The Safety Net: Sunna Gunnlaugs – “Mindful” & “Songs From Iceland”


The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series which highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.


Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs recorded an excellent album in the last half of 2011 called Long Pair Bond.  And though I initially became familiar with her music via the 2010 release The Dream, it was Long Pair Bond that really got me to sit up and take notice.  Since then, I’ve written a review of that album for eMusic and, more recently, interviewed Gunnlaugs for AllAboutJazz.  As is the case anytime I discover a new musician, I dive into their recording history to see what else I missed.  I’ll be talking about two of those albums today.

Mindful and Songs From Iceland were recorded on the same day in December 1999, at the System Two recording studio in Brooklyn, NY.  In what is described on her site as “an incredibly productive session,” Gunnlaugs’ quartet kicked out enough music to spread over two recordings.  During my AAJ interview (whose focus was Gunnlaugs’ current U.S. tour, which runs from June 16 – July 7, 2012), I squeezed in a couple questions about the 1999 recording session that produced Mindful, which Gunnlaugs explained were all original compositions, and Songs From Iceland, which are a collection of Icelandic folk songs.

First, let’s talk about that music.

Your album personnel:  Sunna Gunnlaugs (piano), Tony Malaby (sax), Drew Gress (bass), and Scott McLemore (drums).

The immediate characteristic of both albums that struck me was how “New York” they sounded.  One of the preeminent successes of Long Pair Bond is how Gunnlaugs is able to infuse the buoyancy of New York-style jazz into the austere serenity of Nordic-style folk-jazz… like enjoying a jolt of coffee while sitting by the fireplace and quietly watching the snow fall outside.  It was this quality of sound that was my introduction to Gunnlaugs’ music.  But, really, the older recordings shouldn’t have caught me off guard.

Originally from just outside of Reykjavík, Iceland, Gunnlaugs attended William Paterson University in Jersey before relocating to Brooklyn.  Immersing oneself in that kind of environment is certainly going to affect a person, whether listener or musician.  As Gunnlaugs explains on her site, “Suddenly being able to go to the Village Vanguard or Bradley’s any night of the week and hear amazing pianists was an incredible experience.  It was such a stimulating environment.”  It was in this environment that both albums at hand were recorded.

On Mindful, there is an uninhibited playfulness.  It’s apparent from the interplay that they are paying close attention to one another, even when stretching out on their own.  Mindful album opener “The Good Stuff” begins with Gunnlaugs and Malaby shadowboxing, shooting notes at one another whose intention is to cause an interaction without actually striking one another.  It’s an approach to choreography that extends throughout the entire recording.

The music of Mindful attains great speeds and swoops right in and heads straight up toward the sun.  But within each song is an interlude, sometimes more than one, where a height is attained and the quartet just soars, almost motionlessly in place, letting loose notes sparingly like the occasional flap of wings.  And then they dive right back down and begin all over again.  The push and pull works to the quartet’s strengths, and speaks well for the album.  Title track “Mindful” and “Bad Seeds” illustrate nicely this music attack.

Songs From Iceland takes an interesting approach to Icelandic folk songs.  Whereas the immediate assumption might be that this would be an album of subdued tempos, tight hold on the melodies, and a restraint of notes, Gunnlaugs keeps the This Is New York Jazz sound going.  There is only a hint of the regional folk music on the surface of the songs.  And, perhaps, this is a precursor for music that is to come later, when Gunnlaugs returned to her homeland of Iceland and began working the NYC-Nordic formula in the other direction.

Album opener “Upp á himins bláum boga” is about as straight-ahead a jazz tune as can be found on either recording.  The opening salvo is a strong statement of melody, followed by interludes that allow each member of the quartet to stretch out, with occasional returns to the opening statement.  The only real divergence, and it’s a noticeable one, is McLemore’s rhythmic tornado to end the tune on a thrilling note.

Second track “Höllukvæði” guides the recording closer to where an album with a folk song foundation would be expected to situate itself.  Moody, but still light on its toes, the song smoulders with an impression of old tales and the passage of time.  A beautiful song that builds in tension without sacrificing warmth, McLemore and Gress play a game of synchronized hopscotch as Gunnlaugs keeps things bright on keys while Malaby fires up the sax.  And for the rest of the album, the musicians keep to these roles.  Malaby oscillates between casual swing and a fierce burn.  McLemore and Gress work in tandem to give compositions a roiling undercurrent and a snappy bounce.  Gunnlaugs goes where the melody takes her, which is anywhere between spinning tales out of icicles and sparking embers to life.

Album ends with “Það búa litlir dvergar”, a tune with an infectious melody, sending the album off on the same cheerful note on which it began.


As I mentioned earlier, I sneaked in a couple questions about this session while interviewing Gunnlaugs about her current tour.  Here they are…

Dave Sumner (BitW):  Looking back on the Songs From Iceland/Mindful recording session… how do you feel about that day now?  Have you changed as a musician since those sessions?  And if so, then how?

Sunna Gunnlaugs:  I feel great about those albums.  I didn’t feel so great about it right after the recording session, because it wasn’t as energetic as our live concerts were.  But that is typical- people stretch out much more in concert.  After some time passed, I could listen to the session without having that emotional connection.  There was a very special energy in that group and Mindful is especially close to my heart. It’s also my mom’s favorite.

I hope I have grown as a musician.  I feel that my writing has changed a bit after I moved to Iceland.  There is more space in the music now which maybe represents my current environment while the music on my previous albums represents Brooklyn.

DS:  Anything from that session still stand out in your mind, a memory that you find yourself occasionally reminiscing upon?

SG: There was no plan to record Songs from Iceland.  The recording session for Mindful went so well that we were done with time left over, so we decided to run the Songs from Iceland stuff, too.  I think we had just started to play that stuff in preparation for a tour of Iceland we had coming up a couple of months later.  You can actually read the tour diary on my site… quite an intense tour.

The recording session was in late December, and I remember entering the Systems Two studio and the engineer Joe Marciano greeting us in a Hawaiian shirt and white loafers.  It really brightened up the room.  I also remember sitting at the Steinway there and thinking I’d never want to leave.

It’s fun thinking back to the Mindful days. We played at places like Knitting Factory and Cornelia Street Cafe, and [saxophonist Tony] Malaby was always pulling pranks on us like filling our pockets with packets of sugar.


You can stream both albums on Gunnlaugs’ bandcamp page.  You can purchase them there, too:  Mindful | Songs From Iceland

Download a free album track from Songs From Iceland at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.

Available at Amazon:  Mindful: MP3

Available at Amazon:  Songs From Iceland: CD | MP3

Here’s a link to her tour schedule.  I believe Gunnlaugs is still working out the details on shows for the 24th and/or 25th, perhaps a show in Cleveland, so check back to her site if you live somewhere between Detroit and NYC.