by Ian Mann
March 23, 2012
Ian Mann enjoys a memorable live performance by the Tord Gustavsen Quartet and examines their new ECM album "The Well".
Tord Gustavsen Quartet, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 20/03/2012.
Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen seemed to appear on the international jazz scene more or less fully formed with his breakthrough trio recording for ECM “Changing Places” (2002). His unique brand of “Nordic gospel music” earned him almost pop star status in his native country and an eager international jazz following, something consolidated by two hugely successful follow up albums “The Ground” (2004) and “Changing Places” (2007). The three Gustavsen trio albums featuring bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad rate among ECM’s most popular releases but in 2009 Gustavsen expanded the group to an “Ensemble” as Mats Eilertsen replaced Johnsen on the double bass (more on that later) and Tore Brunborg joined on tenor and soprano saxophones. The resultant album “Restored, Returned” also featured the vocals of Kristin Asbjornsen on settings of the poetry of W.H. Auden. However the core quartet remains Gustavsen’s current working band and his current ECM release “The Well” marks a return to an all instrumental programme credited to the Tord Gustavsen Quartet.
My personal history with the band goes back to the 2005 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when I saw the trio performing as the backing group to Norwegian jazz/pop chanteuse Silje Neergard. Once I eventually managed to look beyond Ms. Neergard’s considerable charms (vocal and otherwise, my mate Paul’s eyes were out on stalks) to the dark suited gentlemen beyond it was obvious that this was a highly accomplished unit who would be well worth seeing in their own right. I was already aware of their instrumental work through occasional sightings on Radio 3’s Late Junction programme where they remain popular to this day. Indeed it is this regular exposure on a national radio station that has done much to establish Gustavsen in the UK, a country he tours regularly and certainly far more frequently than the majority of ECM’s other European acts. He seems to rather like it here, a tendency encouraged by the work of his UK agent Olwen Richards of the Sounds Now agency who was present for this evening’s concert.
Later in 2005 I saw the trio give an intimate performance at the Garrick Theatre, Lichfield as part of the city’s festival. This was good but was surpassed by their first visit to The Edge in 2007, a magical performance which found me seated only inches away from Vespestad’s minimalist drum kit. You could see and hear every tiny detail of the music with the utmost clarity. Quite, quite wonderful.
Fast forward to 2009 and the quartet at St. Georges’, Bristol. Much of the material came from the “Restored, Returned” album and seemed particularly well suited to the St. Georges’ acoustic (for those who don’t know it’s a former church successfully converted to an arts centre). I’ll be honest I didn’t miss Asbjornsen’s vocal contribution and found her rather a distraction on the album.
Last year Gustavsen brought the quartet to Cheltenham Jazz Festival to perform new music commissioned by the festival, much of which subsequently appeared on the new release “The Well”. Perhaps it was the mid afternoon time slot or perhaps the vastness of Cheltenham Town Hall but I missed the intimacy of previous performances and found much of the music curiously soporific, a view that some other reviewers seemed to share. Having said that Gustavsen has always had his detractors who decry his music as too cool, too simplistic, too bloodless etc. It’s not a view that I’ve previously shared but on this occasion, for the first time, I was disappointed. Initial listens to “The Well” only seemed to confirm my suspicions and I approached Gustavsen’s second appearance at The Edge in a sceptical frame of mind. What ensued turned my opinions upside down as Gustavsen and his colleagues produced another quite brilliant performance at this venue, captivating the audience totally and causing me to totally re-evaluate my feelings concerning the new album.
Gustavsen remains a considerable draw in this part of Shropshire and for the first time since the new Edge complex was opened a couple of years ago the concert was relocated to a larger performance space seating around 180, some of whom had travelled considerable distances. The gig seemed to be a total sell out and the audience gave them a quite wonderful reception.
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.
Sine my last sighting of the quartet at Cheltenham they seem to have undergone several subtle musical developments. Brunborg, who appeared exclusively on tenor here despite having his soprano with him on stage, seems to have become more integrated into the group sound-he appeared to be a little detached from the rest of the group at Cheltenham. The earlier performance also found me commenting upon a lack of contrast and dynamics in the group’s music but tonight there were some distinctly up tempo moments (by Gustavsen’s standards anyway) and the musicians looked as if they were actually having fun, a nod of the head here, a wry smile there, with moments of low key funkiness offsetting any perceived solemnity. There were even instances when Gustavsen stood up to play, brief moments of almost Jarrett-like abandon, on other occasions his well heeled foot could be heard stamping out time on the stage.
For the most part though the music was deeply contemplative, spiritual even with Gustavsen describing the mood and structure of the performance as “liturgical”. The evening began with Gustavsen solo at the piano with Vespestad subsequently joining him for the softest of piano/drum duets. The pianist then picked out a typically delicate and beautiful melodic motif, gradually imbuing it with that underlying gospel feel as bassist Eilertsen also entered the proceedings. After a further passage of solo piano Brunborg’s breathy tenor was seamlessly added to the group sound. Brunborg has often seemed in thrall to that elder statesman of Norwegian jazz Jan Garbarek but tonight he sounded less like his mentor than ever before, adopting a softer, more rounded tone than Garbarek’s distinctive, often keening signature sound. He sounded all the better for it, much more his own man but also much more a part of the group.
