by Ian Mann
March 15, 2016
I've seen Gustavsen play live several times over the years but this performance was probably the most compelling yet and Tander's singing was a revelation.
Tord Gustavsen / Simin Tander / Jarle Vespestad, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 11/03/2016.
Earlier in 2016 the Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen released “What was said”, his seventh album for the prestigious ECM label. The new recording represented something of a departure for Gustavsen as he introduced the world to a new trio featuring the talents of his long serving drummer Jarle Vespestad plus the extraordinary voice of the German/Afghan singer Simin Tander. The album is the subject of a detailed review elsewhere on this site.
Although Gustavsen has worked with vocalists before, notably Silje Neergard and Kristin Asbjornsen, “What was said” sees the human voice becoming more fully integrated into his music than ever before. The album also sees Gustavsen making subtle and discreet use of electronics, another departure from his hitherto all acoustic model.
However despite these seemingly radical changes the music to be heard on “What was said” is still unmistakably Gustavsen’s. The tangible air of spirituality that infuses all his recordings is more pronounced than ever, the nuances of the playing are even more subtle and beautiful as the pianist continues his personal odyssey into the realms where music and spirituality meet.
Gustavsen is the son of a Lutheran minister and his music has always been rooted in the church. His distinctive musical style seemed to arrive fully formed on his first ECM album, “Changing Places”. Many of his pieces were written in the minor keys endemic to the church music of his childhood but the brooding, solemn, Nordic characteristics of his sound were leavened by gospel and blues elements with their origins in the American South and beyond. There were rolling gospel vamps, Keith Jarrett style country blues and elements of township jazz that recalled Abdullah Ibrahim’s early work. It all made for a highly personalised style that proved to be remarkably accessible to a large number of listeners across Europe and beyond, making Gustavsen one of ECM’s most popular artists.
“What was said” finds Gustavsen taking a pan cultural look at music and spirituality. Many of the pieces are based on traditional Norwegian hymns, tunes that Gustavsen has described as “my standards, reaching deeper down in my musical and spiritual being than the typical jazz canon”. However Gustavsen has taken the radical step of having the lyrics of these tunes translated into the Pashto language by the Afghan poet B.Hamsaaya.
By way of contrast the album also includes settings of Coleman Barks’ English translations of the words of the Persian poet Jalal al- Din Rumi (1207-73). Gustavsen sees the overall process as “reaching into a space where I feel that Sufism and Christianity actually meet, along with other contemplative traditions”
Tonight’s event was the last British date of the trio’s still ongoing European tour and was a collaboration between the Jazzlines organisation based at Town Hall/Symphony Hall and the Frontiers Festival co-ordinated by Birmingham Conservatoire. Although not a total sell out a pleasingly sizeable audience saw Jazzlines’ Phil Woods introduce the trio before the lights dimmed and Gustavsen began to play. This was to be a single continuous performance with no interval, more than any other jazz performer I know Gustavsen has to psyche himself, become one with the music and generally ‘get in the zone’ before a performance. To have to go through this process twice in one evening would probably be too much.
Gustavsen regards Daniel Wold, the man behind the mixing desk as an integral part of the ensemble. Credited as “sound designer” Wold achieved a mix that was stunning in its clarity. As Peter Bacon observed in his review of this event for the Jazz Breakfast every brush of a piano key, the gentlest swish of a cymbal or the subtlest of vocal inflections could be heard perfectly. The quality of the sound was indeed integral in drawing listeners ever deeper into Gustavsen’s musical and spiritual world, the old cliché ‘less is more’ could have been invented for this trio as every note and nuance seemed to float on the air. Wold also undertook subtle treatments of the trio’s sound, notably the occasional dash of echo which he applied to Tander’s vocals.
The majority of the pieces performed were sourced from the “What was said” album commencing with “Sweet Melting”, a Norwegian hymn tune with lyrics translated into Pashto, the language spoken by Tander’s Afghan father. The singer has a German mother and is based in Cologne. She leads her own quartet and although unknown to me prior to her collaboration with Gustavsen she already seems to be establishing an impressive reputation in Europe, particularly in Germany and Holland. This current tour will win her many new admirers, particularly in the UK, for make no mistake Tander’s singing was a revelation. She was extremely accomplished technically but also invested the songs with a deep commitment that embraced both spirituality and sensuality, a charismatic performer in a striking red dress who augmented her singing with a series of understated yet dramatic hand gestures. The Pashto lyrics may have been indecipherable to English listeners yet their meaning was unmistakable and the sound of Tander’s voice undeniably beautiful. Tander combined brilliantly with her colleagues on this fusion of the Christian hymn and the Sufi poem, the words speaking of a melting, or union with the Divine.
