Jarle Vespestad: Musician

It has become far too rare a thing nowadays to be able to study three outstanding, highly-trained and eminently soulful musicians practicing their craft in front of an appreciative (but small) live audience. I treasure these moments, of which I had many these past twenty-five or thirty years, and tonight I was given the opportunity to add a special highlight to these experiences.

I have written about the Tord Gustavsen Trio several times before, although only a shorter piece survived the many reincarnations of this site, but today – and I warned the other musicians of the trio before posting this – I’m not going to write about the wonderful concert experience as a whole, but about Jarle Vespestad. It seemed like the other two didn’t mind.

It is important to remember that the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s music is really an organic whole and, compared to many other trios and groups I’ve seen and heard, the importance of that was ever more apparent tonight. Tord Gustavsen, Harald Johnsen and Jarle Vespestad have been playing together for such a long period of time that many of their performances – as the one tonight – seem more like meditative events than concerts per se. These guys live their music on stage and it can be seen, heard and felt. Even Tord Gustavsen’s announcements were delivered in a hushed tone, adding to the spirituality of the experience more than interrupting it. I know it sounds exaggerated to you, but that’s what my experience was tonight.

I also have a very special place in my heart for this music as I spent a larger part of my formative years in Copenhagen (Denmark), Stockholm (Sweden) and Oslo (Norway), soaking in the local jazz scenes, and, most importantly, took up drumming while in Scandinavia, after having taken lessons with Ed Thigpen in the late 70s.

Throwing all of this into one bag, and because I’ve seen the trio several times before – both early and later in its development – tonight I took the liberty and afforded myself the luxury of concentraing only on Jarle Vespestad, the drummer.

Outwardly, you would never expect the kind of mastery originating from someone playing a rented drum kit from a local rock shop, with snare, two toms and a bass drum, a few cymbals and an assortment of sticks, brushes and mallets placed on a piano stool next to the hi-hat. Not a very impressive setup to those who have never experienced what can be done with it. But Jarle Vespestad is one of the few drummers I have seen – and I’ve seen many – that can not only maximise the result with this seemingly bare setup, but who is, at the same time, what I would call a musician – as opposed to just being a “drummer”. All of this probably sounds strange to you, so let me explain.

Jarle plays music on his drumset.

Yes, he does lay a rhythmic foundation, and an intricately woven one at that, but what he really does is supplement and expand on the cues passed to him by both piano and bass, adding to the musical center instead of merely supporting it.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that 1/3 to 1/2 of the concert he played with eyes closed, slightly swaying to the piano lines coming from his right and the melodic bass lines and accents coming from his left, concentrating intensively and listening. Once in a while, he would – while playing – study the assortment of “tools” on his piano stool, eyeing one, selecting the next, exchanging one brush for another after a few seconds, looking for the right sound to go with what he was hearing.

He played some of the lightest strokes I’ve ever seen anyone play, he added small screeches by dragging a stick across the hit-hat or other cymbals, he played ride patterns on the bass drum hoop or integrated the metallic sound of the cymbal, hi-hat or tom stands. In another song he would create patterns only with the sticks or simply sit back and refrain from adding to the music, simply because it wasn’t necessary. In short, he got a myriad of sounds and textures out of that kit – a kit he had probably seen, at least in part, for the first time today. Fascinating to hear and to observe.

The most amazing thing to watch and study today was the incredible dynamic range Vespestad commands and the absolute self-control and restraint he displays that truely make this musician’s drummer stand out from the crowd of technically versatile and stunningly creative drummers around today … who like to club everything to death because they lack the one essential ingredient: understanding of and a sense for the music they are accompanying. Hell, there might be a thousand drummers technically better than Vespestad, but only a very, very few who can do what he does. Very few.

The last thing which won me over once again was Vespestad’s impeccable timing. He never misses a beat (or if he does, he’s a master at hiding it), he certainly doesn’t lose sight of where things are going and because of the long-term musical relationship with Gustavsen and Johnsen, every inserted note, accent or flourish was right on the mark. Spot on.

For a while I tried to picture other drummers I like sitting in with the trio and it just didn’t jell. Vespestad is such an integral part of the sound that I am quite sure that anyone else would surely push this trio into an entirely different direction.

I have some favorite drummers: Ed Thigpen, master of brushes and impeccable musical taste, Jeff Hamilton, whom I would consider to be Thigpen’s successor to the throne, Adam Nussbaum, a dynamic powerhouse of a drummer, as yet little-known Danish drummer Kresten Osgood, who is perhaps the quirkiest of the lot and even better for it, and, finally, Jack DeJohnette (not only) of Keith Jarrett fame. Jarle Vespestad ranks right up there with these seasoned pros … and at times manages to eclipse them musically.

Yes, the man is that good.

My advice to you is really simple: If you want to hear music being played, or better created, you owe it to yourself to check out the Tord Gustavsen Trio on their current tour, and if you want to see and analyze where a large chunk of the magicc of this music comes from, why not concentrate on Jarle Vespestad and be amazed.

I certainly was.


The Tord Gustavsen Trio on tour (check their website for new dates added):

MAY – Germany / Austria / Switzerland / UK
05: Allensbach (Gnadenkirche)
06: Raab, Austria (Musikschule Raab)
07: Munich (Unterfahrt)
09: Zuerich (Moods)
10: Karlsruhe (Tollhaus)
11: Stuttgart (Theaterhaus)
12: Norfolk & Norwich Festival, UK

JUNE / JULY / AUGUST – Summer festivals
June 28: Festspillene i Nord-Norge – Harstad, Norway
June 30: San Javier, Spain
July 02: Jazz Baltica – Kiel, Germany
July 21: Sani Festival – Halkidiki, Greece
July 27: Arendal Jazz & Blues Festival – Arendal, Norway
July 31: Edinburgh Jazz Festival

02: Olavsfestdagene – Trondheim, Norway

15: Biri kirke – Biri, Norway

01: Belfast Festival at Queens, Elmwood Hall – Belfast, Northern Ireland
03: Salzburg Jazz Festival, Austria
04: Bad Groenenbach, Austria
05: Meinerzhagen, Gemany

Tour of Poland
November 26 through December 03; dates and cities will be listed shortly on their website.

Check out Vespestad’s (Gustavsen’s and Johnsen’s) mastery on the following CDs:
01. Changing Places and The Ground on amazon.com.
02. Changing Places and The Ground on amazon.co.uk.
03. Changing Places and The Ground on amazon.de.

Note: The photo used for this post was taken from Tord Gustavsen’s website.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. I’m equally impressed by Jarle Vespestad.

    I’ve had the chance to see him on two occasions and it is a true pleasure watching him react to his fellow musicians on stage. I second Volkher’s recommendation. If you want to see a world-class drummer work his magic, go and see the trio. In my opinion they don’t tour extensively enough and it is a rare treat if you can catch them somewhere.


  2. I’m jealous. I still haven’t managed to catch them live, but the dates you list here show that I might be able to finally see them in Edinburgh this summer. Here’s to hoping.


  3. @Steven: I’d also like to see them play live more frequently, but I do think they’ve had a more than adequate tour schedule for a jazz trio.

    @Michael: Make sure to check their site for any tour updates.


  4. Buying the first Tord Gustavsen release was a revelation to me. It pushed my musical taste into a totally different direction. It was an epiphany, of sorts.

    I saw them live twice, here in the UK, and both concerts were superb examples of compositional clarity and improvisational artistry.

    If you haven’t seen them perform live yet, you’ve really missed some of the best and most intelligent music played today.


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