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Tord Gustavsen Quartet

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 16/03/2014.


by Ian Mann

March 20, 2014


Ian Mann immerses himself in the music of the Tord Gustavsen Quartet and takes a look at their latest album "Extended Circle".

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 16/03/2014.

Tonight’s appearance was the final performance on a ten date UK tour by the Tord Gustavsen Quartet that has had my fellow jazz critics reaching for the superlatives. Writing on his website the Jazz Breakfast Peter Bacon was particularly fulsome in his praise of tonight’s show describing it as a “truly transcendent evening”. 

My appreciation of Gustavsen’s music has followed a similar path to Peter’s. Like him I first heard the trio of Gustavsen (piano), Harald Johnsen (double bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums) accompanying vocalist Silje Neergard. I, too, was so impressed by this “backing band” that I resolved to check them out in their own right, charting the trio’s progress on their trilogy of ECM albums “Changing Places” (2002), “The Ground” (2004) and “Being There” (2007).  I also saw the trio play live twice during this time, once at Lichfield’s Garrick Theatre in 2005 and again at The Edge in Much Wenlock in 2007, a wonderfully intimate performance that ranks as one of the best I’ve seen.

The illness and eventual sad and premature death of Harald Johnsen from a heart attack in 2011 aged just forty one obliged Gustavsen to find a new direction. Out of respect for his friend and colleague he didn’t want to form another trio and instead recruited saxophonist Tore Brunborg and bassist Mats Eilertsen to form the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble. The new group retained the services of Vespestad and the album “Restored, Returned” (ECM, 2009) also included the voice of Kristin Asbjornsen on settings of poems by W.H.Auden.

The regular working band remained the quartet of Gustavsen, Vespestad, Eilertsen and Brunborg and this line up recorded the all instrumental “The Well” (ECM, 2012) and the current release “Extended Circle” (ECM, 2014), both credited to the Tord Gustavsen Quartet. In the same way that he regards the three trio albums as a trilogy Gustavsen now looks upon the three most recent recordings as a single piece of work, one that reaches full flowering with “Extended Circle”, arguably Gustavsen’s most rounded and accomplished album to date.

Prior to this evening I’d previously seen the quartet on three occasions, the first at St. Georges’ Bristol, a converted church that was particularly well suited to the Gustavsen aesthetic, the second, a festival date in the cavernous Cheltenham Town Hall was less so, and much of the intimacy necessary to a Gustavsen performance was lost with the whole thing feeling just a bit too soporific. However the third, again at The Edge, was magnificent, the kind of transcendent experience of which Peter Bacon speaks. 

And so to tonight’s performance in the intimate space of the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. It was a little short of a sell out, mainly because the quartet had played in Birmingham just two nights previously. However swelled by a number of former regulars from The Edge an audience of just under 150 were absorbed and ultimately enthralled by Gustavsen’s unique music.

Gustavsen ticks all the ECM boxes, Nordic, brooding, atmospheric, making maximum use of the spaces between the notes etc. etc. But for all this he always sounds like himself, his music full of quiet , understated passion and exuding a tangible air of spirituality.

I’m shamelessly going to cut and paste a couple of paragraphs from my 2012 review of the quartet’s performance at The Edge as they still seem to epitomise Gustavsen’s approach;

Gustavsen’s music seems to be tailor made for the ECM aesthetic of “the most beautiful sound next to silence”. Space is very important in his writing, every note is made to count and the spaces between the notes are often as important as the notes themselves. The quality of sound itself is essential to Gustavsen’s music and the band’s resident sound engineer David Solheim ensured that every detail and nuance could be clearly heard in a pinpoint mix. Every note, beat and detail could be clearly heard with the separation between the four instruments particularly clearly delineated, you could literally hear EVERYTHING. This is essential to the Gustavsen group ethos where even the smallest musical gesture carries a wealth of information.

The “less is more” aesthetic runs throughout Gustavsen’s music. His writing is highly melodic, often beautiful and extremely accessible and he and his group distil these qualities to their essence, there is no instrumental grandstanding despite the enormous technical abilities of those involved. The son of a Lutheran minister Gutavsen’s music has a religiosity rooted in the minor chords of the church music of his upbringing. So far, so Scandinavian but Gustavsen also borrows from Afro American forms of religious music with rolling gospel vamps and a low key soulfulness that has its origins in the Southern United States rather than Oslo. By combining these seemingly disparate elements he has created a highly personal kind of piano jazz which has attained a surprisingly broad appeal and which has been referred to as “Nordic gospel”, a perceptive and fittingly accurate description.

All of the above remains true but tonight’s performance exhibited a growing willingness to embrace elements of improvisation and to play with a rhythmic forcefulness that hasn’t always been obvious in Gustavsen’s music. It’s a process that was already being explored a couple of years ago at The Edge and tonight there were moments when the quartet really hit a groove, Gustavsen stamping his foot on the floor in excitement.

For all this though the predominate mood was one of quiet introspection, the air of meditative stillness enhanced once again by “fifth member” Solheim’s exquisite sound balance. No one member of the group was allowed to dominate sonically, every catch of breath from Brunborg, every nuance and detail of Vespestad’s understated drumming could be clearly heard. Gustavsen has spoken of the foursome as a “single organism” that is “always growing” and for those of us who have followed the development of the quartet both live and on record this was particularly obvious tonight.

