Icelandic and Israeli Notes Resound at Shoreline Jazz Club in Old Lyme

Jun 18, 2014

"Now that I am in Iceland, there is a sense of space and calmness in my music."
Sunna Gunnlaugs

In an international cultural coup d’etat this weekend, highly-skilled jazz performers from Iceland and Israel roll into Old Lyme to seize absolute emotional and aesthetic control over at The Side Door Jazz Club, the Connecticut shoreline’s key strategic jazz center.

As part of her ongoing bi-coastal North American tour, the ultra-cool, Icelandic pianist/composer Sunna Gunnlaugs storms the Nutmeg jazz bastion with her trio at 8:30 pm on Friday, June 20. It’s part of the globe-trotting Reykjavik-based artist’s continental campaign to promote her excellent and widely acclaimed new album, Distilled.

Accompanied by the Icelandic bassist Porgimur Jonsson, and by her husband, the American drummer Scott McLemore, the soft-spoken, amicable Icelander comes armed with an array of lyrical expressiveness, a lush harmonic sense, and an armory of fresh, flowing, melodically inventive ideas that crackle in her interactive trio format.    

With Gunnlaugs blazing away poetically, the Icelandic incursion is followed the next evening at 8:30 by a display of expressive firepower by the formidable Israeli-born tenor saxophonist/composer Benny Sharoni leading his high-flying, supersonic squadron, which features as its wingman, the hard-swinging pianist David Hazeltine.

Benny Sharoni.
Credit bennysharoni.com

Raised in a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, Sharoni became smitten with jazz in his mid-teens after his mother returned home to Israel from a visit to New York City bringing him a life-changing gift: a couple classic Sonny Rollins albums. Some years later, the jazz-inspired youth emigrated from Israel to the United States in 1986 to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Hard-pressed financially, the jazz scholar had to drop out of Berklee after one semester. Nonetheless, he managed to study and perform with such world-class Boston saxophonists as Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone.

Now a mainstay on the U.S. and European scenes, Sharoni has honed a signature style rooted in big-toned power, passion and swinging spirituality, qualities exemplified by his recent release, Eternal Elixir. All About Jazz calls him “an intoxicating cocktail of brains and brawn,” which sounds very much like the ideal mix for the elixir of choice for any jazz club.   

Sunna Gunnlaugs, Porgimur Jonsson and Scott McLemore.
Credit sunnagunnlaugs.com
Gunnlaugs's reflective style has evolved into an original, creative voice that taps into modern American jazz and Icelandic folk roots.

Gunnlaugs, the Icelander who exudes sunny warmth and geysers of lush harmonies, came to the U.S. in the early 1990s to study in the prestigious jazz program at William Paterson College in New Jersey. There she met her future husband, a fellow undergrad, before graduating in 1996. Establishing herself internationally, she has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, played in Tokyo, and best of all for Gunnlaugsphiles, has recorded a series of beautifully-crafted releases. Her new album, Distilled, marks her eighth release, and third sample of her fine art of the trio.  

While living in Brooklyn and gigging on the New York scene for nine years, the pianist found time to perform frequently in Connecticut, from Hartford to New Haven. Her warm playing and friendly disposition inspired a loyal, growing fan base in Connecticut until 2005, when she decided to return home to Iceland to raise a family with her husband and musical collaborator, McLemore. Today, she and her husband have two daughters, aged six and eight. Fortunately, for the touring couple, Gunnlaugs has a loving family in Iceland to care for the two children whenever she and her husband are on the road together, never going away from home for long, she stresses, generally only ten to 14 days at a time.      

Family matters, in fact, were a pivotal factor in Gunnlaugs's decision to take that giant step from New York back to Iceland after her invaluable years of study, hands-on apprenticeship, and artistic growth in the States. "I lived in the U.S. for 12 years," she said by email, "and New York was a great place for a growing musician, but it didn’t offer much quality of life. The gigs paid poorly, and New York is expensive. Therefore, when we wanted to have children, my husband and I decided to move to Iceland. I find it much easier to make a living in Iceland, and I also find it easier to tour Europe from Iceland, where jazz is very much appreciated and decent paying gigs are easier to find. There are things I miss about living in Brooklyn, but you can’t have it all, can you?"

Gunnlaugs's reflective style, which was originally inspired by such poet laureate American pianists as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, and by the bard-like, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, has evolved into an original, creative voice that taps into modern American jazz, European concepts, and the Icelandic folk roots, both musical and literary, that she absorbed while growing up on a small peninsula called Seltjarnarnes, a suburb of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Gunnlaugs has a unique perspective on how geographic and cultural influences deeply shape an artist’s expressive voice. "Growing up in Iceland has had an effect on my music," she said. "We sing a lot here, and I suppose that has something to do with my affection for melody and lyricism. When I lived in New York City, the music I wrote had a sense of energy and intensity. Now that I am in Iceland, there is a sense of space and calmness in my music. I am happy to see that critics comment on hearing elements of American jazz combined with the European approach in my music. So, there is still a bit of Brooklyn in my heart."

Tickets are $25.00 each for the Gunnlaugs Trio Friday night and the Sharoni Quartet Saturday night. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Fest Serves Steamy Trad Jazz Feast

Thanks to the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival, you don’t have to leave Connecticut to sample a savory gumbo of New Orleans-style traditional jazz, swing and blues, which the annual trad bash serves Friday, June 20, through Sunday, June 22, in Essex at the Essex Steam Train.

Nearly a dozen trad bands perform in simultaneous sessions under two tents, where such Nutmeg favorites as virtuoso pianist/singer Jeff Barnhart and the celebrated Galvanized Jazz Band serve their hot, esteemed jazz.

