36th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 12-16 October, 2022

Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio


Sunna Gunnlaugs - p
Thorgrimur Jonsson - db
Scott McLemore - dr

It is not often that Vilnius Jazz audience can hear Icelandic performers, thus the appearance of one of the most prominent Icelandic jazz groups is an event deserving to be part of the 30th Festival.

Iceland is as proud of jazz pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs’ Trio as of Björk or SigurRos. The Trio has toured extensively in Europe, the USA and Canada, has been praised by press in Austria, Germany, the US and Japan among other countries.

The group’s all three releases earned the highest recognition at home and wide critical acclaim abroad. Long Pair Bond (2011) got nominated for the Icelandic Music Awards as the best jazz album of the year and made into the Top Ten of 2011 lists of various critics and general listeners. Distilled (2013) was nominated in 4 categories for the Icelandic Music Awards. All About Jazz included it in its list of 12 Best Albums of 2013 and the blog JazzWrap named it album of the year. Cielito Lindo (2015) was nominated for the Icelandic Music Awards as the best jazz album of the year; Nordische Musik gave it 5 stars.

Contributing their compositions to the Trio the members draw inspiration from most various sources ranging from Icelandic tunes to Balkan rhythms, South American folklore, Tom Waits and George Gershwin. The leader mainly focuses on Icelandic folklore. She is most admired for elegant blending of N.Y.C. jazz and Scandinavian lyricism and melancholy.

Sunna Gunnlaugs grew up on a small peninsula called Seltjarnarnes not far from Reykjavik. She studied jazz in the USA, where she lived for a long period of time, got married to American drummer Scott McLemore, who became a member of her Trio, and finally returned to her homeland. Thus as a musician she represents two very different worlds and keeps mesmerising audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic.

The idea of playing the piano didn’t appeal to her as a kid. She associated it with classical pianists who seemed to have no fun. But on the organ she could play anything: the Beatles, polkas, Strauss. It was Bill Evans’ Trio that made her to discover piano and she got interested in 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 improviser and composer while immersing herself in the standards and studying the masters. Fascinated with inspiring American jazz scene she decided to move to New York where she made her debut recording 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. Village Voice proclaimed Gunnlaugs an “impressive newcomer”.

Before soon the pianist invited saxophonist Tony Malaby and bassist Drew Gress to form a quartet together with Scott. The quartet recorded two albums saturated with Nordic melancholy: Mindful and Songs from Iceland, based on Icelandic folksongs that Gunnlaugs grew up with.

Today her discography amounts to almost 20 albums that have met with critical praise over the years, and she has appeared in publications such as JazzTimes, Downbeat, Jazziz, Jazz Podium, Jazzman and Jazzwise to name but a few. The pianist’s CDs were repeatedly included in Canadian and American Top Ten lists.

Now living in Iceland, Gunnlaugs is usually performing with her Trio, which has become Reykjavik’s representative.

Double bassist Thorgrímur Jónsson has been a major part of the Icelandic jazz seen for the last 15 years. He has been a member of the Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio since 2009. In addition, the musician leads his own quintet, plays in a quartet together with his brother saxophonist Ólafur, pianist Agnar Már Magnússon and drummer Matthías M.D. Hemstock, and plays Balkan music in Byzantine Silhouette featuring musicians from Bulgaria, Turkey and Sweden.

Jónsson reaps prizes as a composer as well. He recently received two Icelandic Music Awards in the jazz category for his album Constant Movement and his composition on that album. The musician finds inspiration in Balkan music, pop music and European jazz.

American drummer Scott McLemore began playing music professionally in rock bands. McLemore attended the University of Virginia’s Writers Workshop in 1990 where he met trumpeter John D’earth. McLemore has since performed countless times with D’earth in various groups and has also brought the trumpeter to New York to perform at the Knitting Factory.

In 1992–93 he attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk where he studied jazz performance and composition. He also studied drums privately with Howard Curtis and started subbing for Curtis with bassist Jimmy Masters around the same time. In 1993, McLemore transfered to William Paterson College in New Jersey to study drums with John Riley. At the time he started playing jazz professionally in nearby New York City, also toured the US with guitarist Tim Reynolds.

In 1997 he moved to New York where he played with such talented musicians as: Sunna Gunnlaugs, Ben Monder, Michael Kanan, Tony Malaby, Angelica Sanchez, Chris Cheek, George Colligan, Kerry Politzer, Mark Helias, Drew Gress and Tim Berne.

His work as a leader has resulted in two albums: Found Music with Tony Malaby, Ben Monder and Ben Street on Fresh Sound New Talent Records, and Remote Location with Sunna Gunnlaugs, Óskar Guðjónsson, Andrés Thor and Róbert Þórhallsson on Sunny Sky Records.

McLemore is based in Iceland. 

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