Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

February 18, 2016


Gustavsen's most personal and spiritual album to date, and in many respects his most ambitious.

Tord Gustavsen with Simin Tander & Jarle Vespestad

“What was said”

ECM Records (ECM 2465, Bar Code 475 8697)

The Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen has recorded an impressive body of work for ECM commencing in 2002 with the trio album Changing Places” recorded with drummer Jarle Vespestad and the late bassist Harald Johnsen. This same line up went on to record “The Ground” (2004) and “Being There” (2007) before the tragically early death of Johnsen from a heart attack at the age of forty one forced Gustavsen into a change of direction.

Subsequent albums have featured a core quartet of Gustavsen, Vespestad, bassist Mats Eilertsen and tenor/soprano saxophonist Tore Brunborg. 2009’s “Restored Returned” was followed by “The Well” (2012) and “Extended Circle” (2014).

Gustavsen has spoken of how he regards the three trio albums and the three quartet albums as two separate “trilogies”. Thus 2016 sees Gustavsen again finding a new direction for his work while still maintaining essential links to his illustrious past. The faithful Vespestad remains in the drum chair and the music continues to explore the elements of spirituality that have informed Gustavsen’s work since the début.

The pianist 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, elements of township jazz that recalled Abdullah Ibrahim’s early work and overall a very tangible air of spirituality.

“What Was Said” takes that element of spirituality a stage further with many of the pieces based on Norwegian hymns, tunes that Gustavsen describes as “my standards, reaching deeper down in my musical and spiritual being than the typical jazz canon”. But as with his previous work with its gospel and blues elements Gustavsen again looks for a wider world view and has enlisted the services of the Afghan/German vocalist Simin Tander. In a sense the new album therefore represents a resumption of the experiments begun on “Restored, Returned” which featured guest vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen singing settings of the poems of W.H.Auden.

For “What was said” Gustavsen and Tander have been working with the Afghan poet B.Hamsaaya translating and shaping a number of the Norwegian hymns that Gustavsen grew up with into the Pashto language. By way of contrast Tander sings three of Coleman Barks’ English translations of the words of the Persian poet Jalal al- Din Rumi (1207-73). Gustavsen sees the process as “reaching into a space where I feel that Sufism and Christianity actually meet, along with other contemplative traditions”. The programme also includes Tander’s singing of the words of the American ‘proto-beat’ poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82).

Although instantly recognisable as a Tord Gustavsen album “What was said” also represents something of a radical departure for the Norwegian. This is essentially a vocal record that contains more singing than any previous Gustavsen release and it also introduces an element of electronica to what has previously been an exclusively acoustic music. For the past eighteen months Gustavsen has been using a Moog system that allows him to trigger computer based sounds and samples from the acoustic piano.  In the summer of 2015 I saw him making effective use of this technology at a quartet concert held at All Saints Church, Hereford as part of the Three Choirs Festival.

On “What was said” Gustavsen is also credited with bass synthesiser and throughout the album he makes typically judicious and tasteful use of these new electronic discoveries. He speaks of “the warmth and sustain of a synth pad with the minimalism of a single piano line on top” and of “casting a euphonic halo around a piece, deepening the atmosphere”. Gustavsen uses his electronics in a very human and totally discrete and unobtrusive way, one that always serves the music faithfully.

The decision to record the album without a bass player arose not because of Gustavsen’s embrace of electronics but because of an incident when Gustavsen and Vespestad were obliged to play a gig in Paris as a duo after a plane cancellation deprived them of the services of Eilertsen and Brunborg.  The performance was a success and opened up new areas of possibility on the drum kit even for the already supremely expressive Vespestad. It was decided to continue with the experiment during the recording of this album which has resulted in yet another sublime example of Vespestad’s low key brilliance.

Meanwhile Simin Tander, born in Cologne to an Afghan journalist father and a German mother has attracted attention on the European jazz scene for her innovative vocalising in English, Pashto and her own invented languages. Gustavsen speaks of her as being “both a soloistic interpreter of melody and an ensemble member, singing accompanying motifs and contributing to improvisations in which the three of us are equals in terms of sharing ideas. She has a unique way of improvising, finding sounds that really work, staying with them, developing them very gradually. She has a discipline that really appeals to me and Jarle”.
She is certainly a highly accomplished vocalist from a technical standpoint and also brings a welcome element of warmth and sensuality to Gustavsen’s sometimes austere music.

The album begins with the melancholy “Your Grief”and Tander singing Barks’ English translation of Rumi’s words delicately supported by Gustavsen’s sparse and sensitive piano accompaniment and Gustavsen’s minimal but atmospheric drum colorations, an accent on the tom here, a cymbal scrape there.

The Norwegian hymn “I See You” offers the first example of Gustavsen’s low key electronica alongside Tander’s wordless vocal improvising. She sings the lyric in Pashto, a language impenetrable to Western ears but invoking the same sense of beauty and mystery that Gaelic singers such as Julie Fowlis are capable of producing. Speaking of the lyrical content of this record Gustavsen has said;
“This is a devotional project and the way in which the words transcend the boundaries between forms and traditions is important for me. But it’s also fully OK to approach it as a pure musical experience. The sounds have texture and content. For anyone who wants to dive deeper the lyrics and translations are there, but this is not the kind of music where you HAVE to read in order to listen”.

