The Washington Post described her music as possessing "such timeless virtues as lyricism and grace… elegantly bridges soul-searching passages with uncluttered swing." Sunna Gunnlaugs reaffirms that assesment on her latest album, "Ancestry" which features her working trio (fellow Icelander, bassist Þorgrimur Jónsson and long-time cohort, Scott McLemore on drums) with the addition of the Finnish trumpet player Veneri Pohjola. It's at once everything listeners have come to expect from this trio and another layer of melodic intricacy as the trumpeter seems to meld with the sensitivity of the trio and still push it's dynamic boundaries.
As a child growing up on a small peninsula called Seltjarnarnes not far from Reykjavik she began taking lessons on the organ at the urging of her mother. "The idea of playing the piano didn't appeal to me as a kid. I associated it with classical pianists who seemed to have no fun. But on the organ you could play anything, the Beatles, polkas, Strauss and that seemed like more fun." By her teens, having realized that you could in fact play a variety of music on the piano, it was the gift of a Bill Evans trio record (appropriately named "You're Gonna Hear From Me") that sold her on modern jazz.
In 1993 she made her way to the US as a student at William Paterson College and began to hone her own distinct musical voice both as an improvisor and a composer while immersing herself in the standards and studying the masters. Just a 15 minute drive from Manhattan, inspiration was not hard to find. "Suddenly being able to go to the Village Vanguard or Bradley's any night of the week and hear amazing pianists was an incredible experience. It was such a stimulating environment," and one that Gunnlaugs had no intention of leaving after graduating in 1996. She moved to Brooklyn and made her debut recording "Far Far Away" with her trio: bassist Dan Fabricatore and drummer (and future husband), Scott McLemore.
In New York her focus shifted decidedly to performing her own music. She began appearing at listening rooms such as Cornelia Street Cafe and the Knitting Factory, and rave reviews followed. Gunnlaugs was proclaimed an "impressive newcomer" by the Village Voice.
However, the music she was writing began to need more than just a trio. "I had been listening a lot to the Keith Jarrett quartet and Jan Garabrek with Bobo Stenson and the sound of the quartet was so appealing to me." She called upon saxophonist Tony Malaby and bassist Drew Gress. "I was familiar with Tony from his own bands and was stunned by how expressive he was. Drew, I knew from his work with Fred Hersch and Dave Douglas. He always added such a bounce to my tunes, while keeping it really open." In 1999, along with McLemore, the quartet recorded "Mindful" and, with time left over on the same day, they recorded "Songs from Iceland."
A stunning quartet." – All About Jazz
"Mindful" (chosen as one of the top 10 CDs of the year by the Virginian Pilot) was as personal a statement an artist can make. From the opening flurry of notes in duet with Malaby the listener knows something special is coming. There is at once a joyful buoyancy and ethereal melancholy which envelops the listener from start to finish. That ambience continues on "Songs from Iceland" and the relationship with the material, five Icelandic folk-songs that Gunnlaugs grew up with, is just as personal. "These were tunes that we were playing on concerts, and when we felt "Mindful" was complete I suggested we record these for posterity. I wasn't really sure what I would do with them, but it seemed important to document." Almost a decade later "Songs from Iceland" was released, adding more weight to a recommendation from Jazziz Magazine that her "unique blend of jazz piano and Icelandic folk music" is a "great listen."
In the meantime Sunna released 2 albums, the first was 2002's "Fagra Veröld" (music written to Icelandic poetry), featuring Gress and McLemore as well as the voice of Kristjana Stefánsdóttir and saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason. The 2nd was 2003's high-energy "Live in Europe" which rode the jazz charts into the top 10 in both the US and Canada. It was recorded in Prague in the middle of a three-week tour of Europe with saxophonist Ohad Talmor and bassist Matt Pavolka.
Gunnlaugs enjoys touring and has performed throughout the US, Canada and Europe, as well as in Japan. "I really like traveling by train in Europe, where you can just relax and reflect. It's a lot different than driving a mini-van in the US. But whenever you tour you never really know what to expect. We once had to get in a tiny little boat to play in Vancouver, and there was almost no room for the upright bass. Also, when you are touring you get to visit little towns that you probably wouldn't go to as a tourist."
The year 2005 was a major milestone as Gunnlaugs and McLemore decided to move to Iceland and start a family. Before they left New York, the couple had been playing mostly with alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik. That quartet played one tour in Europe and felt as if it was developing into something great. But the decision was made to hit the pause button, and although Opsvik came to Iceland for a brief tour that band didn't record until 5 years later.
