Reykjavik Jazzhátíð/ Reykjavik Jazz Festival
(Reykjavik, Iceland. 4-8 September 2019. Festival Round-Up by Sebastian Scotney)
This first-time visit to Iceland has been a fascinating voyage of discovery. During four days at the 30th Reykjavik Jazz Festival, I have started to get to know this extraordinary, tree-less volcanic country, its people grounded in their centuries-old folk traditions and their proximity to the unforgiving elements, and an indigenous jazz scene remarkable for its broad range, high quality, and also, definitely, a real openness and strong sense of community.
Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs, one of the three organisers of the festival, described its purpose succinctly: “To serve the local scene, and hopefully to invigorate it and encourage it.” The festival programmers take in applications for festival concerts from local musicians who are free to offer either their own indigenous ventures or projects in which they propose to work in partnership with foreign musicians. And the programmers then also invite groups from abroad to bring new ideas and more variety.
This year, with Laura Jurd working in a trio with Iceland-based musicians, a concert by Tori Freestone’s trio and the high energy of Phronesis, there was something of a UK focus.
The first thing I wondered was if one could pin down any kind of unifying characteristic or style among Icelandic jazz musicians? I thought that perhaps the person best qualified to talk about that would be the wonderfully genial Icelandic jazz historian Vernharður Linnet. He wrote the chapter on Iceland in Franco Martinelli’s compendious Jazz in Europe book published last year. When I asked him, he had the eminent good sense to dodge the question completely, and started to talk to me about the heroes of the scene, and in particular one legendary figure or unsung hero, the phenomenal Danish-born saxophonist Gunnar Ormslev (1928 – 1981).
The fact that the question of whether there is an “Icelandic jazz sound” can be avoided doesn’t stop one looking for it. The first and most obvious element is that Iceland is, from its heritage and its politics and allegiances a Nordic country, and the search for spacious and contemplative music is frequently rewarded. That was the case with the duo who were the first to play at the National Gallery on the opening night, bassist Tomas R. Einarsson and pianist Eyfor Gunnarson. Their prevailing mood is slow and gentle, but I enjoyed the harmonic directions of Einarsson’s compositions which sound almost like contrafacts of standards.
Also in the introspective manner was a solo set from master guitarist Hilmar Jensson. His approach was all about the tantricly slow unfurling of different textures, and an ephemerally light transition from pitchless sound at the start to introducing and revelling in slow melodies towards the end. And then it was interesting to see where the inspiration for an early composition from student pianist Stefanía Helga Sigurðardóttir for her all-female student band Bjálki (with bassist Þóra Birgit Bernódusdóttir and drummer Eva Kolbeins) came from: it was about witnessing nature; she called it Paskahretid, meaning “Easter blizzard”. Bjálki did a curtain-raiser for a wide-ranging and timely lunchtime discussion forum on gender equality led by Ros Rigby.
I asked one visiting musician from another country who works frequently with Icelandic musicians to explain what he admires in them, and his answer was quite revealing, and maybe goes some way to explain the particular kind of calm purposefulness that one finds. “They are straightforward people. They tell you what they think and what they feel. And that is also how they play. There’s no ‘extra’, they don’t need to sound ‘cool’ or ‘better’.”
That sense of unforced authenticity came through in the trio led by Sunna Gunnlaugs with Dutch musicians, bass clarinettist Maarten Ornstein and bassist Tony Overwater. She left the dominant melodic role to the bass clarinet, whereas I thought the strongest and most interesting moments came when she allowed her own voice to step through and take the lead. Another superb player, who has worked in the UK in bands led by Guy Barker is the alto saxophonist Sigurður Flosason. Flosason is an adept and highly fluent improviser who thinks naturally in long lines. He was playing with the Luxembourg trio of Michel Reis on piano, Marc Demuth on bass and Jeff Herr on drums. Herr’s natural instincts are to band-lead and I found his playing sometimes over-dominant in this context. More sax please.
The Icelandic spirit and the nowhere-to-hide trio context also brought a balanced, thoughtful set from trumpeter Laura Jurd. Tunes like Stumble and Broken Tango by Iceland-based American drummer Scott McLemore had a great sense of forward propulsion and he also had a deeply intuitive common understanding of volume level and intensity with his regular bass colleague,another really strong player, Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson.
