INTERVIEW for #IWD2019: Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs

Sunna Gunnlaugs
Photo: © Hans Vera

“When opportunities don’t necessarily fall into your lap, it’s good motivation to go out there and create them for yourself,” says SUNNA GUNNLAUGS, musician, composer, festival director and champion for redressing the gender imbalance in jazz. In this interview for International Women’s Day 2019, she talks about collaborating, influencing the Icelandic jazz scene and keeping things fresh. Interview by Leah Williams:

LondonJazz News: What are your earliest memories of jazz?

Sunna Gunnlaugs: I didn’t have much access to jazz growing up. All I really knew of it were the tunes they used to play sometimes right at the end of TV shows. But then I got my first jazz record – Bill Evans‘ You’re Gonna Hear From Me – and that was really game-changing. Bill is my absolute favourite still and he’s been a really big influence on me, I just love his approach.

LJN: So when did you first start playing jazz?

SG: For a few years as a teenager, I was really lost as to what path I would take musically. And when I started to listen more to jazz and realised it was what I wanted to do, I applied to the one music school in Iceland that offered jazz studies. I clearly remember my first lesson learning to play some of the standards and just thinking “yes, this is it!”

LJN: What was it about the music that appealed to you?

SG: It was something about the joy in the music, the walking bass and the general groove I guess. Even though my father listened to a lot of classical music, and I enjoyed going to concerts with him, the idea of becoming a classical pianist never really interested me. As a child, it always seemed so stiff and boring. I think that freedom you get with jazz was something I’d been searching for.

LJN: Apart from Bill Evans, were there any other major musical influences on your career and development?

SG: Loads. I used to listen to a lot of popular music and I was always so curious about what was behind the music so I would look at who the pianists were on the all the records, who’d produced them and all of that. That led me to Quincy Jones, Greg Philinganes and Herbie Hancock, who in turn led me to discover Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Then when I was studying in the States, I got really into Kenny Barron and used to go to listen to him play live in New York all the time – I’d take my walkman with me and record all the gigs then listen to them over and over again! Later influences include some European pianists like Bobo Stenson and John Taylor.

LJN: Your most recent album, Ancestry, was a collaboration between your trio and the Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola. How did this come about?

SG: I saw Verneri play for the first time years ago at jazzahead! and just really loved the warmth of his tone. Cut forward a few more years and my trio was invited to play at Tempere Jazz Happening where Verneri was actually receiving an award for his contribution to Finnish jazz. It presented the opportunity for us to work together finally. We all got together a few days before the festival to rehearse and then afterwards we recorded the album; it was all just really natural. Verneri’s sound and compositions fit in so well – but it has also been good for us to have a new voice in the mix, keeping things fresh and exciting.

LJN: Are you touring the album?

SG: Yeah, we’re actually heading back to jazzahead! this year which brings it nicely full circle and then we’d love to do some more touring. It would be great to come to London!

LJN: You’ve also started a concert series, Freyjujazz, in Iceland that puts the focus on female musicians. What was it that prompted you to do this?

SG: When I moved back to Iceland after 12 years in the States, I expected there to have been some movement in terms of seeing more female jazz musicians on the scene. But there really weren’t and I was asking myself, where are the women I know must be out there and why aren’t they playing? It’s difficult for anyone to break onto the scene, but especially for women and so I wanted to try and create some opportunities to address this.

LJN: Why do you think it’s so important to make space for women in jazz?

SG: Well, if you don’t create room for women on the scene, then you’re only ever going to get one side of the music. It’s the same in any art form, if you’re only hearing from one gender or one race or one life experience, then you’re really not hearing much at all. 

Women have been part of the jazz world from the very beginning but for multiple reasons, it’s been difficult for them to gain recognition. And it’s obviously a bit of a vicious circle because if women aren’t out there, then young girls aren’t seeing themselves in jazz and are less likely to pursue that interest.

LJN: Have you encountered many challenges as a female instrumentalist?

SG: Sure [she laughs]. There are a lot of men out there who just don’t deal well with working with, or taking direction from, a woman. I have to say though, I think being a woman has also had its advantages. When opportunities don’t necessarily fall into your lap, it’s good motivation to go out there and create them for yourself. So, while I wasn’t getting called up to play in other people’s bands, I made my own and that gave me the impetus to create my own sound and really be in control of my music. But also for me that novelty factor actually worked in my favour at times. Especially when I was in New York, being a female band leader and also Icelandic caught people’s attention.

LJN: Do you think things are moving in the right direction?

SG: Yeah, totally. I see a lot more female musicians playing now than even just five years ago. I guess the place we want to get to though is where no effort needs to be made anymore and it’s just a normal thing to have both men and women contributing equally to jazz.

LJN: You’ve also been co-director of the Reykjavik Jazz Festival since 2015. Has this been another platform you’ve been able to utilise to address this imbalance?

SG: Yes. Since the beginning, Leifur Gunnarsson, my co-director, and I have both been fully on board for increasing the women’s share of the festival and I think we’ve done a really good job of this actually. We’ve found some incredible local and international talent to showcase and continue pushing for that equal representation.

LJN: Have you got any advice for other women trying to make it in jazz?

SG: I would just say be yourself. Find the joy in the music and be true to yourself and your voice. Each person brings something unique and that’s what makes you so valuable.

LINK: Sunna Gunnlaugs’ website

Categories: Feature/Interview

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