Also among the headliners is the noted trad jazz and swing clarinetist/saxophonist and bandleader Dan Levinson leading his New York-based New Millennium All-Stars. A member of Vince Giordano’s renowned Nighthawks of "Boardwalk Empire" fame, Levinson has appeared at festivals around the world, and performed with such notables as Woody Allen, Madeleine Peyroux, Cynthia Sayer, and Leon Redbone.

Other acts include: Connecticut’s Heartbeat Dixieland Jazz Band led by philanthropist and CEO-turned-drummer, Bill Logozzo; Wolverine Jazz Band from Massachusetts; Ben Mauger’s Vintage Jazz Band from Pennsylvania; Riverboat Ramblers, led by musician/entertainer John Banker; Route 17 Stompers, an ensemble of young Connecticut musicians; Festival All-Stars led by Jeff Barnhart; Jazz Jesters from Massachusetts with Jeff Hughes; and Long Island’s Sunnyland Jazz Band with banjoist Bob Barta.

Food and beverages available on the festival grounds. Patrons can bring their own beer and wine. No hard liquor allowed. Tickets: $100 for the full weekend sessions; $60.00 for an all-day Saturday pass, 11:00 am to 10:30 pm; $35.00 each for Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening or Sunday sessions. Tickets for youths under 12: $8.00. Purchase by calling (860) 575-0215. More information: hotsteamedjazz.com.

The festival gets on track a bit earlier than usual this summer as it kicks off a special benefit performance for itself at 8:00 pm on Thursday, June 19, at The Side Door Jazz Club. Pianist Bill Sinclair leads his all-star quintet featuring trombonist Tom Boates, clarinetist/saxophonist Noel Kaletsky, bassist Bill Morrison and drummer Tom Palinko. Tickets: $20.00. Information: (860) 434-0886.

Dianne Reeves with Strings

Dianne Reeves
Credit ataelw

Dianne Reeves, a Grammy winning jazz singer, performs with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in a free concert at 7:00 pm on Saturday, June 21, on the New Haven Green as part of The International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

While Reeves is a pre-eminent master of jazz vocal skills-everything from scatting to improvising on chord progressions—she likes to meld those chops with her love for R&B, Latin, and pop as she does with her alchemical mix on her new album, Beautiful Life (Concord). On her new release -- her first in five years -- the diva of diversity covers hits by artists ranging from Bob Marley and  Marvin Gaye to Stevie Nicks and Ani DiFranco, material she just might want to interpret with beautiful, live string accompaniment on the urban but pastoral green. Information: artidea.org.

Hoggard Launches Free Series

Vibraphonist Jay Hoggard launches the UMOJA Music Series -- four free concerts celebrating the principles of Kwanzaa -- at 6:00 pm on Friday, June 20, at Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford. The noted instrumentalist/composer and educator is joined by Yunie Mojica, alto saxophone; Raynel Frazier, trombone; Josh Evans, trumpet; Jen Allen, piano; Stephen “King” Porter, bass; Jocelyn Pleasant, drums/percussion; and Jonathan Barber, drums.

Coming up next in the Umoja Series at The Pump House Gallery in Bushnell Park are: Ralph Peterson & Unity Project/Jovan Alexandre Group, June 27; Rene McLean & the Cosmic Brotherhood/Shenel Johns Quartet, July 11; and Kris Allen Quartet/Alex Tremblay Quartet, July 18. All concerts at 6:00 p.m. Rain location: Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, 15 Vernon Street, Hartford.

On the Road Again

Mario Pavone in New York City in February 2013.
Credit enid farber / Creative Commons

Bassist/composer Mario Pavone and his nonet launch a series of appearances in four venues to celebrate the release of his new CD Street Songs (Playscape Recordings) and his Accordion Project at 7:30 pm on Thursday, June 19, at Studio 59, Torrington. Street Songs was inspired by Pavone’s early memories of the “stoop music” he heard on his front steps, including accordion players, as a kid growing up post-World War II in the ethnic melting pot of his neighborhood in his hometown, Waterbury.

The band features: Pavone, bass and compositions; Matt Mitchell, piano; Adam Matlock, accordion; Carl Testa, bass; and Steve Johns, drums; plus a brass quartet with Dave Ballou, trumpet/cornet/flugelhorn and arrangements; Leise Ballou, French horn; Peter McEachern, trombone; and Gary Buttery, tuba. Information: 860-482-6801.

The ensemble also appears July 16 at Café Nine, New Haven, and July 26 at the Five Points Gallery, Torrington, culminating its mini-tour with a  concert August 10 at 1:30 pm at the Litchfield Jazz Festival on the Goshen Fairgrounds in Goshen. Information: litchfieldjazzfestival.com.

The Cornelia Street Café, a Greenwich Village haven for new music, honors the Connecticut-based, cutting-edge maestro with a mini-festival from July 10 to 12 celebrating his 50 years in music. Information: corneliastreetcafe.com.

Jazz Roundup

Singer Dana Lauren is backed by pianist Sam Parker’s trio at 7:30 pm on Friday, June 20, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford. Tickets: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677. Pianist Matt DeChamplain and vocalist Atla DeChamplain are husband-and-wife headliners for Jazz Mondays at 8:00 pm on Monday, June 23, at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford. Admission: free. Information: (860) 278-7427.

Because of a bumper year, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concludes its second season with an extra concert at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 21, featuring bassist/composer Joshua Abrams, percussionist Chad Taylor and harmonium player Lisa Alvarado at the Christian Science Society of Northampton, 79 Masonic Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. Tickets and single shares (“investments” in future PVJS concerts) available at jazzshares.org and at the door for $15.00 each.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.