An Icelandic woman who leads her own group is not the most common thing in jazz, but pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs just may be the best jazz pianist you’ve never heard. As a child she played polkas and Beatles tunes on the organ in her homeland, but an encounter with an LP by pianist Bill Evans was, as she states, “the key that unlocked her creative spirit.” Although born in Iceland, she came to the United States to study music in 1992. She liked it so well that she decided to stay and is now living and performing in New York City.
The title of Fagra Verold, her third CD, means “beautiful world,” an appropriate image since the music is the aural equivalent of just such a place. This CD features her compositions married to the poetry of three of Iceland’s most beloved poets. Gunnlaugs also wrote some of the lyrics and one with her mother Sofia Thorarensen. All lyrics and song titles on Fagra Verold are in Icelandic. Gunnlaugs kept the same fine rhythm section from her previous CD, Mindful, bassist Drew Grass and drummer Scott McLemore, but here she adds two fellow Icelanders, saxophonist Sigurdur Flosanson and vocalist Kristjana Stefansdottir. Since her very lovely clear voice can be heard on each selection, this CD could, in fact, be considered a showcase for Stefansdottir, who studied at the conservatory at The Hague before she embarked on her current career.
Three of my personal favorites are the opening cut, “Fra lidnu vori,” the sublime title cut, and the beautiful seven-minute piece “Margar naetur.” You do not need to understand Icelandic to appreciate the magnificence of Kristjana’s voice. In addition to her singing, Fagra Verold also showcases Gunnlaugs’ highly sophisticated and articulate pianism as well as her lyrical and thoughtful compositions, which range between simple statements of melody and more complex platforms for exploration. But they always always exhibit logic and beauty.
Sunna Gunnlaugs’ group has been performing together since about 1999 around New York City at places like the Knitting Factory and the Cornelia Street Café. Her band includes some of the best players on New York’s downtown scene, and their familiarity and cohesion are very apparent here.
Fagra Verold has been nominated as the jazz CD of the year in Iceland. Such attention in a small country of only 280,000 hardy folks is nonetheless an honor and the award is most worthy. Gunnlaugs’ previous recording was chosen as one of the top ten CDs of the year by the Virginian Pilot. If you love the music of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, chances are you will also appreciate this record. Gunnlaugs is definitely influenced by these two pianists (as well as Scandinavian pianist Bobo Stenson), but she has developed her own voice, a charming brand of warm, intimate lyricism. Sunna is nobody’s clone.
One of the true joys of writing jazz reviews is discovering new artists. Sunna Gunnlaugs was such a discovery, and I am already anticipating her next CD, Live In Europe. Fagra Verold is quite simply a beautiful jazz recording.