Iceland is geographically situated between Scandinavia and the North American continent, and that’s just where the jazz of Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs is situated, too. A style the conjures up the advanced artistry of both Bobo Stenson and Keith Jarrett, Gunnlaugs has benefitted greatly from her time in the 90s studying, observing and performing in NYC, making several albums since 1997 that have invariably had the participation of Drew Gress, Tony Malaby, Loren Stillman and Eivind Opsvik. Her drummer (and now husband) Scott McLemore has been her mainstay since her debut Far Far Away (1997).
Distilled, coming out later this week, is Gunnlaugs’ eighth release, but only her 3rd trio album. Continuing on the momentum established with that 2nd trio album Long Pair Bond from a couple of years ago, she again has McLemore on drums and Þorgrímur Jónsson on acoustic bass. It’s a splendid cross of relaxed lyricism and exploratory impulses that stay within the mission of advancing pleasant harmonies, and fluid rhythms that are inseparable from those harmonies.
Gunnlaugs masterly puts a lot of contemplative air in these songs, but doesn’t dwell on any of them for longer than necessary. Two of the tracks, “Spin 6,” and “Spin 7” are sub-two minute improvisation pieces. This is the product of a mature artist, and the twelve originals by mostly Gunnlaugs and also five by McLemore and Jónsson are joined by just one cover, from Paul Motian.
“Momento” isn’t a Motian song, but in some ways it feel like it. McLemore devises odd but effective percussion shapes on his drums, giving Gunnlaugs a launching point for her considered piano progressions. Group freedom is the theme on “Switcheroo,” but even within this abstract mood, the underlying harmony is unmistakable and remains intact. And there are pretty melodies on this record, such as “Smiling Face,” where the rhythm section follows her flow rather than bind to a restrictive rhythm. “Gallop” is a bit funky, where Jónsson plays alongside — not behind — Gunnlaugs, and McLemore is very enterprising, propelling the song forward all on his own.
“The New Now” begins with a light swing, with a masterful flow that Gunnlaugs eventually hardens into a clearly defined groove. For “Things You Should Know,” she demonstrates her swing within the context of a melody influenced by American folk.
“From Time To Time” is that Motian tune, plucked from Paul Motian In Tokio. Gunnlaugs cuts the length in half, but captures its ghostly soul. Motian’s conception of the role of the drummer as a tonal center alongside traditionally front-line instruments finds a lot of overlap with McLemore and Gunnlaugs’ own approach to their piano trio, so the song is a terrific fit on this album.
With Distilled, Gunnlaugs quietly continues to define the piano trio on her own terms by drawing lessons from some of the most innovative jazz performers from both sides of the Atlantic from the 70s onward. This could have been mistaken for not only an ECM record, but a very good ECM record.
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Distilled will be released July 19. Visit Sunna Gunnlaugs’ website for more info.