“The Dream” (featuring Stillman, Opsvik and McLemore) was released in 2010 jumped straight to #2 on the Canadian jazz charts and to #20 on US CMJ charts. The title referred to the wonder of being able to maintain a family with 2 daughters and a career in music. The album was recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn and mixed and mastered in Iceland by Kjartan Kjartansson, the engineer who would go on to record most of the pianist's work in the ensuing years.
proof that jazz is as much a part of the picture as the pop of Björk or SigurRos.” – Time Out New York
In 2011 she formed her trio featuring bassist Þorgrímur Jónsson and Scott McLemore and released "Long Pair Bond" which was well-received by the press and lead to major performance opportunities including the London Jazz Festival and the Kennedy Center as part of their Nordic Cool series.
Scott McLemore released his 2nd album in 2012 called "Remote Location" which featured Gunnlaugs on piano and Wurlitzer. That same year, the trio embarked on a bi-coastal tour of the US and began developing material for a new album. They also performed at the Oslo Jazz Festival with special guest Tore Brunborg.
Their next album was called "Distilled" and was released in 2013 and the trio was named the Official Band of Reykjavík for that year. Gunnlaugs also began a duo with the Dutch bass clarinetist Maarten Ornstein with whom she performed on the Reykjavík Jazz Festival.
In 2014 the trio once again set off on a bi-coastal tour of the US with shows on the Rochester Jazz Festival, Vancouver Jazz Festival and Nordic Jazz Festival in Washington, DC. They also had a major tour in Europe and performed at the Faroe Islands Jazz Festival. That year, Sunna was also invited to perform at the Felleshus in Berlin with German pianist Julia Hülsmann for the first time.
The trio released their third album in 2015 called "Cielito Lindo" on the Reykjavík Jazz Festival and toured extensively in Europe also taking part in the traveling jazz festival in the Czech Republic called Bohemia Jazz Festival. Sunna was also invited to perform as a special guest in Toronto, Canada on the JazzFM91 Festival.
2016 was the year of the duo for Sunna performing both with Julia Hülsmann in Iceland and Maarten Ornstein in Holland, and she was also featured on Winter Jazz in Cologne with trumpeter Ryan Carniaux. Sunna and Maarten also released their duo album "Unspoken" with a concert at Bimhus in Amsterdam. However, she continued to perform extensively with the trio in Europe and while they were on tour they won Performer of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards. Yay!
Gunnlaugs also began writing music for Icelandic television and her first filmscore for the movie Reykjavík. This inspired music for string quartet and piano which she premiered at the University of Iceland.
Having performed the previous year at the Women in Jazz Festival in Halle, Germany, Gunnlaugs began to think about the lack of opportunities for female jazz musicians in Iceland and wondered if she could have an impact on that. In 2017 she started her own concert series at the National Museum called "Freyjujazz" and has featured female performers from all over the world including Myra Melford, Hildegunn Øiseth, Eva Kruse and Luca Kezdy.
Also in 2017 Sunna was featured on the Münsterland Festival in Germany both with her trio and with Julia Hülsmann. She continued touring with Ornstein and with special guest bassist Tony Overwater and was featured on the Rotterdam Jazz Festival. That same year her trio was invited to play at the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland and, after a special request by Sunna, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola was added to the concert. They had long since discussed working together at some point and this was the opportunity that finally presented itself. Verneri was awarded the Yrjö Jazz Prize that same night. After the concert they headed into the studio at the Sibelius Academy in the woods outside Helsinki. The resulting album is called "Ancestry" and was released on the 2018 Reykjavík Jazz Festival.
2018 saw more writing for film with her filmscore for "Pity the Lovers" as well as more television soundtracks. She performed solo on the Gateshead International Jazz Festival in the UK. Her trio was presented in Moscow as part of the World Cup delegation, and she joined violinist Luca Kezdy for a duo tour of Hungary.
Sunna's trio plus Verneri Pohjola was also given a showcase concert on the 2019 Jazzahead conference in Bremen, Germany and will be announcing further concert dates soon.
Sunna is a board member of the European Jazz Network and has been a frequent panelist regarding gender balance in jazz.
The 11 CDs she has released as a leader have consistently met with critical praise over the years, and she has appeared in publications such as JazzTimes, Downbeat, Jazziz, Jazzthetik, Orkester Journalen, Jazz 'n' More, Jazz Podium, Concerto, Stereo, Jazzman, Village Voice, Time Out New York, Swing Journal, Jazzwise, All About Jazz and The Washington Post.