Eilertsen, a talented and versatile band leader in his own right, has brought a different dynamic to the band. Much more of a front line soloist than Johnsen ever was he proved to be an effective foil for Gustavsen and Brunborg, adept both with and without the bow and capable of performing both rhythmic and textural functions.

Similarly, as the “organism” has developed Brunborg has become a more integral part of the group. In the early days he seemed to be a little peripheral, but looking back this was due to a period of transition between the trio and quartet. Largely specialising on tenor Brunborg has now carved his own niche in the quartet and is continuing to hone his own sound, further distancing himself from his pioneering compatriot and label mate Jan Garbarek.

Meanwhile Vespestad remains one of the most versatile drummers around, his role here combining finely detailed colourisation with subtly disguised rhythmic propulsion. Always listening, always thinking, he’s right at the heart of the quartet’s music.

The Wolverhampton show began with a segue of tunes from the old trio repertoire, updated to accommodate Brunborg’s breathy tenor sax. The quartet played with a quiet passion and although they don’t do jazz solos at such there were plenty of inspired moments, Gustavsen’s passage of solo piano, Eilertsen’s almost subliminal bowing, Brunborg’s increasingly strident tenor above a developing piano/bass/drum groove, Gustavsen’s subsequent solo and later exchanges with Eilertsen. As Brunborg stated the theme for the final time we emerged from a fifteen minute odyssey that had completely absorbed and captured both musicians and audience. Tied to the mast indeed.

The nest piece, “Right There” opens the new album, albeit in trio form. Introduced here by Gustavsen at the piano and Vespestad at the drums it features one of Gustavsen’s most beguiling melodies. Eilertsen’s solo revealed his lyrical and melodic qualities as a bass player and tonight’s version also integrated Brunborg who entered in an absorbing series of exchanges with Vespestad. Eilertsen’s percussive bowing and Gustavsen’s use of dampened piano strings set up a groove above which the pianist eventually soloed as Eilertsen put down the bow and demonstrated his impeccable sense of time.

The introduction to the next segue recalled the improvised “Entrance” which appears in two incarnations on the “Extended Circle” album. Eilertsen’s atmospheric vertical bowing and Vespested’s eerily damped cymbals and cymbal scrapes provided the backdrop for Brunborg’s long, haunting tenor phrases. Eventually the piece morphed into “The Embrace”, a rare attempt by Gustavsen to to write something in a major key. Melodic, almost hymn like this eventually proved to be one of the group’s most rhythmic numbers yet it always remained true to Gustavsen’s aesthetic even when building up a head of steam that variously recalled the country blues of Keith Jarrett or even the township jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim.

The as yet unrecorded “The Mission” was debuted at a converted church in Portland, Oregon on the American leg of the quartet’s tour. Tenor sax and arco bass shared the melody before subsequent solos from Eilertsen, now playing pizzicato, and the meditative Gustavsen. Vespestad’s exquisite brush work also featured prominently. Despite the conclusion of the quartet’s “trilogy” let’s hope that this piece finds its way on to album at some point in the future.

The “Nordic Gospel” sounds of “Devotion” with its soulful Brunborg solo was a good example of the quartet’s “less is more” approach.

A highlight of both the album and of tonight’s performance was the quartet’s interpretation of the traditional Norwegian funeral hymn (translation; “A Castle In Heaven”). The arrangement contrasts the traditional melody with the contemporary, skittering grooves of Vespestad and Eilertsen as Brunborg’s sax emotes plaintively in the wilderness. It’s an arrangement that works surprisingly well and here contained some of the group’s most unfettered playing of the night as Brunborg wailed above Gustavsen’s dense rhythmic clusters and increasingly animated bass and drums. Almost abruptly it seemed to resolve itself with a return to the stillness and calm that characterises so much of Gustavsen’s music.

Having been held spellbound for the best part of an hour and a half the near capacity audience gave the quartet a thunderous reception as they left the stage. The love its audience feels for this group’s music is almost palpable.

The quartet returned to encore with the tune “Vicar Street”, named after the Dublin live music venue and sourced from the trio repertoire. Brunborg featured on curved soprano sax and shared the solos with Gustavsen and Eilertsen. 

So, another memorable performance from an artist with a clear artistic vision and a sound all his own. It’s been fascinating to watch Gustavsen’s music develop over the last decade or so, no radical shifts of direction but a gradual honing of his approach, consistent small artistic advances and a general “polishing of the diamond”. “Extended Circle” is as good an album as he has produced and represents a good starting point for newcomers as well as an essential addition to the collection for existing fans.

Although an admirer of Gustavsen’s music I can also relate to the accusations of bloodlessness and sameness but there’s a purity of vision and singleness of purpose that transcends such criticism. One senses that Gustavsen does what he does and the hell what anyone thinks, a quality of all great artists. That so many people find it both accessible and deeply moving is a side product, albeit a hugely rewarding one. 

The quartet will be touring in Germany in late March 2014 and also have a number of other European dates, including some festival appearances, later in the year. 

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