Sunna Gunnlaugs, Anders Thor, ASA Trio
Greg Harness discovers some new jazz in Iceland
When quizzed about musicians from Iceland, the only artists most people can think of are indie rock favorites Björk and Sigur Rós. But Reykjavik also has a jazz scene that deserves wide recognition.
The most recent recording from pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs, Long Pair Bond, makes for a great starting point. The album’s title track opens with solo piano and just a touch of dissonance. The melody is deceptively simple, straight enough to be hummable, yet crooked enough to be interesting. This is a common pattern with Gunnlaugs compositions which have never failed to grab me.
The interplay between piano, bass, and drums is extraordinarily well done, with a bass that is always a grounding force without playing the traditional walking role, and some exceptionally musical drumming, particularly tasteful in the use of cymbals.
“Crab Canon” is a favorite of mine with a high pizzicato bass melody accompanied by percussive low notes on the piano giving way to a solid groove, and another crooked melody with intriguing intervals, constantly twisting from one surprising note to another without losing the listener, like a romp down a twisting forest trail. This record is jazzy enough to satisfy jazz lovers, with enough groove to bring everyone else along too.
Guitarist Andres Thor writes melodies that float on swirling air currents in always-surprising ways. He has a way of starting to lull the listener and then he spins in an entirely new direction that makes perfect sense.
The title track from Mónókróm is a great example. It’s a stroll, it’s a frolic, it’s a carnival ride, and yet as a listener I never feel lost. Thor and his band give me enough grounding to feel safe, yet twist me around enough for a real thrill.
Other songs on this have similar feel but with varying grooves. “Pink Wilco” is more raucous with a garage band sound which works especially well in contrast to the acoustic sound of “X.” There’s a Bill Frisell feel to “Sjávargrund,” and “München” has an in-the-pocket groove that is irresistible. Fans of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio will not want to miss this recording.
Thelonious Monk ranks among the best composers of the 20th Century, and ASA Trio tackles his music with flair on their latest release.
Monk himself was a piano player and his compositions were often geared to his particular style of playing. He’s also known for the great saxophone players he worked with. ASA contains neither piano nor saxophone, and the guitar-organ-drums trio lets the compositions shine without overt comparisons to how Monk played a particular phrase.
The choice of compositions here is impressive. It’s a great mix that starts with the tunes we all know like “Criss Cross,” “Straight, No Chaser,” and my favorite Monk tune, “Ask Me Now.” It also includes sleepers like “Green Chimneys” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday.”
ASA has strong soloists, but they also know when to hold back, when to fade away, and when to punch and accent. The interplay between the three musicians makes for a number of great musical moments within each piece, tied together with a solid groove with just the right amount of fluidity.
ASA Trio brings a fresh approach to classic Monk’s compositions that is musically satisfying, emotionally fulfilling, and enjoyable on every level.
As enjoyable as Björk and Sigur Rós are, Iceland has a lot more to offer the adventurous listener. Any one of these records will prove that point, and the set will change how you think about Icelandic music. It’s a journey well worth taking. - Greg Harness
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