#recentlistening – November 2018

THERE’S A DEFINITE Icelandic zephyr to November’s listening, along with another gem from Portuguese/London-based guitarist Vitor Pereira and quintet. Beautiful music, resplendent in its artistry and diversity. 
Follow the links below to sample/purchase.

Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio / Verneri PohjolaAncestry
Available now at Bandcamp

Vitor Pereira QuintetSomewhere In The Middle
Releases 5 December, available at Amazon, iTunes, etc.

Víkingur ÓlafssonJohann Sebastian Bach
Available now at Deutsche Grammophon, Amazon, etc.

Scott McLemoreThe Multiverse
Available now at Bandcamp

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‘Cielito Lindo’ – Sunna Gunnlaugs

Sunna

CARRIED ON A WARM, NORTHERLY BREEZE, Sunna Gunnlaugs’ previous trio release Distilled (2013) brought treasures aplenty from the pianist/composer’s native Iceland – a finely-crafted display of elegance, playfulness and imaginative free improvisation. Now, new album Cielito Lindo expands on those themes to deliver an hour-plus of 14 more engaging originals and arrangements, with bassist Þorgrímur (Toggi) Jónsson and drummer Scott McLemore.

What particularly appeals about the pianistic character of Sunna Gunnlaugs is her blend of influences which allude to Bill Evans’ and Bobo Stenson’s lyricism, yet also seem to incorporate the bright, tuneful openness of, say, Oscar Peterson and the kind of sparky, inquiring edge associated with Esbjörn Svensson. Title track Cielito Lindo has it all – opening, percussive rustlings and under-the-lid piano string shimmers unveiling Quirino Mendoza y Cortés’ charming, lilting Mexican melody upon which Gunnlaugs improvises with customary authority. Scott Lemore’s Compassion reveals the trio’s steady, delicate interaction with almost Bachian overtones; and the subtle bossa of the pianist’s own Endastopp becomes increasingly energized as it crackles to hard-edged drums and double bass.

The trio’s freely improvised ‘spin cycle’ thread continues, briefly punctuating the lengthier tracks with short settings Spin 8, 9 and 11 (maybe 10 is in the next load!) – and Dry Cycle communicates urgency through its high, ostinato piano chords, syncopated riff and memorable melody, followed by flamboyant improvisation. Seemingly obvious choice, Gershwin’s Summertime, is however reinterpreted beautifully, as fleeting snatches of the familiar strains are glimpsed through the mystery of skittering bass and drums; whilst amiable Workaround suggests e.s.t.’s blues-implied impudence.

Jónsson’s Vetrarstef possesses the yearning eloquence of a classic theme tune, its wintry folksiness occasionally redolent of acoustic Mike Oldfield; and Gunnlaugs’ Icelandic Blues snaps and crunches its way through seven glorious minutes which brim with smile-raising chromatic jollity, jaunty piano extemporisation and a thunderously percussive conclusion – a tour de force! Contrasting Tiltekt is exquisitely homely, its chiming melodies afforded the space to resonate; and All Agaze (another of McLemore’s gems) twists and turns unpredictably – ebullient grooving, yet with darker, Gustavsen-like moments. And to close… well, the songwriting of Tom Waits is frequently a source of jazz inspiration, and his Johnsburg, Illinois receives a faithful, picturesque outing from the trio, highlighting Waits’ penchant for a good melody.

Once again, Gunnlaugs and her trio achieve their discerning balance of tuneful accessibility, compositional distinctiveness and the constantly-undulating landscape of delicacy and high energy. A remarkable achievement – and a very fine album.

Released on Sunny Sky Records on 14 August 2015, Cielito Lindo is available at Bandcamp.

 

Sunna Gunnlaugs piano
Þorgrímur Jónsson double bass
Scott McLemore drums

sunnagunnlaugs.com

Sunny Sky Records – 733 (2015)

‘Distilled’ – Sunna Gunnlaugs

Distilled

SOME THOUSAND MILES in a South-Easterly direction, Sunna Gunnlaugs’ latest release took its journey to my door (Reykjavik, or thereabouts, to North West England)… and to my heart. The pianist’s new trio album, ‘Distilled’ – with Þorgrímur Jónsson (double bass) and Scott McLemore (drums) – is a masterclass in how to achieve the tricky balance between accessibility and invention; melody and the unexpected; feel-good and mystery.

Hailing from Iceland – but also having spent a number of years in the USA and touring worldwide – Gunnlaugs has a catalogue of recordings to her name, the more recent being ‘The Dream’ and ‘Long Pair Bond’. But I am in that happy, exciting position of only now discovering the treasures out there – and this new album, with all but one of the compositions written by the trio’s members, is a great starting point.

‘Momento’ is a lively, brash and bluesy opener – right from the hard-edged drum introduction of McLemore, it promises a satisfaction which Gunnlaugs’ bright piano style confirms, bass adding the bounce. Title track, ‘Distilled’, presents a homely, melodic piano line and the shared trio aim of creating an easy-going countrified appeal, whilst also possessing an agreeable edge of uncertainty. The anarchic swagger of miniature ‘Switcheroo’, with its slightly inebriated manner, is a delight, the rhythm intentionally taking its time to find its feet, but building towards a more steered, octave-driven (cheeky, even) piano lead… before dissolving once more into further random acts of brilliance.

‘Smiling Face’ is aptly titled – a sweet, unpretentious piano tune (shades of Bill Evans) in which Jónsson takes up an articulate bass solo, McLemore fluttering delicately through a battery of cymbals and brushed snare. Cantering steadily in, and gradually picking up the pace, is one of the album’s real gems – ‘Gallop’. It has an affable air which then develops the same kind of abandon that characterised the more playful pieces of the late, great Esbjörn Svensson. Very attractive indeed.

The two short, freely-improvised numbers, ‘Spin 6’ and ‘Spin 7′, reveal the band members’ empathy with each other, the latter’s sensitivity suggesting (to me) an early-morning creaking ‘frostscape’, sun rising to wake the day. ‘The New Now’ is so ‘together’, Gunnlaugs’ delicately propelled soloing shining above the equally sprightly rhythms of drums and bass, leading to the sonorous, meandering bass introduction of ’24H Trip’. This exquisite seven-minute jewel, with a gentle Bachian feel reminiscent of John Lewis’s renowned MJQ recordings, finds writer Jónsson in great form, creating a slightly disquieting undercurrent, and McLemore contributing atmospheric rumbles and shimmers.

Based on an old Icelandic melody (‘Lóan er komin’), Scott McLemore’s ‘Things You Should Know’ provides the pianist the space to state and then expand lucidly on the folksong charm, its simplicity never overblown by her colleagues. Paul Motian’s ‘From Time to Time’ is a brief yet alluring rendition, the expressive openness of the interpretation a real pleasure. Equally spacial is ‘Opposite Side’ – one of Gunnlaugs’ four compositions here – its late-night mellowness and inquiring bass suggesting the merest hint of melancholy.

With so much warmth and colour emanating from this beautiful production, ‘Distilled’ is certainly much more a case of Aurora Borealis than Icelandic Low. Since its arrival, the CD has barely left my player, such is its charm and breadth of interest – and I sense it will remain close for a long time to come.


Sunna Gunnlaugs
 piano
Þorgrímur Jónsson  double bass
Scott McLemore  drums

http://www.sunnagunnlaugs.com/

Sunny Sky Records – Sunny Sky 730 (2013)