Over the past decade, Iceland’s musical exports have sent waves of buzzwords down the collective spine of American listeners. Both Bjork and Sigur Ros are known for their ethereal, complex contributions to the alt-world of popular music, but pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs is tinkling the ivories loud enough to gain attention across the U.S. jazz scene and worldwide. The first female musician to tour Iceland (a country with the world’s first female president), Gunnlaugs has been living in New York for the past 10 years, honing her skills with multiple groups of musicians. Over the course of four albums–the latest of which, Live in Europe, is currently number 8 on the CMJ Jazz charts–she has earned heaps of critical praise and enraptured audiences all over the globe.
After learning melodica and organ at the age of six, Gunnlaugs was encouraged to move to piano, but her preconceptions about the instrument kept her away from it for a while.
“When I approached my teens my teacher wanted me to switch to piano, but I had this idea that classical music was very serious and not much fun so I wasn’t interested,” she explains, via email. “The other option was to start focusing on church music on the organ. That didn’t sound good, either, so I quit for a couple of years until I heard about the jazz program at the Musician’s Union School of Music and I decided to go for that.”
Gunnlaugs moved to New York in 1993 to study jazz at William Patterson College. After meeting bassist Dan Fabricatore and drummer Scott McLemore (now her husband), she formed her first trio, released her first album, Far Far Away, on her own, and went back to Iceland to tour the country. The support in her homeland has been spectacular, thanks to a tiny but nurturing jazz scene. An added bonus to the fan support is the financial support from the Icelandic government, which routinely provides grants and artists’ salaries for national musicians. Gunnlaugs was a recipient of such a salary when she was commissioned by the government to compose music for poems by three respected Icelandic poets–Tomas Gudmundsson, Stein Steinarr, and Sigurbjorg Thrastardottir. The result is documented on an album titled Fagra Verold (“Beautiful World” in Icelandic), which marked the first time vocals were used on one of Gunnlaugs’ recordings; the poems were sung by Icelandic singer Kristjana Stefansdottir.
“I found this project to be very rewarding and would like to do another similar one again. In the beginning I didn’t know if it would be difficult … but it actually came quite easily,” she says. “I picked the poetry and then tried to tap into the energy of each poem and allow the music to flow. I think the hardest part was deciding which poems to use.”
Gunnlaugs has played with six different lineups since 1993, for each of which McLemore has played drums. The current lineup, featuring McLemore, Ohad Talmor on tenor saxophone, and Matt Pavolka on bass, leaps from interlocking piano and sax melodies to lengthy bass runs punctuated by McLemore’s sharp, creative rhythms. On Live in Europe, Gunnlaugs spends as much time letting her fellow musicians strut their own stuff as she does letting her wide range of chordal choices give the “jammier” sections multiple textures.
In addition to performing jazz all over the world, Gunnlaugs hosts her own jazz show for Icelandic public radio six to eight times a year, interviewing New York artists and exposing their music to her native country. She brings her quartet and her exuberance for jazz to Carrboro’s ArtsCenter Saturday, Sept. 20.