Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

July 22, 2022


Gustavsen established a singular sound with his début and his style remains unique and unmistakable.

Tord Gustavsen Trio


(ECM Records ECM 2742, Bar Code 454 0243)

Tord Gustavsen – piano, electronics, Steinar Raknes – double bass, electronics, Jarle Vespestad – drums

A slightly belated review for “Opening”, the latest album from pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen, a recording that was first released in February 2022.

“Opening” represents Gustavsen’s ninth album as a leader and like all its predecessors it appears on the prestigious German label ECM Records. It introduces a new bass player, Steinar Raknes, and extends his experiments with electronics, something that began with the 2016 album “What was said”.

In early 2019 I reviewed Gustavsen’s then latest album “The Other Side”, his first recording for a number of years to be delivered in the classic piano / bass/ drums trio format. My overview of Gustavsen’s career to date is lifted directly from that review;

“Gustavsen first announced himself to the world as a bandleader with 2003’s widely acclaimed trio recording “Changing Places”.

Gustavsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen had first worked together accompanying the Norwegian vocalist and songwriter Silje Nergaard, but it was “Changing Places” that established the trio as a hugely successful international jazz act in their own right.

Gustavsen’s 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 Ground” even topped the Norwegian pop charts.

in 2009 Gustavsen expanded the group to an “Ensemble” as Mats Eilertsen replaced Johnsen on the double bass 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. Johnsen’s departure had been occasioned by ill health and the bassist died of a heart attack at the tragically early age of forty one in 2011.

Gustavsen’s regular working group now became a quartet featuring himself, Vespestad, Eilertsen and Brunborg and this unit released the all instrumental albums “The Well”(2012) and “Extended Circle” (2014).

Gustavsen has stated that he regards the three trio recordings and the three essentially quartet albums as separate, thematically linked trilogies. He then pursued another direction as he and Vespestad were joined by the Afghan/German vocalist Simin Tander for 2016’s “What was said”, a beautiful album that was still very much a Tord Gustavsen record but which featured the human voice more fully than ever before, whilst simultaneously introducing a soupçon of discreet and tasteful electronica.

Gustavsen has toured widely in the UK and I have had the pleasure of seeing him perform live on several occasions with both the original piano trio and the subsequent quartet and also with the Vespestad and Tander trio. I’ve also been fortunate enough to talk with him and with the various group members, all pleasant, unassuming but hugely talented musicians.

On the ECM website Gustavsen explained his decision to return to the piano trio format thus;
“After Harald was forced to leave I didn’t want to just continue the trio with another bassist, Then the quartet I had with Jarle, saxophonist Tore Brunborg and bassist Mats Eilertsen felt so strong that it demanded its own cycles of recording and touring. After that, we did like to explore new songs with electronics and vocals. But following all this, it seemed like the time to bring the piano back as the lead voice. This new version of the trio feels in line with the initial group, even as it exists on another wavelength – it would have to, as it somehow includes all that came in between those first records and now.”

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 “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.

His music has always been calm and unhurried and has always had a tangible air of spirituality about it that has transcended the trio and quartet formats that he has worked in over the last decade or so. His music is particularly effective at making use of space and is perfectly suited to the ECM aesthetic and the label’s emphasis on a pristine recorded sound, a quality insisted upon by producer and label founder Manfred Eicher. Gustavsen’s output for the label has found him gradually honing his craft with each album representing a subtle artistic progression while remaining true to the core Gustavsen sound that was so distinctively established on his début.”

“Opening” continues the journey documented on Gustavesen’s previous releases and features twelve pieces of music, all of them relatively brief and mostly composed by the pianist.

Opening track “The Circle” has a distinct hymnal quality and features the composer’s characteristically meditative and unhurried playing style. As ever Vespestad’s accompaniment is immaculate, sparse and sympathetic but imbued with subtle and delightful sonic details. Raknes, the fourth player to fill the double bass role in Gustavsen’s groups is immediately in tune with the leader’s aesthetic and his pizzicato playing is suitably empathic. Norway seems to produce a never ending stream of brilliant bass players, from Arild Andersen through to Raknes.
On the ECM website Gustavsen says of this opening piece;
“I was sitting at the piano and the first four bars just came to me. I worked out and developed the remaining structure deliberately, but more and more I find that the best tunes I’ve written over the years basically just came to me, like gifts. I then have the responsibility to shape the gift, make it grow and turn it into a complete piece”.

“Findings” is largely improvised and commences with the gentle rumble of Vespestad’s drums, subsequently joined by double bass and a whisper of discrete electronica. Gustavsen’s piano joins the equation for a passage of largely rubato instrumental interplay. The closing stages of the track incorporate a quote from the traditional Swedish folk tune “Visa fran Rattvik”, which Gustavsen first heard on a record by the hugely influential Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson, who was justly lauded for first introducing elements of Scandinavian folk music into jazz. Gustavsen explains its inclusion thus;
“I’ve been learning many of his arrangements by heart, just as an exercise, and that influence is in evidence here“. 

