by Ian Mann
January 09, 2019
Gustavsen’s admirers will welcome this return to the trio format on an album that sees the pianist continuing to hone his very personal artistic vision and subtly developing a signature sound.
Tord Gustavsen Trio
“The Other Side”
(ECM Records, ECM 2608, Bar Code 675 1618)
“The Other Side” is the eighth album for the prestigious ECM label by the Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen. It marks a return to the classic piano format in which Gustavsen first announced himself to the world as a bandleader with 2003’s widely acclaimed label début “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 has explains 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 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.
“The Other Side” finds Gustavsen and Vespestad working alongside ‘new’ bassist Sigurd Hole. The album marks Hole’s recording début with the Gustavsen trio but he has working with the pianist since 2015 after replacing Eilertsen in the quartet. A bandleader in his own right Hole brings an additional folk influence to the trio which is perfectly suited to a programme that includes a number of traditional Norwegian hymn and folk tunes alongside the Gustavsen originals, plus the pianist’s arrangements of three compositions by J.S. Bach.
Gustavsen explains the reasoning behind the titling of the new album as follows;
“The title of The Other Side reflects multiple ideas, it also refers to the trio as being another side of music-making from the quartet and vocal explorations of recent years. Then there is also this idea in the title of the way the trio plays as being the other side of virtuosity, a kind of paradoxical virtuosity where you don’t play all the notes you can but merely the notes that are really needed,. It’s about subordinating your ego to the flow of the music – and that takes a kind of ‘radical listening’ – listen more than you play. That’s a passion the three of us share.”
The trio’s approach is exemplified by the gospel tinged opener “The Tunnel”, originally written by Gustavsen for to be played alongside spoken word performances at a literary festival in northern Norway. The piece was subsequently developed by the trio and the recorded version features Hole’s quietly virtuoso bass soloing alongside Gustavsen’s ‘less is more’ approach at the piano and Vespestad’s typically sympathetic and carefully detailed drumming.
It’s Hole’s unaccompanied double bass that introduces Gustavsen’s arrangement of “Kirken, den er et gammelt hus”, a chorale by the 19th century Norwegian composer and organist Ludvig Mathias Lindeman. Gustavsen adds a subtle element of electronica before moving to the piano to transform the mood of the piece from the impressionistic to the gently celebratory. “We’re interpreting the church music that I grew up with in an abstract way,” the pianist explains.
“Re-melt”, with its mesmeric melodic motifs and deep grooves was written as a “divergent response” to the chorales of Bach and Lindeman and has a compelling, low key intensity. There’s a real sense of Gustavsen and his colleagues fully immersing themselves in the music.
Although credited to Gustavsen the broodingly atmospheric “Duality” was largely improvised in the studio and features a haunting dialogue between the leader’s piano and Hole’s bass, first bowed then plucked, this subtly underpinned by Vespestad’s understated mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. It’s arguably the most freely structured piece that Gustavsen has ever recorded.
Gustavsen’s dramatic arrangement of the traditional Norwegian hymn tune “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro” sustains the mood and again features Hole’s highly effective arco playing.
The Gustavsen original “Taste And See” also features Hole both with and without the bow and deploys one of the composer’s most affecting melodies, obviously new but also somehow timeless, at various times reminiscent of a hymn, a folk tune or even a pop song. It’s an understated but beautiful duo performance, with Vespestad undetectable.
Nevertheless it’s the drummer who introduces Gustavsen’s arrangement of Bach’s “Schlafes Bruder”.and Vespestad remains a strong presence throughout. Jacques Loussier may remain the best known jazz interpreter of Bach but Gustavsen adopts a fundamentally different, more overtly spiritual approach, as he puts his own, unmistakably Nordic, stamp on Bach’s music, That said this arrangement also includes a strong element of American gospel, perhaps inspired by label mate Keith Jarrett.
The next piece combines Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude” with the traditional hymn tune “Jesus, det eneste”, building from the leader’s delicate solo piano introduction to embrace a gently simmering intensity featuring the intricate, but carefully balanced, interplay of the trio.
Gustavsen’s title track features one of his most attractive melodies and is the perfect embodiment of that phrase “Nordic Gospel Music” with its gently rolling gospel inspired melodies allied to a brooding Nordic lyricism. Like the closing “Curves” it was originally written for the quartet.
Gustavsen’s arrangement of the hymn “O Traurigkeit” represents the final dip into the Bach repertoire., It is given an adventurous reading that toys with the structure of the piece. Gustavsen’s intense, low end piano rumblings are complemented by grainy arco bass and Vespestad’s uncharacteristically busy drum and cymbal work.
Gustavsen’s “Left Over Lullaby No. 4” is another piece written as a “divergent response” to the chorale arrangements. At a little under two and a half minutes in duration its the shortest track on the album, a brief but captivating solo piano performance.
The closing “Curves” has been widely praised for capturing the group in microcosm with its beautiful melodies allied to understated, subtly virtuosic playing where every gesture is made to count. Hole impresses with a pizzicato bass solo, Gustavsen’s touch is gorgeously light and lyrical and Vespestad drums with great sensitivity, his brushes softly caressing the skins of his minimal drum kit.
In many ways these descriptions of the individual tracks that make up this album are superfluous. Gustavsen’s many fans across the globe will already know what this album will sound like, as will those detractors who denounce his work as bland and bloodless.
Gustavsen’s admirers will welcome this return to the trio format on an album that sees the pianist continuing to hone his very personal artistic vision, subtly developing a signature sound that was established very early on. It’s a process that drummer Bill Bruford has described as “polishing the diamond” and on this evidence Gustavsen’s gemstone continues to shine very brightly indeed.
Vespestad and Hole both make enormous contributions to the success of the album with Gustavsen saying of the new bassist;
“Sigurd also has a natural way of injecting modal Norwegian folk melodies into the music that makes the group’s connection to these roots stronger, The old Norwegian lullabies and dance forms find their way in now almost without us thinking about it.”
The trio is touring in Germany and Austria during January 2019. For details please visit;
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