We also had a memory of one particular high moment for Icelandic jazz from nearly three decades ago, when Björk, then in her mid-twenties, recorded that complete outlier of an album Gling-Gló. Back then, she teamed up with an Icelandic rhythm section including a strong and characterful bass player Þórður Högnason to bring an unlikely warmth and cheeriness to versions sung in Icelandic of, for example, Sway and Lieber/Stoller’s Ruby Baby. Högnason gave sheer class to the backing band for his daughter Silva Þórðardóttir. Silva has her act together musically (hardly a surprise), and was singing standards, but still has a way to go in terms of presence, communication and originality. Singer-daughters of great bass players can go far; maybe Silva needs to hang out with Gretchen Parlato…
And then there is the relative proximity of Iceland to America. One only needs to look at a map to see that when travelling to Iceland from Europe in general, and from the other, much more populous Nordic countries in particular, one has already covered about half of the way to the “land of the me”. There are several flights to and from North America every day… basically Iceland is more or less the same distance from Paris as it is from Quebec City. On the day I arrived, both the town centre of Reykjavik and the area due to be visited by US Vice President had been decked out with the colours of Pride. In other words, Iceland is prepared to assert its difference.
That sense of the proximity of America was palpable in the fact that quite a few Icelandic musicians have trained in the U.S, and there were also performances that fit more comfortably into the lineage of American jazz. Chicago-raised tenor saxophonist Phil Doyle who was in the group led by vibraphonist Ludvig Kári Forberg and their afternoon set brought some American punch to a nice space in the Town Hall on the Friday afternoon.
And yet there were also plenty of genuine surprises. My main discovery about Iceland on this trip has been to find a combination of being linked to their ancient stories and also an astonishing and larger than-life sense of humour. A couple of serial festival attenders thought they might just listen to a couple of numbers by the young band Salsakommúnan. They were all captivated and charmed and stayed till the end. This large unit combined latin lightness with stories in between the numbers about contacts with the elf-world. Singer/raconteur Símon Karl Sigurðarson Melsteð is a total charmer.
For reference at this point, a survey in 2011 established that 72% of the Icelandic population acknowledge to some extent the existence of elves. Roads are regularly built that take detours to avoid upsetting the elves. Which tells you a lot. Another unit with irresistible madcap energy was the piano and harmonica Davíð Þór Jónsson and Þorleifur Gaukur Davíðsson. Superb.
Of the remaining gigs I heard, Mikael Máni’s Trio on the first night showed a promising artist currently working with older more experienced hands including a Laurie Anderson stalwart. His development will be interesting to follow.
The UK bands Phronesis and Tori Freestone’s trio both made friends, with a lot of Phronesis vinyl finding a new home in Reykjavik. Phronesis had not played together for at least a few weeks, and the effect seemed to be that Ivo Neame was playing as virtuosically and challengingly as I have ever heard him, and Jasper Høiby and Anton Eger gave massive energy but held back on volume until what one wants to happen at a Phronesis gig duly happens, and Eger raises the volume to attack level and steals the show. Tori Freestone’s trio played a strong set, and she has a good knack for setting the context and the story in place for each number. She made the decision to forsake air travel and to head back to London on a tall ship. Respect.
Porto-raised, Stockholm resident trumpeter Susana Santos Silva now has a name and a Europe-wide reputation that go before her. She is a forceful and highly inventive player and on this occasion she seemed to temper her often combative and intensely serious spirit with more Icelandic ease and humour, quite possibly due to the urbane and highly effective sax playing of Berklee-trained local sax hero Jóel Pálsson.
What I heard of the Gypsy Trio with guitarists Gunnar Hilmarsson and Jóhann Guðmundsson had the joy and lightness one would expect. Pianist Arni Karlsson’s 4tet gave a thoughtful and deeply felt set. And in a late-night set by the band hist og on Saturday, drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen had great life and appeared to be doing the heavy lifting playing acoustically and daemonically while his trumpet and guitar colleagues placed most of their faith in effects and reverb.
This is a well-organized festival and achieves its aims well. One festival organizer from another country attending the festival told me that whereas at her festival the musicians do go to each other’s gigs but never venture beyond the bar, in Iceland the musicians take the opportunity to go to listen to each other and to the visiting musicians too. That is what real musical communities are made of.
Sebastian was the guest of Reykjavik Jazzhátíð and the Icelandic Music Export Office.