Friday, August 6, 2010

Terry Pollard and Sunna Gunnlaugs

I normally detest the idea of categorizing musicians according to sex, race, nationality, or species. But I'm about to review two female jazz pianists, and I guess that will give us a reference point to begin with. I insist that it is only coincidence, that I chose these two CDs to review at random. In fact, ladies and gents of the jury, strike the previous comments from the record. Let's just proceed with two discs, one old, one new, but both intriguing in their respective ways.

If you are at all lurking around the halls of Facebook, you might have seen a posted youtube clip of Terry Gibbs the vibraphonist with a trio featuring pianist and (also vibraphonist) Terry Pollard. I watched and listened, thinking as probably everyone else did, "Why in blazes have I never heard of Terry Pollard?" Not only is she super agile and swinging on the piano, she gets up and does a four-handed duet on one vibraphone with Gibbs, and plays everything Gibbs plays, but better!

Sadly, the jazz world is filled with stories like these: Musicians who were once at the top of their game ending up short of a great career due to the economics of the jazz life, family commitments, or just bad luck. ( Notice I didn't mention substance abuse.) Terry Pollard's career began in 1948 in Detroit. She was discovered by Terry Gibbs in the early 50's and joined his band. She then apparently signed with Bethlehem Records, did one recording as a leader in 1955, and won the Down Beat New Artist Award the next year. After doing a lot of playing with the greats of the era, I guess she decided to have a family and left the road, basically spending the rest of her career in relative obscurity in Detroit. (This is just what I have gathered from the limited information on the web.)

It's hard to find CDs with Terry Pollard as a sideperson. The only one I could find was a CD simply called " Terry Gibbs" and it features Pollard on piano, Herman Wright on bass and Nils-Bertii Dahlander on drums. It's from the mid-50's and it is in essence a swingin' hard bop affair, although some of the tunes like "Seven Come Eleven" and " Dickie's Dream" and even the Gibbs composition "King City Stomp" seem to bring a nostalgia for the pure swing era of the 30's and 40's. The re-mastering is great: the sound pops out at you and all instruments ring clearly. The music is surely a product of the era, however, what comes across is not any stylistic groundbreaking, but instead a group sound that is intense at any tempo. You feel like this band really spent some hours together. Wright and Dahlander don't get a lot of feature time, but they provide a solid foundation for swingin' solos. ( The bass is really sonically up-front! Especially on the medium swing tunes. I'm not familiar with the bass player or drummer either. Guess I need to do more research.......)

I daresay that Pollard swings on a level approaching Wynton Kelly. Her playing has the qualifications that I look for in my favorite jazz pianists (from Fats Waller to John Taylor and everything in between) in that she has tremendous control and purpose in her rhythm. Even in her comping: during a solo which Terry Gibbs plays in two-fingered fashion on the piano seated next to Pollard, she comps for the gimmicky moment with a bouncing full-voiced approach. And her solos seem to overflow with ideas, which seem to draw from Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, but at times she reminds me of Horace Silver ,but not as harsh, with a more refined piano tone. And if you want to hear sensitivity, check out the intro on "Lonely Dreams": Beautiful ringing octaves in the right hand and nice counter-lines perfectly balanced in the left hand.

Terry Pollard clearly had a range and a voice as a jazz pianist. Many artists receive more attention after death: Pollard passed away last year at age 78 after a long illness. Maybe this will spark some interest in somehow finding her only solo recording and making it available. If anybody has any more information about Pollard, I would love to know about it.

Let's set our time machine forward from the 50's to present-day. A young pianist from Iceland has put out her 6th CD as a leader ( by my count) and it's really fabulous. Sunna Gunnlaugs lived in Brooklyn for many years until abandoning the dear old U.S.A for her home country. Her latest offering, " The Dream" is actually from a session in 2009 with her touring band of drummer Scott McLemore ( also her husband), bassist Eivind Opsvik and alto saxophonist Loren Stillman.

It's a great combination of originals combined with some free playing: Tracks 3,7, 9, 11, and 12 are called " Spin 1", " Spin 2" etc... they are essentially vignettes, short and sweet, but are so skillful that you might believe that Gunnlaugs and company are reading through some contemporary scores. The interaction is conversational and feels very natural, never forced. This is playing that never seems like it has to be virtuosic, however, virtuosity occurs and it adds to the musical intensity. And the improv parts nicely offset the "jazz tunes" part of the CD.