“Imagine The Fog Disappearing” is another Norwegian hymn tune with music by Mathilda Montgomery-Cederhiem and words by Wilhelm Andreas Wexels. Tander sings it in Pashto, her sensuous vocal conveys a wealth of emotion and spirituality and is deeply moving. The intimacy of her performance is superbly complemented by Gustavsen and Vespestad who both shine on the extended instrumental passage in the middle of the tune. In lesser hands this piece might have descended into a dirge, instead it’s utterly beautiful.

The traditional Norwegian hymn “A Castle In Heaven” was first tackled by the Gustavsen quartet on the “Extended Circle” album. It’s an undeniably beautiful tune that is cast in a new light here with Tander singing the Pashto translation of Bernt Stoylen’s words.

Another traditional Norwegian hymn, “Journey Of Life” completes a quartet of such tunes sung in Pashto. It’s introduced by a passage of solo drums from Vespestad who then sensitively shadows Tander’s vocal before Gustavsen’s piano joins the proceedings for an extended instrumental passage that includes the sounds of wordless vocals, dampened piano strings and drums played with bare hands. Subtle, organ like electronics are also included plus a wider selection of drum sounds on a lengthy coda. The arrangement is credited to the trio which suggests a degree of group improvisation within the structure of the piece.

Two items sung in English come next beginning with “I Refuse”, Gustavsen’s setting of the words of the American poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82). The widely travelled Rexroth was an influence on Allen Ginsberg and the Beats but later disassociated himself from that movement. His words here speak of stoicism and a defiance of the past and are sung with great dignity by Tander with Gustavsen and Vespestad offering characteristically sympathetic support.

Similar qualities are brought to “What Was Said To The Rose”, a second Barks translation of the poetry of Rumi. Gustavsen’s setting is segued with an instrumental interpretation of Leo Hassler’s hymn “O Sacred Head” featuring the quiet intensity of a lengthy instrumental dialogue between Gustavsen and Vespestad.

This is further extended by two entirely instrumental pieces by Gustavsen, “The Way You Play My Heart” and “Rull” that recall the music of the trio with Johnsen. Even without the anchoring presence of a double bass the understanding between Gustavsen and Vespestad is almost telepathic and these pieces allow the listener to fully appreciate the drummer’s skills as an improviser and a colourist.

Tander returns for “The Source Of Now, singing in English on Gustavsen’s final Rumi setting. The poet’s life affirming, image rich words are given sensual voice by Tander with the elegant accompaniment of Gustavsen’s hymnal piano and the feather light touch of Vespestad’s brushes.

“Sweet Melting” is the last of the Pashto translations of Norwegian traditional hymns,  a song whose words speak of transcendence and of a union with God. At the risk of mixing religious metaphors there is a Zen like calm and beauty about it.

The traditional Norwegian hymn tune “Longing To Praise Thee” features Tander’s wordless vocals (it still sounds as if she’s saying something but in this case no translation is provided) in conversation with Gustavsen’s piano and the shimmer of Vespestad’s cymbals. The arrangement is credited to the trio, again suggesting a strong element of collective improvisation.

The album concludes with “Sweet Melting Afterglow” which begins with the improvised “Afterglow”, credited to Gustavsen/Tander/Vesperstad which continues the discussion via voice, the sound of soft mallets on cymbals and an atmospheric, organ like electronic drone. A passage of solo piano leads to a short alternative take on “Sweet Melting” with Tander again singing in Pashto.

“What was said” represents Gustavsen’s most personal and spiritual album to date, and in many respects it’s also his most ambitious. It’s further removed from conventional jazz than any of his previous albums and while its possible that the devotional nature of the project and the underlying air of religiosity may deter some listeners the undeniable beauty of the music should ensure that the majority of Gustavsen’s audience, a very sizeable one in jazz terms, will continue to walk with him on his continuing musical and spiritual journey.

Despite Gustavsen’s comments being able to read the words does enhance one’s appreciation of the music and ECM are to be congratulated for including them among the typically elegant album packaging. Indeed the quiet intensity of this recording makes it an ideal project for ECM with Manfred Eicher’s characteristically fastidious production capturing every nuance of the music. The experiments with vocals and electronica work very well and “What was said” is easily as satisfying as any of Gustavsen’s instrumental albums. 

One would imagine that seeing this music performed live by the trio would be an utterly compelling and spellbinding experience. UK audiences will get the opportunity to find out for themselves when Gustavsen, Tander and Vespestad undertake a short tour of the country in March 2016. Dates are as follows; 


UK Tour + Munich

03: Southampton, UK - Turner Sims Concert Hall
04: Edinburgh, UK - The Queen’s Hall
06: Oxford, UK - St.John the Evangelist (Tickets on sale Jan 2016 via
08: Bury St. Edmunds, UK - The Apex
09: Munich, Germany - Muffathalle
10: Bristol, UK - St. George’s
11: Birmingham, UK - CBSO Centre / Jazzlines

blog comments powered by Disqus