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Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2018

Luca Vitali By

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Reykjavik Jazz Festival
Reykjavik, Iceland
September 5-9, 2018

Iceland has produced, and continues to produce, many outstanding artists—some of them world-famous, such as Björk, Múm, Sigur Rós, Ólafur Arnalds, Mingus Amungus, Emiliana Torrini, Of Monsters and Men—which is quite remarkable if one thinks that the country has less than 350,000 inhabitants. 130,000 of these live in the capital, Reykjavik, the most Northerly European capital, vibrant and intriguing (even though perhaps not as much as the striking natural environment —geysers, volcanos, waterfalls, spectacular landscapes —that can be found all over Iceland).

The "land of ice" (Iceland in Old Norse) is also the place of origin of some phenomenal music festivals, such as Iceland Airwaves (in November), Secret Solstice (in June), Sónar Reykjavík (in February) as well as the Reykjavik Jazz Festival (August-September), which was the reason why I was in town.

The Reykjavik Jazz Festival is the most important (or rather the only) jazz festival in the country. Established in 1990 and now in its 29th edition, it is the longest running festival in Iceland and presents the best musicians of the local scene alongside important international stars. Since 2014 it has been directed by the pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs and the double bassist Leifur Gunarsson, who succeded the percussionist Pétur Grétarsson, director of the previous eight editions.

Traditionally, the festival has been an important showcase for local musicians, and this year many of them were in peak form, promoting new albums or premiering new projects. According to a well-established tradition, the starting whistle consisted of a parade of musicians that took off from the Lucky Records store and took over the city streets until they reached the municipal library —where the inaugural ceremony was held.

The five-day programme featured numerous international artists, mostly European—Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski with his trio, Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur with her ensemble "Shamania," Swedish pianist Lars Jansson, Spanish bassist Giulia Valle and the English duo Skeltr—but also the American guitarist Ralph Towner. Plus... a healthy dose of musicians active on the Icelandic scene: Sunna Gunnlaugs, Ingi Bjarni Skúlason, Sigurður Flosason, Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir, Óskar Guðjónsson, Hilmar Jensson, Una Stefánsdóttir, Scott McLemore.

Marilyn Mazur—Shamania

From among the international stars, the brightest radiance came from the supergroup led by Marilyn Mazur. Shamania offered an astonishing instrumental palette which gathered some of the leading artists of the Scandinavian scene, united in a project of powerful empathy, energy and playfulness. Ten top-class instrumentalists who together multiply each other's potential by ten: the voices of Josefine Cronholm and Sissel Vera Pettersen integrated each other in a sublime way, without a hint of competition; Hildegunn Oiseth with her goat horn and trumpet evoked distant roots echoing the elves of her homeland; Lotte Anker on saxophones and Lis Wessberg on trombone soard high while Anna Lund and Anna Lundqvist Quintet provided the pulsating drums that, together with Mazur's percussions and Ida Gormsen's thrusting bass, drove the ensemble into an authentic shamanic trance. Makiko Hirabayashi and Mazur, situated at the two ends of the stage, established a telepathic interaction with the dance steps of Tine Erica Aspaas. The ensemble delivered a very powerful performance—heartfelt and spontaneous—that swept the audience away. The only questionable aspect was the use of keyboards in an otherwise acoustic soundscape, which unnecessarily weighed things down.

Scott McLemore Quartet

Drummer Scott McLemore (an American who has lived in Reykjavik for thirteen years) was at the helm of a remarkable quartet with two guitarists in the front-line: the Icelandic Hilmar Jensson and the French Pierre Perchaud. He presented The Multiverse, a new album strongly inspired by John Abercrombie's work but which at the same time—thanks to the sound and phrasing of Hilmar Jensson—often brought out echoes of Bill Frisell, to whom the band's leader, not surprisingly, dedicated the final tune. The concert showcased a fine quartet, solid and cohesive, with two guitars that blended together beautifully thanks to their different voices and an admirable sense of measure.


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