The title track continues the trio’s subtle instrumental interplay, emerging from a ruminative passage of solo piano to embrace almost subliminal arco bass and the soft rumble of mallets and the shimmer of cymbals. As with so much of Gustavsen’s music it’s densely atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful.

This is very much a trio where ‘less is more’, as evidenced by the lyrical hymn like cadences of “The Longing” which places Raknes’ melodic bass playing closer to the fore.

“Shepherd Song” is one of the lengthiest pieces on the album and unfolds in typically meditative and unhurried fashion. The interplay between the three instrumentalists is intimate and finely detailed, the resultant group sound utterly distinctive and a real team effort, despite the recent change in line up.

Gustavsen describes “Helensburgh Tango” as “the subtle deconstruction of a dance - to the point where it almost doesn’t qualify as a tango any more”. Typically haunting and atmospheric the piece features the beautiful arco playing of Raknes alongside the crystalline piano of the leader and the inherently musical drumming of Vespestad.

Raknes also features with the bow on “Re-Opening” which exhibits very similar qualities. With reference to this particular piece Gustavsen describes his trio’s working methods throughout this album thus;
“ Like ‘Re-opening’, most songs have prescribed harmonic changes and general shapes, but when to move from one chord or section to the next isn’t pre-composed, but decided between us, in the spur of the moment”.

“Findings II” is another example of a piece of music that is essentially improvised with Gustavsen commenting;
“I really enjoy building these miniatures — it’s something we often do in live situations. It’s about creating a shape, not about free improv in the sense of showing everything you’re capable of doing”.
The music is freely structured but is less aggressive than much free jazz, still putting the focus on atmosphere and beauty and fitting neatly into the overall Gustavsen / ECM aesthetic.

The ballad “Stream” places a greater reliance on composition and includes a melodic pizzicato double bass solo from Raknes with Gustavsen observing;
“Though seemingly counter-intuitive, in the studio our interplay grew densest during Steinar’s solo, then we move into a collective crescendo – both spontaneous decisions that really shed a different light on the track.” 

“Ritual” finds Raknes taking the lead again, this time with the bow, his electronically enhanced sound sometimes reminiscent of E.S.T’s Dan Berglund. Gustavsen concentrates on low end duties, sometimes dampening the strings and also adding a little discrete electronica. As such it’s one of the album’s most distinctive tracks.

The album closes with two pieces of ‘outside material’.First we hear “Floytelat” (translation “The Flute”), written by the Norwegian composer Geirr Tveit. Ushered in by Vespestad’s exquisite cymbal work the trio deploy the folk like melody as a source of subtle improvisation, with a soupçon of electronica augmenting the piano / bass / drum interplay and adding a haunting, ghostly quality to the music.

Finally we hear “Vaer Sterk, min sjel”, a hymn written by Egil Hovland and sourced from the Norske Salmebok or Norwegian Hymnal. The trio treat it with appropriate reverence in a beautifully serene performance led by the piano and featuring Vespestad’s delicate brushwork and Raknes’ melodic double bass.

As an album “Opening” is a very worthy addition to the Gustavsen canon. Admittedly there are no major surprises here and if you’ve heard a Tord Gustavsen album before you’ll know pretty much what to expect, but that’s not to say that the album is in any way disappointing.

Gustavsen established a singular sound with his début, now nearly twenty years ago, and his style remains unique and unmistakable. Subsequent albums have found him refining his sound, a process that I have described as “polishing the diamond”, a phrase borrowed from drummer Bill Bruford.

Nevertheless each recording has been subtly different with this latest offering placing a greater emphasis on collective improvisation, but still within the parameters of the very distinctive Tord Gustavsen sound. This album also continues Gustavsen’s subtle experiments with electronics and deploys more bowed bass than usual.

However despite the numerous changes in the bass chair over the years the group sound remains essentially unchanged. But it’s impossible to think of a Gustavsen group without Jarle Vespestad, his delicate, minimal, inherently musical playing takes the art of the drum ‘colourist’ to new heights and truly is a thing of wonder and beauty.

“Opening” will delight Gustavsen’s many fans, of which I consider myself one, but will do nothing to alter the opinions of those who might consider his music to be ‘bloodless’. But such is the single mindedness of Gustavsen’s vision that I suspect that he pays any detractors little mind. Also one should not forget that for all its ‘prettiness’ and accessibility there’s also a quiet intensity and a subtle rigour about Gustavsen’s music that helps to make it truly unique. Long may he continue to “polish the diamond”.


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