From “The Well” (where it appears in two versions) “Communion” teamed Brunborg’s thin, spectral tenor with Vespestad’s ghostly hand drums and cymbal scrapes. The drummer is very much a painter in sound, each carefully considered strike of drum or cymbal conveying a myriad of information. Vespestad’s minimalist, supremely musical approach to drumming is as essential to the group sound as Gustavsen himself. He never wastes a beat and in his role here deserves to be considered one of the great percussive colourists of contemporary music. For all this Vespestad is a supremely versatile and imaginative musician as his one time membership of the uncompromising and sometimes abrasive electro-improvising trio Supersilent suggests. He also plays with the irreverent Balkan style combo Farmers Market, led by accordionist Stian Carstensen.
“Intuition” included delightfully delicate interplay between Gustavsen and Brunborg delicately supported by Vespestad’s brushed drums and the purr of Eilertsen’s bass. A new arrangement of “Being There” added Brunborg’s lyrical upper register tenor sax to the “Nordic gospel” sound of a piece originally recorded by the trio.
A brace of new tunes, one of which had only been previously played at soundchecks found their way into the set and revealed that Gustavsen’s flair for melody remains as strong as ever. The first saw Brunborg adopting a harder edged, more Garbarek like sound for the only time. The later “world premi?re” opened with wisps of tenor sax above minimalist piano before opening out into something much more joyous and gospel like. Vespesetad was able to really whack his kit for the first time, his grin indicating at just how much he was enjoying this rare chance to cut relatively loose.
Eilertsen, a band leader in his own right with a trio of excellent albums on the Norwegian Hubro label (“Elegy”, “Radio Yonder” and SkyDive”) is an excellent addition to the group. A superb soloist and accompanist in the pizzicato style he is also hugely adept with the bow using it to both stroke and strike the strings. His solo arco feature introduced the quartet’s playful arrangement of a Norwegian folk dance and was delivered with virtuosity and a huge sense of fun -at one point I though he was going to play the bass riff from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” . His use of echo effects had me looking around for a foot pedal but it transpired that his sound was being subtly treated by Solheim, the engineer justifying Gustavsen’s description of him as the “fifth member of the group” and recalling Ake Linton’s contribution to the sound of E.S.T.
The tune itself saw the quartet at their least inhibited with Gustavsen damping the strings as he built up a groove which underwent several transformations of meter as Brunborg dug in for his most unfettered solo of the evening. This was very different to anything the group had offered at Cheltenham and the show was altogether better for this injection of pace and variety.
The show closed with “Inside”, the final track on “The Well”. This included a quite beautifully constructed Vespestad drum solo, possibly the quietest you’ve ever heard but a masterclass in nuance, texture and layering with its dramatic mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Vespestad never lost sight of the melody to follow and his carefully controlled dynamics were a perfect example of the creation and release of tension. Without resorting to pyrotechnics he held the hall totally spellbound. I was impressed. The tune itself is archetypal Gustavsen, a musician who has found success on his own terms and without any hint of compromise in his artistic vision. Gustavsen’s music may be too cool and studied for some but the pianist’s attitude seems to be “this is what I do, take or leave it”. Many have emphatically chosen to take it and none more so tonight as the always attentive and appreciative Edge audience rose to give them a standing ovation.
The quartet returned for the obligatory encore, moving things up a gear after the atmospheric “Inside”. The response to this was another rapturous display of enthusiasm from the audience and a second standing ovation. The group returned a second time, something that doesn’t happen very often I suspect, and gently calmed the audience down with a delicately lyrical coda. Speaking to delighted promoter Alison Vermee after the show saxophonist Tore Brunborg declared that the quartet had been “overwhelmed by the audience reaction” and to my mind there was no doubting the fact that for both band and audience this show had been an “event”.
This superb live performance has caused me to return to “The Well” for some serious re-consideration. It’s a low key but frequently very beautiful album and I found myself more able to appreciate its understated charm after having seen several of the pieces performed so well in concert. Gustavsen’s legion of admirers will no doubt take the album’s lyrical attributes to their hearts. If you’ve enjoyed his previous works the chances are that you’ll like this although some reviewers have commented that they miss the more self contained environment of the trio.
My thanks to Mats Eilertsen for our illuminating chat after the show and for the gift of his trio album “Elegy” (Hubro, 2009) recorded with Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje and Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen, the bassist’s one time colleague in the group Food (with trumpeter Arve henriksen and English saxophonist Iain Ballamy).
Sadly this review has to end on a sad note. On researching this article I learnt of the death of original bassist Harald Johnsen from a heart attack in July 2011. Apparently his departure from the group and subsequent replacement by Mats Eilertsen had been forced by ill health. Unfortunately the sad news of Harald’s death slipped below my radar and only now can I offer my condolences to his family and friends. I was lucky enough to meet Harald when the trio played at The Edge in 2007 and he was particularly attentive to my friend Steve’s then young son Edward, a budding musician.
Harald Johnsen was a genuinely nice man and a fine musician and will no doubt be greatly missed.
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