by Ian Mann
August 03, 2015
The crowning glory of my festival week. Gustavsen and his colleagues gained many new fans as a result of their typically immaculate performance.
Tord Gustavsen Quartet, All Saints Church, Hereford, 31/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).
Thanks to the good offices of the Oxfordshire based agent Olwen Richards the Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen has probably toured the UK more extensively over the course of the last decade than any other ECM recording artist. Since I first discovered Gustavsen’s music in 2005 I have charted his artistic growth through a series of acclaimed albums and have witnessed a number of excellent live performances.
My very first sighting of Gustavsen was at the 2005 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he and his trio acted as the “backing band” for Norwegian vocalist Silje Neergard. However it quickly became apparent that the trio had plenty to say on their own account and I was to see them again later in the year in their own right at Lichfield’s Garrick Theatre playing music from their first two ECM albums “Changing Places” (2002) and “The Ground” (2004). “Being There”, the third record by the line up of Gustavsen, bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad appeared in 2007 and the trio played a delightfully intimate show at The Edge in Much Wenlock as they toured in support of the album.
The tragic early death from a heart attack of Harald Johnsen at the age of forty one prompted a change of direction for Gustavsen as he expanded the group with the addition of saxophonist Tore Brunborg and new bassist Mats Eilertsen. The resultant album “Restored, Returned” (2009) was credited to the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble with some pieces featuring the singing of guest vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen on settings of poems by W.H. Auden.
The core working group remained the foursome of Gustavsen, Vespestad, Eilertsen and Brunborg and the next two recordings “The Well” (2012) and “Extended Circle” (2014) were entirely instrumental and credited to the Tord Gustavsen Quartet. Thus constituted the group continued to visit the UK on a regular basis and I was to witness further excellent performances in Bristol, Much Wenlock and Wolverhampton, all of them in suitably intimate performance spaces. An appearance at the cavernous Town Hall in Cheltenham was less satisfactory and for the only time I found the group’s performance curiously soporific, it would seem that the low key intensity of Gustavsen’s music needs the intimacy of a small venue to really make it work.
Although I’ve seen Gustaven play live on a number of occasions I never though I’d get to see him perform in Hereford, essentially my home city. I’m indebted to Clare Stevens and Robert Convey of the Three Choirs Festival for allowing me the opportunity to cover this performance by a world class jazz ensemble virtually on my own doorstep. The Gustavsen concert was the crowning glory in a week of late night events at All Saints Church that had also included performances by the Juice Vocal Ensemble, the Gwilym Simcock / Mike Walker Duo and the Amy Roberts / Richard Exall Quintet, all very good, all very different and all reviewed elsewhere on this site.
In many ways All Saints represented the perfect venue for the music of the Gustavsen Quartet given that Gustavsen is the son of a Lutheran minister and that his music is rooted in the church. The venue certainly possessed the necessary intimacy and an appropriate acoustic but viewing the musicians was inevitably a little more difficult due to the ecclesiastical architecture and the presence of many pillars. I could see virtually nothing from my allocated seat and eventually relocated myself to the organist’s bench which offered greatly improved sight lines. From here I was able to fully immerse myself in the quartet’s music and performance.
Gustavsen’s distinctive musical style seemed to arrive fully formed on his ECM début “Changing Places”. Many of his pieces are written in the minor keys endemic to the church music of his childhood but the brooding, solemn, Nordic characteristics of his music are leavened by gospel and blues elements that have their origins in the American South and beyond. There are rolling gospel vamps, Keith Jarrett style country blues, elements of township jazz that recall Abdullah Ibrahim’s early work and overall a very tangible air of spirituality. It’s a highly personalised style that draws upon many influences but is instantly recognisable. Gustavsen has made no fundamental changes to his basic musical model in the course of the last thirteen years but each album has been subtly different, each recording representing a small artistic advance as Gustavsen continues to distil his music to its purest essence, consistently “polishing the diamond” to borrow a phrase originated by the drummer Bill Bruford. In this context it’s probably fair to say that “Extended Circle”, from which much of tonight’s programme was sourced, represents his best album to date.
In much the same way as each of Gustavsen’s albums is subtly different to the last, so too are his live performances. Since the brilliant quartet performance at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton in March 2014 Gustavsen has acquired a new bass player following the departure of Eilertsen to concentrate on his own impressive solo career. The new incumbent is Sigurd Hole, a new name to me but clearly a highly respected musician on the Norwegian jazz scene and beyond whose credits include co-leadership of the group Eple Trio plus work as a sideman with bands led saxophonist Karl Seglem, trumpeter Ole Jorn Myklebust, guitarist Jon Eberson and others. Hole brings many attributes to the Gustavsen Quartet including a huge, woody tone, great melodic skill as a pizzicato soloist and an impressive bowing technique. He’s the perfect replacement for the similarly talented Eilertsen and has fitted into the group superbly, quickly establishing an excellent rapport with Vespestad.
