Iceland’s jazz stars meet at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival

It was a relief to travel to Reykjavik in the fall after all the heat in large parts of Europe. And there are clothes against daytime temperatures of 12 degrees. But the storm and the pouring rain of the first day almost make you forget the joy of the welcome refreshment. Nevertheless, the next day, the sun winks in the hotel room early in the morning, and the wild wind is gone.

The Iceland Liberation Orchestra may not have sparked a musical storm the night before. But with his new 45-minute suite Aether, conductor and saxophonist Haukur Gröndal and the orchestra, with exciting Icelandic musicians such as the trombonist Samuel Jon Samuelson or both percussionists Magnus Trygvason Eliassen and Petur Gretarsson, as well as the Finnish Kari Ikonen as an excellent and virtuoso guest on the piano, took the audience into multi-layered, beautiful, wonderfully open worlds of sound, with Nordic and jazzy hues. Because that’s what this orchestra is all about, allowing participants great freedom from fixed structures without interrupting the flow of music.

just blues was the title of a concert with a quartet of Icelandic guitarist Börkur Hrafn Birgisson a few hours earlier. With a magnificent view through the huge picture windows on Lake Tjörnin, which directly borders the building, the audience listened to simple jazzy blues played with so much passion and freshness that it was simply a lot of fun to listen to.

Jon Omar Arnason, himself a guitarist and director of the Reykjavik Jazz Festival for three years now – he took the reins in the first year covid 2020 – continues the tradition of giving a podium to many Icelandic musicians at the festival. And he likes to provide local musicians with exciting new encounters. This time, it brings together the Icelandic duo of Oskar Gudjonsson and Skuli Sverisson, who have been playing together for two decades, with Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. For a first-ever joint concert of new music written especially for this constellation, in one of the halls of Harpa, the main venue of the festival, an imposing concert hall and conference center opened in 2011 in the port of the Icelandic capital. And there, the three exceptional musicians sat side by side to seduce the audience with delicate and moving jazz sounds. Other concerts of this new trio abroad are already planned. And maybe Árnason’s idea will turn into a new permanent band in the future.

icelandic pianist Ingi Bjarni also presented a premiere at the 32nd edition of the festival, playing for the first time in a group with his former teacher, the Swedish bassist Anders Jormin. In quartet with guitarist Hilmar Jensson and drummer Magnus Trygvason EliassenProbably the busiest musician at this year’s festival, Bjarni treated the audience to fresh compositions and his wonderfully smooth, lyrical Nordic jazz.

And there were more interesting things to hear in the Icelandic capital, which is booming and full of tourists like never before. The solo concert of the pianist and flautist Kristjan Martinsson, for example, who created interesting sonic combinations of intimacy, sound research and expressiveness using pre-sampled flute and piano sounds, which he then combined with live performance. The Norwegian bassist’s quartet Arild Andersonwith the saxophonist Marius Neset and pianist Helge Link, performed with great atmospheric density, offered romantic moods, but also impetuous improvisations and explosive moments – held together by the leader’s versatile double bass playing. And the project The Moon And I offered the public conifers of the great French composer and pianist Michael Legrandbeautifully sung in Icelandic by Heida Arnadottir.

Without forgetting, of course, the final concert of the festival in the imposing Hallgrímskirkja, which characterizes so much the urban landscape of Reykjavik. It is not only the largest church in Iceland, but also the second tallest building on the whole island. ‘The Buchanan Requiem’ by the Danish trumpeter Jacob Buchanan unfolded as a powerful, multi-layered, hour-and-a-half-long jazz requiem with three choirs from Iceland, Finland and Denmark, the Reykjavik Big Band and great soloists like the Icelandic singer Ragnheidur Gröndal, Anders Jormin from Sweden on bass or from Iceland Hilmar Jensson on the guitar. Led by the Norwegian Geir Lysnethis musical requiem mass by the Dane turned out to be a thoughtful experience that got under your skin.

Willie J. Johnson