Gunnlaugs can't help but go into the Scandinavian jazz territory, and there's nothing wrong with that. Straight eighth grooves and clear beautiful melodies abound. But with the compositions and the playing, there is a more traditional undercurrent that might be overlooked. When you consider that Gunnlaugs studied at William Patterson College and spent a lot of time in New York, then it makes sense. A song like "Holding Ground" has a nice swing to it, but it's clever, not overtly trying to " be traditional". This tune almost reminds me of Benny Golson's " Stablemates" in that the form is slightly uneven, making it challengingly uncomfortable for the improviser. But it also remind me of Sam River's "Cyclic Episode" in that it's essentially minor seventh chords moving in random ways. And check out McLemore's impressionistic cymbal intro. I don't know how many cymbals he had in the studio but here he gives the impression of at least 10 different ones! ( Most jazz drummers have 2 to 3 cymbals max.)

This is a very clear sounding CD, partially thanks to the great Steinway grand piano they have at Systems Two in Brooklyn, where this was recorded, with Jon Rosenberg as the engineer. And the mix, which was done in Iceland, is great. But the playing is also very clear and it seems like there is never a misplaced note. Gunnlaugs has a warm touch, and gives hints of classical training on the tune " Tear (as in Wear)" although it's much more reminiscent of Kenny Kirkland's " Midnight Silence" but with a darker tone. And I like the consistency of the piano sound - it's very "upfront" in the mix.

Loren Stillman is a young virtuoso who you should keep you eye on: I was on his first tour of Europe  ( we were both sidemen in Christophe Schweizer's group, also with Tyshawn Sorey on drums) and he is continuing to impress. I think of him as sort of a post Steve Coleman alto player: It's like the total mixture of Bird and Konitz and Osby and yet it's so mixed up that it just ends up sounding like Loren Stillman. Which I guess is how it should be for every jazz musician.

I've never met Eivind Opsvik but I'd love to play with him someday. He has a beautiful  bass tone and fits the band perfectly. He plays a great intro on " Tunnel Vision". He and McLemore have a great hookup, especially on tunes like " The Dream" and " Vitjun". Now that I'm thinking of it, the latter composition reminds me melodically of " On A Clear Day", as well as " Punjab" by Joe Henderson and " Equipose" by Stanley Cowell. But this is what happens with jazz musicians: we have so many tunes floating around in our head that we unintentionally , or intentionally, borrow from other tunes all the time. As Stravinsky said: " Good composers borrow. Great composers STEAL." But half the time we aren't even aware of our transgressions!

Both of these CDs- "Terry Gibbs" featuring Terry Pollard and Sunna Gunnlaugs "The Dream"  are available on Itunes. Please support jazz music!


  1. Beautiful writing and very informative. Learned so much about talented performers I'd never heard of, until now. With excellent posts such as this, you're starting to "scare" this fellow blogger, just like you "scare" those other pianists with your playing.

  2. George, if you'd like more info on Terry Pollard, contact Jim Gallert (he's on FaceBook. Jim lives here in Detroit and is the author of Before Motown, a history of jazz in Detroit. Jim knows more about Detroit jazz history than anyone I know. He and his co-author Lars Bjorn organize and run the jazz talk tent at the Detroit International Jazz Festival each year. In the course of researching Before Motown, Jim unearthed a voluminous amount of material never seen or heard before, including private recordings of folks like Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, etc. I know he has a lot of information on Terry Pollard, who continued to play around Detroit into the 1970s. Cheers, Andy.

  3. I agree, Sunna's album is really gorgeous.

  4. Great post. I agree, Sunna's playing and writing (on that album and otherwise) are beautiful. And it's true, there isn't a lot of Terry Pollard in print. The best I've heard is on her 2nd-to-last session, a Yusef Lateef thing from 1959, represented by disc 1 here:

    I'm still looking for her last session (not willing to pay $100 for it, sorry) with the harpist Dorothy Ashby, but there's a clip from it on Youtube, I guess because some rapper sampled it. She plays vibes, not piano, but her solo is mega-swinging.

  5. Wow, the Dorothy Ashby clip has a really cool vibe, no pun intended.

  6. Hello George-
    Please when you get a chance, email I can fill you in on all the information you want regarding pianist Terry Pollard.


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