It's not just mums that love Iceland: Einar Scheving and John Hollenbeck at Jazzhatid Reykjavik

 Iceland

Displayed in shop windows all over the Icelandic capital Reykjavik are large format pictures of the footballers who made the nation proud at this year’s European Championship, as England, victims of these hardy giant killers, know only too well. And the sense of this population of just 300,000 punching above its weight, from a cultural point of view, is keenly felt in the annual jazz festival, which celebrated its 27th edition last week. On the bill were local and international talents that highlighted both the quality of Icelandic musicians and their ability to mix it with the best of their American and European counterparts.

All year round there are sessions at small venues in town such as Kex, and in recent times the festival has been spread out around clubs, but the decision to centralise activities in 2016 at Harpa pays dividends. With its distinctive façade of shimmering colours, sloping ramps, and numerous terraces offering great views of the harbour, this superb multi-purpose venue, that vaguely recalls the Sage in Gateshead, is a perfect nerve centre for the four-day event. Punters are able to move easily around the halls and foyers in the building and therefore not miss any gigs, talks or jam sessions.

If there’s one musician who acts as a heartbeat of the festival, then it’s Icelandic drummer-composer Einar Scheving. He crops up frequently in several different settings, showing impressive versatility, moving seamlessly from the bright fusion of Annes to the post-modernist push of the combo co-led by Icelandic saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason and German vibraphonist Stefan Bauer. But it is when he leads his own group that Scheving comes into his own as both a writer and player. This idiosyncratic, unusually configured quartet is at the confluence of the choppy electric currents of jazz and the quieter but no less potent streams of a meditative acoustic tradition, and the timbral combination of Skuli Sverisson’s viscose bass guitar and Eythor Gunnarrsson’s lithe piano is excellent in this regard. But the palette is decisively enriched by the deep Lester-like sensuality of Oskar Gudjonsson’s tenor saxophone, his mid-range notes hanging in the air like errant feathers, and the percolation of Scheving’s drums and percussion. There is a rhapsodic quality that vaguely recalls Charles Lloyd in soulful trance mode, but the dynamics, textures and poised melodic intent are very much Scheving’s. It is power that is kept under the tightest harness.

Iceland3

His compatriots, guitarist Andres Thor Gunnlaugsson and pianist Agnar Mar Magnusson also impress, both in small groups in which the common denominator is the accomplished American expatriate drummer Scott Mclemore, and it soon becomes clear that there is not really a generic Icelandic sound which might be considered part of a larger movement of ‘Nordic cool’. All of the above can play with a certain restraint and light and shade, but they also have a vigour that is well in keeping with ongoing developments in jazz around the world.

In any case the Icelanders are not parochial, and many have lived and studied in North America, and been part of transatlantic or pan-European groups. Indeed, the significant contribution that Sverrison and Hilmar Jensson made to Jim Black’s AlasNoAxis over 15 years ago is a reminder of that heritage and a quite captivating concert that brought together Claudia Quintet drummer-composer John Hollenbeck and the Reykjavik Big Band presents another take on Euro-American musical fraternity. As he has shown in recent years through collaborations with other big bands, notably France’s Orchestral National De Jazz, Hollenbeck creates works that astutely combine clarity of construction and originality of conception, making repetition, adjustment of phrase length and shifts of harmony amount to kaleidoscopic effects in his scores, almost as if they are a busy urban highway where horns and rhythm sections criss-cross. Though the band starts with a sharp reprise of Strayhorn’s ‘Isfahan’ they run through the composer’s originals with aplomb, peaking on the wry humour of ‘Jazz Envy’. Swedish piano veteran Bobo Stenson also plays a wild card as his trio has wacky drummer John Falt alongside bassmeister Anders Jormin. Falt’s showmanship is hit and miss, though the rhythmic rip of duct tape is a nice, Bennink-esque touch.

More international acts deliver the goods. Luxemburger vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher walks the line between fusion and pop culture to good effect, and his reprise of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Forbidden Colours’ (from the Bowie-starring movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) is a thoughtful, lateral tribute to the Thin White Duke, while New York-based Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman is outstanding. Backed by double bassist Joe Martin and the promising young Washington drummer Kush Abadey, Heckselman is on fine form, combining devilishly complex lines with melodic asides and ‘drop’ chords that expand the sound palette beyond that of a small group. Although the original material is impressive, a take on ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ that switches key signatures with abandon is a highlight for its sheer joie de vivre. That festive atmosphere also defines much of the meeting of two pianists, Iceland’s Sunna Gunnlaugs and Germany’s Julia Hulsmann, whose session moves between balladry and groove, peaking on the enjoyably twisted boogie of ‘JJ’. Having two people on stage creating a big noise perfectly captures the spirit of this small island that has emphatically proved that it knows how to spring a surprise in the world of music. And sport too.

– Kevin Le Gendre 
– Photos by Hans Vera

 

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