Tord Gustavsen ‘What Was Said’ (ECM) 4/5

tord-gustavsenNorwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen came to prominence in the noughties with a succession of superbly crafted and intimate piano trio and quartet recordings and, in some respects at least, has occupied part of the mantel where the late Esbjorn Svensson’s untimely passing left a gaping chasm. However, for this latest album Gustavsen has made a major departure from his normal sound in two notable respects. First of all, while he retains a trio format, it is a trio with a difference. No bassist this time round, though long-time drummer Jarle Vespestad remains, with instead the inclusion of a vocalist, which adds the new element of the human voice and one predominantly in a language most listeners will be unfamiliar with. Secondly, the pianist has been eager to explore Norwegian church hymns, but have them translated both into the Afghan language of Pashto. For Gustavsen the songs that he heard and grew up with as a child represent his own standards in the same way that US jazz singers familiarised themselves with the Great America songbook. If translating from Norwegian into Pashto comes seems overly ambitious and unusually complicated, the results are certainly pleasing on the ear and to these ears comes across as an attempt at recapturing some of the ambience of the early 1970s ‘Blue’ album by Joni Mitchell. This is perfectly illustrated on a song such as ‘Your grief’. German-Afghan singer Simin Tander is still at an early stage in her career and possesses a soft-sounding voice that lends itself to sparse accompaniment and could be compared to Mitchell in tone, if not in compositional talent. The leader has been extending the range of textured instrumentation over the last eighteen months and, here, incorporates moog-tinged samples and sound effects that are more commonly associated with electronica music. It should be stressed, though, that the multi-keyboardist uses this panoply of sounds in a restricted and tasteful manner.

If, overall, the inclusion of songs makes the album more concise than per usual, for this writer the ones that work best are those which are longer and enable Gustavsen to revert from background accompanist to soloist. This is the case of ‘Journey of life’ where the second half of the near seven and a half minute piece is devoted entirely to minimalist soloing of the pianist while in the first subtle electronica provides the backdrop to Tander’s ad-lib vocals.
In places, Gustavsen’s participation is relegated to a secondary role and he comes across more as a devotee of Erik Satie than as a jazz pianist. That said, the austere delivery of ‘Imagine the fog disappearing’ features some delightful interplay between piano and drums while Tander’s whispery delivery on the English language ‘I refuse’ conjurs up the voice of Leonard Cohen who is surely another major influence on both the singer and project as whole.

While this writer has a marked preference for the instrumental side of Tord Gustavsen’s work, with plenty of space afforded for his soloing, this new project at the very least adds a new dimension to his work and may well find a newly appreciative audience, but does require repeated listens to truly sink in. Tord Gustavsen and trio will be undertaking an all-too brief UK tour in March that commences in Southampton on 3 March and takes in the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on 11 March. For once no Manchester dates. This forms part of a much larger European and indeed North American tour during 2016.

Tim Stenhouse