Since Wolverhampton Gustavsen has also added a subtle element of electronica to his sound which brings yet another dimension to the group aesthetic and which was tastefully, sparingly and effectively deployed. Each show may be similar but no two are the same.
After a slightly delayed start the dark suited musicians took to the stage and the performance began with Gustavsen’s almost subliminal piano joined by Brunborg’s breathy tenor sax on the
quasi- hymnal “Vesper” , this seguing into the lengthier “The Gaze” with the addition of Vespestad’s understated drums, mallets on toms complemented by Hole’s bowed bass. As the music developed in intensity the air of Nordic solemnity and reverence was gradually displaced by a more joyous Mediterranean influence as Gustavsen stretched out, dampening notes to create a groove and adding the first hints of gospel to his playing.
“Right There”, the opening track on “Extended Circle” began the next segue of pieces (it was linked with “Way In” from “Restored, Returned”) and served to emphasise Gustavsen’s melodic gift as a composer. The pianist was well supported by Vespestad’s delicately brushed drums and Hole’s deeply resonant but highly melodic bass, the new man taking a fine solo before handing over to Gustavsen who added a soupcon of tasteful electronica to his solo. I use the word “solo” loosely, in Gustavsen’s music the lead changes hands frequently but clearly delineated jazz solos are rare, there are hardly ever outbreaks of spontaneous applause at Gustavsen performances, the absorption of the audience is so intense and intent that the approbation only comes at the end of a piece, similarities here to the classical world. Thus features for Vespestad and Gustavsen went unacknowledged at the time as did Brunborg’s smouldering tenor solo, this unfolding above an increasingly insistent developing groove that included more electronic keyboard distortion and the sight of Gustavsen standing up to play as the music grew more and more intense. An increasing emphasis on the groove and the notion of “digging in” has been an increasing feature of Gustavsen performances in recent years.
The next sequence began with a reduction of Gustavsen’s “Hallelujah Mass”, a choral work written for a choir in Trondheim. This was teamed with the pieces “Devotion” and “In Every Corner”. The segue began in with an atmospheric, freely structured intro featuring Vespestad’s cymbal ticks and scrapes, Hole’s bowed bass and the leader’s low end piano rumblings. Eventually a halting sax melody emerged, still accompanied by shimmering cymbals and droning arco bass. Gradually an even greater degree of unadorned melodic lyricism manifested itself with Brunborg’s tenor shadowed by the gentle rustle of Vespestad’s brushes, the rich purr of Hole’s bass and the crystalline sound of Gustavsen’s piano.
The use of space has always been a central part of Gustavsen’s writing and playing, a less is more approach that entails that he never wastes a note. That sense of unhurried spaciousness was embodied by the solo piano introduction to “Wide Open” as Gustavsen’s sparse chording gradually developed in intensity to incorporate dense, ringing clusters of notes before gradually subsiding again as the hymnal theme of the piece emerged, the pianist now tastefully supported by double bass and brushed drums. Hole added a wonderfully melodic pizzicato solo before Gustavsen again resumed the lead, the combination of flowing lyricism underpinned by a gentle gospel tinged vamp again prompting descriptions like the “Scandinavian Keith Jarrett” or the “Nordic Abdullah Ibrahim”.
The set concluded with the Norwegian folk hymn “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg” (translation - “I Know A Castle In The Clouds”), a tune that is often played at Norwegian funerals. It’s a piece that symbolises both sorrow and hope and it was invested with a kind of quiet intensity by the quartet as they developed the music from the quiet bustle of Vespestad’s drum introduction through to Brunborg’s valedictory tenor sax solo.
Gustavsen has described his group’s performances as having a liturgical quality and there’s something about a Tord Gustavsen concert that is akin to a religious experience. The crowd at All Saints had been admirably quiet and attentive throughout and only now did they truly let themselves go, summoning the quartet back for a deserved encore. This was “Vicar Street”, named for the celebrated Dublin live music venue and a piece sourced from the trio album “Being There”. This featured Gustavsen’s elegant solo piano introduction and the only appearance this evening of Brunborg’s curved soprano saxophone.
It’s rare for a Gustavsen group to return for a second encore but such was the reaction of the Hereford audience that we were treated to the totally unexpected bonus of “Draw Near” from the same album but with Brunborg back on tenor sax.
The decision to invite the Gustavsen Quartet to the Three Choirs was more than justified by the music that we had heard, especially bearing in mind that this was a one off gig and not part of a wider tour. It was certainly a wonderful way to round off my festival week and I’m sure that Gustavsen and his colleagues gained many new fans as a result of their typically immaculate performance.
My thanks to Olwen Richards and to the members of the band for speaking with me afterwards. These conversations revealed some interesting snippets of information including the fact that Vespestad has rejoined Supersilent and that Gustavsen’s next ECM album will be very different and re-introduce the use of vocals. While we wait for that we have the two “trilogies” of previous recordings to enjoy, the three trio releases from 2002-7 and the three ensemble/quartet albums from 2009 -14.
Gustavsen himself thinks of these recordings in those terms so his next project will be very keenly anticipated as his musical journey seems set to change direction once more.
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