Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko explained, in a recent interview, how the term melancholy does not always have to mean sad; there can be an inherent optimism as well. Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs, an ex-pat from Iceland who now makes her home in New York City, understands that all too well. She writes music that is tender and romantic, sometimes joyful, but often with just the slightest melancholic edge. That doesn't make her music oppressive or dark, however; amidst the conflicting emotions she manages to create an atmosphere of welcome. Captured half-way through a 2002 European tour, Live in Europe finds Gunnlaugs and her quartet navigating their way through six original compositions that run the gamut from simple to complex; still, technical aspects of writing aside, this is a wholly captivating set that combines the elegance of the European approach with a more fiery American-sounding rhythm section.
Gunnlaugs has an uncanny ability to blend complex time signatures in clever and deceptive ways. "Shifting Seasons" is aptly titled as it shifts between waltz and 5/4 passages that manage to fuse seamlessly. Drummer Scott McLemore and bassist Matt Pavolka are key to making what might appear to be a disruptive concept work. One measure of success in music is the ability to physically move the body, and "Shifting Seasons" manages to transition between the two time signatures without forsaking a natural and tangible groove.
What is remarkable about the music and the performance of the quartet is how these players manage to imbue a deep sense of the lyric with a strong sense of swing. "Over Yonder" puts together a richly constructed melody and waltz time solo section; Gunnlaugs delivers a solo that combines the lyrical elegance of Bobo Stenson with the assured rhythmic emphasis of Keith Jarrett.
And while the material, for the most part, imposes substantial structure on the group, there is an element of the unpredictable as well. Gunnlaug's solo on "Smack 'Em" winds down with Pavolka alone on bass, creating a pulse over which saxophonist Ohad Talmor begins to solo, building gradually as McLemore enters. Soon the trio is blowing in time, but otherwise free; Gunnlaugs slowly re-enters, imposing a harmonic centre, but it is clear that the quartet is going where the spirit moves it. Pavolka introduces an ostinato over which McLemore solos with polyrhythmic fire, fading away as Pavolka takes it alone, before the quartet reconvenes to restate the cryptic theme.
As structurally convoluted as Gunnlaugs' compositions can sometimes get, there is an underlying philosophy that makes melody paramount. Much has been written recently about making jazz more accessible to a broader audience. With Live in Europe , Gunnlaugs proves that jazz can have a wider appeal without losing integrity. With memorable themes, a relaxed feel and no sharp edges, Gunnlaugs has crafted a music that can appeal to jazzers and non-jazzbos alike.
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