Recommended: Sunna Gunnlaugs – “Distilled”


Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs has got a new album out.  An Icelandic native (and current resident), her music is informed by the various strains of the Nordic Jazz sound prevalent to that part of the world.  Usually typified by sonic washes of serenity mixed with regional folk music influences, Nordic Jazz makes for some of the best music for quiet sunrises and sunsets.  The Icelandic variation of that general sound seems more often than not to be a bit less austere and more generous with the intimacy and warmth.  It also seems a trend that the folk music utilized on the Icelandic Jazz scene has stronger ties to the traditions of the area… hymns and lullabies and anthems that the artists grew up with.

But that’s only half the equation with Gunnlaugs.

Having spent her collegiate and post-collegiate years in the New Jersey/New York Jazz axis, a big chunk of her formative years as an artist were spent in areas rich with jazz creativity and tradition… and in many regards, very far away from the Nordic Jazz sound.

That’s not a unique situation.  There’s a ton of musicians out there who spend their years in disparate jazz scenes.  The thing about Gunnlaugs is that she’s found a way to synthesize two seemingly divergent approaches (NYC Jazz sound vs. Icelandic Jazz sound) into one personal expression that simultaneously exhibits characteristics of each approach.

Some of her music is very rustic and serene.  Some of her music has a bustling hop and bounce.  But all of it brings both elements to the tune, with Gunnlaugs finding commonalities that a first glance would indicate weren’t there to begin with.  The result is music for quiet moments that it doesn’t always remain quiet for.

On her excellent 2011 release Long Pair Bond, Gunnlaugs kept the ratio heavier on the Icelandic Jazz side of things.  But on her newest, Distilled, she shifts the balance to something that resonates more strongly of a modern straight-ahead NYC way of kicking out the jazz tunes.  The music is still plenty warm, still plenty tranquil, but there’s more motion to its action and a greater willingness to just start bouncing around the room.  Working with the same trio, it wouldn’t hurt to think of Long Pair Bond and Distilled as a double-release, separated by years in the same way that the seemingly divergent influences are separated by miles.

Your album personnel:  Sunna Gunnlaugs (piano), Þorgrimur Jonsson (bass), and Scott McLemore (drums).

Things get off to a nifty start.  Opening track “Momento” bubbles with a gospel-like enthusiasm while maintaining a seated posture, whereas title-track “Distilled” maintains that theme, but takes it for a calm stroll instead.  “Switcheroo” takes the same path as “Distilled,” but somersaults where its predecessor strolls.

“Smiling Face” brings the album back to serene waters, with Gunnlaugs setting the scene, but bassist Jonsson creating the biggest waves.

“Gallop” bubbles over with a soulful groove and all three musicians playing a subtle game of leapfrog with the rhythm.  “Things You Should Know” keeps the soulful groove going, but reveals it with the nonchalance of a lazy Sunday afternoon

A couple interludes entitled “Spin 6” and “Spin 7” allow for some brief improvisation, and act as lynchpins for the borders that encompass the recording.

The upbeat “The New Now” is a caffeinated Nordic Jazz tune… an insinuated peacefulness that is more felt than heard in this driving piece, bolstered by McLemore’s insistent drum work.

On the Paul Motian composition “From Time to Time,” it begins as a conventional ballad, but then the trio splashes small rocks onto the surface of the tune, and the ripples disperse both melody and rhythm in lovely concentric circles, expanding outward as the song draws to a shimmering close.

“Opposite Side” is the album’s final full track (aside from the second of two short improvisations).  It adopts a solemn tone and a shuffling motion, and where the album opened with one extreme of the spectrum of Gunnlaugs’ sound, it ends at the other… a peaceful tune that fills the room without disturbing the prevailing silence.

A good way to end.

Released on Gunnlaugs’ Sunny Sky Records label.

Jazz from Iceland.

Available at:  Bandcamp CD/MP3 | eMusic MP3 | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


Some additional notes:

My review of Long Pair Bond can be found with this LINK.

And here’s a review of two of her earlier albums.

And here’s a LINK to my interview with Gunnlaugs, shortly before she began her U.S. tour.

Also, drummer Scott McLemore put out a pretty good album of his own in 2012.  You can read the review of Remote Location on Bird is the Worm HERE.