Tord Gustavsen Quartet RNCM 21st October 2009
Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen has emerged without great fanfare during the early noughties as one of Scandinavia’s and more generally Europe’s finest jazz musicians, quietly consolidating his growing body of work. Indeed Gustavsen’s minimalist style is ideally suited to the ECM label with which he has become closely associated and the chamber-jazz sub-genre that defines much (if not necessarily all) of the ECM catalogue. It is the echo-laden production of ECM founder Manfred Eicher allied to the distinctive sparse album covers that makes the label such a collector’s and listener’s delight. The label has proven to be the ideal home for Gustavsen where he has recorded three highly acclaimed trio albums, ‘Changing Places’ (2003), ‘The Gound’ (2005) and ‘Being There’ (2007). What is particularly interesting about tonight’s proceedings is that Gustavsen has extended the previous intimacy to a new quartet setting introducing new member multi-reedist Tore Brunborg as illustrated on the latest recording, the excellent ‘Restored, Returned’ (2009).
It is the apparent simplicity of Gustavsen’s playing that first strikes the listener and in terms of influence one can hear that the Norwegian has taken on board the romanticism of Bill Evans, the lyricism of Keith Jarrett and possibly even the spatial freedom that Brad Melhdau practices. Among his contemporaries in Scandinavia fellow label mate Bobo Stenson and the late great Esbjorn Svensson are conjured up without in any way being derivative of them. A delicate piano solo greets the audience for the opening piece before Brunborg enters gently on tenor, recalling Jan Garbarek at his most melodic. Gustavsen is a fascinating figure to watch, hunched up over the piano keys and engaging in a hypnotic riff, very ably assisted by the rhythm section. Thunderous applause at the end of this first number and a bow from the leader is followed by a softly spoken rap to introduce the quartet members. Gustavsen alternates between solo piano and piano-saxophone duet intros, and on the latter engages in a simple folkloric melody that gradually builds in intensity. Sometimes the pianist drops out altogether, before re-entering in order to re-emphasize the riff as on the delightful ‘Left over lullaby no. 1’, though minus vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen as on the CD. On other occasions he builds a vamp as the level of sound increases, or plucks the piano blocks to create a different sound. Occasionally Gustavsen improvises freely as the rhythm section maintains its rhythm, even standing sideways to achieve a specific sound. A good deal of credit for the cohesive ensemble sound must go to the two members of the rhythm section, bassist Mats Eilersten and drummer Jarle Vespsted. The latter, currently leader of a quartet featuring Manchester’s very own John Taylor, must surely be one of the most sensitive jazz accompanists on the planet and even when towards the end has his own solo, it is of the most delicate type imaginable before seemlessly re-integrating the ensemble. The former, who has recorded and toured on and off with Gustavsen, alternating with long-term trio member Harald Johnsen, provides a steady groove throughout and often uses a bow to compliment Gustavsen’s solos.
One of the most pleasing features of the ensemble is the degree of individual space band members have in which to flourish. This is certainly no group of major egos. Saxophonist Tore Brunborg alternates between the warm tenor and the higher-pitched baby alto which creates a more plaintive sound, recalling Wayne Shorter on soprano. When staying out of proceedings, he moves to the back of the stage before returning to the centre. This reminds one of the mid-nineteen-sixties Miles Davis quintet on stage. Gustavsen is extremely sensitive to everyday sounds and on one piece seemingly replicates the trickle of rain. In general when taking solos, the pianist explores the variation of a given theme, sometimes inspired by impressionistic music from the classical field and other times laying down blues-inflected licks. On another the ensemble are almost funereal in tone, but this is more a Scandinavian mourning than a New Orleans one. Brunborg caresses the tenor displaying a soulfulness Johnny Hodges would have been proud of and Gustavsen samples ‘The shadow of your smile’ in his solo. In fact Gustavsen is at his most Evanesque here. The addition of a saxophonist, far from subduing Gustavsen, seems to have stimulated even greater musical ideas and freedom with the latter inspired by the reed instrument and either embellishing the theme stated on either tenor or baby alto, or conversely playing sparses chords. By the final piece the quartet are in full swing with wailing tenor and Gustavsen setting off on another improvisatory roll. Rapturous continued applause from a very appreciative audience results in an encore with the band returning and being re-introduced before a short, contemplative rendition brings the evening to a quiet ending. This is simply music ideally designed for reflective, nocturnal listening. Catch the met the London Jazz Festival in November if you can. Tim Stenhouse