options: take extensive notes, work my way afterward through a recently acquired collection of his albums, peruse writings about recent concerts, and try to put it all in some kind of thoughtful context. Or I can just give my overtaxed brain and rear a rest and see what impressions the living legend has on a newbie (meaning he has to earn respect rather than going off his rep). I opt for the latter, figuring no matter how hard I work at the first approach I'm never going to come off among knowledgeable fans as anything other than a ignoramus trying to sound more intelligent than he really is.

So here's the gist: The Van isn't even close to the best act of the day, much less the highlight of the festival. He finishes behind, in descending order of my preference of the day's performers, the Seamus Blake/B3 Trio collaboration (more on them in a bit), the children's concert and some ratty-but-talented old guy performing classic rock tunes for spare change on the main drag I encounter near the Hotel Borg just before catching a cab home for the night. Much as I want to put Stefánsdóttir here, sadly the Van's first-rate production and presentation elevates him above her. If she'd performed a few more standards and/or originals instead of modern pop...

For all you "he-can-do-no-wrong" types, I'm not alone in this assessment. Consider the following blurbs:

"It was something nice to be able to offer his fans."
- A festival-type official whose shall remain nameless out of mercy

"He was in a hurry."
- Another festival performer who delivered a superior (and longer) concert

At the same time, to do the "fair and balanced" thing (can't we stick that in the overused phrases bin yet?), I offer the following:

- Attractive blonde employee at the band's hotel who scored a free concert ticket from the Van's sax player

Furthermore, never let it be said I'm not critical of my own. My seat, booked by clicking a banner ad at allaboutjazz.com, is six rows from the back. A lot of others around me seem to be part of the same tour package, including Mr. Anonymous Web Guy across the aisle.

I again wrestle with two choices as I assess the rather lengthy distance to the stage. Part of my brain says sit down and take things in from the viewpoint of the typical anonymous fan, the other is tempted to try to find some event staff and use my so-called press credentials to work my way onto the main floor where I can take some pictures and - gasp - maybe even try to capture a few rare and exclusive words from the Van himself for all the world to see.

The hell with it. This isn't Chick Corea or Pat Metheny. I take my seat.

Positive impressions gleaned from the 90-minute performance:

A) There's no question he's a first-rate blues vocalist.

B) Everything about the show is presented in tip-top professional fashion, from the sound mix to the tonal qualities of all the players. There's two big screen TVs so those in the cheap seats can see things close up and beer at inflated prices for those devastated at being so far from legend.

C) Nobody screws up, at least in a grade-schooler-who-forgets-his-lines kind of way.

D) He scores points by not playing "Brown-Eyed Girl" (although he sends the crowd home with the requisite rousing version of "Gloria").

E) Hopefully all those folks here exclusively to hear him are getting a decent indoctrination into the Scandinavian/global jazz scene as well.

On the other hand:

  • It's nice he decorates himself with all those instruments (an alto sax, harmonica and guitar at various points), but he needs to try playing them once in a while. He limits his sax mostly to a heavy growl during the opening and closing vamps, although proves himself capable of more exactly once when he mellows his tone and actually plays a solo during some ballad I don't know the name of.

  • I know blues has a typical 12-bar or 16-bar or "ABBA" structure, but how about giving fellow players more than eight bars at a time for solos? The most detailed analysis I can offer of his tenor sax and trumpet players is they have nice fusion tones and may be capable of some pretty good instrumental blues. Big acts may be safer by not taking chances, but there seldom are many rewards.

  • What was the point of hyping his so-called experimentation with a big band type of thing (roughly a dozen players - about twice the usual)? Other than a thickly layered blues canvas for the Van's vocals, I could probably count on my thumbs the number of times I saw something probably outside the norm (the only one I remember immediately is eight bars of a mandolin solo by someone who otherwise was largely anonymous).

  • Is "This is the first time I've been to Iceland - it's good to be here" really all that needs to be said to the throngs of fans who traveled overseas for the concert? As I understand it the Van doesn't exactly return the love that his fans shower on him, but still...


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