Gustavsen’s setting of the Rumi poem “Your Grief” opens the album and it was introduced here by Gustavsen’s solo keyboard intro which included both acoustic piano and the most subtle and tasteful synthesiser colourings. Following Tander’s elegant singing of the English rhythms Gustavsen and Vespestad embarked on a lengthy duet, which I suspect was the instrumental piece “The Way You Play My Heart” from the new album. In the main Vespestad, always the master colourist, played an even more subtle and subdued role than usual in this concert. Gustavsen and Tander could function perfectly effectively as a duo but it’s always a pleasure to see Vespestad play, his understated colourations and embellishments with sticks, brushes or mallets plus his uncanny attention to detail always enhance a music where the smallest gesture can say so much.
Not quite all of the material played tonight was sourced from the new album. The Norwegian Folk tune “Sorrow And Joy” was a new piece for the trio and was positively sprightly by Gustavsen’s standards with Vespestad showing up particularly strongly with his rousing, martial rhythms and a closing extended drum feature. The inclusion of this piece plus a new Rumi translation on the theme of “Drowning” bodes well for the future of the trio. Gustavsen tends to think of his projects in terms of ‘trilogies’ following the release of three albums from his first trio and three more from his subsequent quartet. Gustavsen / Tander / Vespestad could well also be a project for the long haul.
Other set highlights included the Pashto version of the Norwegian hymn tune “Imagine The Fog Disappearing”, a song about clearing the emotional haze and being able to see clearly. This was a piece that included something approaching an orthodox piano solo but the song also made effective use of electronics, Gustavsen’s bass synth could sometimes almost be felt as much as heard. I was impressed by Gustavsen’s deployment of his new electronic tools, his set up has expanded since I last saw him in the summer of 2015 at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford but he uses his various devices with ultimate good taste to add extra colour and texture to what is already a very beautiful individual sound.
The Rumi poem “What Was Said To The Rose” , effectively the album’s title track, opened up from Gustavsen’s solo piano intro like a flower, reaching full bloom with Tander’s emotive vocal before seguing into “O Sacred Head”, a Norwegian hymn tune that formed the basis for an extended instrumental dialogue between Gustavsen and Vespestad.
“The Source Of Now”, another Gustavsen setting of a Rumi poem introduced something of the gospel flavourings that have enlivened Gustavsen’s previous work and included a dramatic vocal from Tander.
Even more dramatic was her singing on the Pashto version of “A Castle In Heaven”, a Norwegian hymn tune previously recorded by Gustavsen on his most recent quartet album “Extended Circle”. Featuring Gustavsen on both piano and electronics the piece built to an anthemic climax that featured some astonishingly powerful vocalising from Tander, this was music with the transformative power of Sufism, summoning up mental images of the famed whirling dervishes as the music built to a crescendo before falling into a gentle diminuendo featuring piano, voice and electronics. This piece had featured some of the most impassioned playing I’ve ever seen from Gustavsen and the audience, who had been rapt,, attentive and as quiet as church mice all evening suddenly erupted into sustained applause.
Gustavsen and Tander returned as a duo to perform a deserved encore, Gustavsen’s setting of the American poet Kenneth Rexroth’s “ I Refuse”. The recorded version is one of the album’s highlights but if anything this intimate duo version with Tander’s sensual vocal shadowed by Gustavsen’s feathery piano touch was even more beautiful.
“What was said” represented a brave change of direction for Tord Gustavsen but the acclaim that has greeted both the album and the concert performances on this current tour suggest that this is an experiment that has worked brilliantly. I’ve seen Gustavsen play live several times over the years in both piano trio and quartet formats but this performance was probably the most compelling yet, possibly because it was so different to anything he’s done before yet still a perfect and logical continuation of his previous work.
As Peter Bacon observed when 2016 comes to a close and it’s time to compile the ‘best of year’ lists both the album and tonight’s gig are going to be right up there.
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