The Tord Gustavsen Trio from Norway has only released two CDs so far, but those two shot to the top of my list within seconds upon release – not a bad feat if you consider that the list is several thousand CDs long – and they have remained at the top of the list ever since they got there. You could say that I have become addicted to them and that what we have here is one of those extremely rare occurences: 2 CDs I don’t seem to be getting tired of, at all.
Tord Gustavsen, who grew up in rural Hurdal, Akershus, in Norway, heads this relatively new stellar trio, which fits right into the mould of lyrical (Scandinavian) jazz I like. He is not only a wonderful musician, but also someone who has spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about what he does. Their website provides a link (select Gustavsen’s private site) to Gustavsen’s thesis paper on the psychology and phenomenology of improvisation, about which he writes:
I try to develop this field of research in directions that are not covered very well in jazz theory as we know it. I draw heavily on the psychology of relationships developed by German psychoanalytic Helm Stierlin and Norwegian psychologist Anne-Lise Løvlie Schibbye, both of whom offer a very exciting approach to the ancient notion of dialectics.
It’s all about living the paradoxes of life and art dynamically and fruitfully. It’s about coming to terms with contradictions recognizing both sides of polarities without getting stuck in the middle-of-the-road. It’s about synthesizing – locally, non-monolithic and (if you like) “post modernist” – your dilemmas. It’s about moving creatively in a neo-Hegelian “Aufheben” kind of way.
I approach dilemmas like closeness vs. distance, moment vs. duration and gratification vs. frustration, and I try to explore them combining empirical jazz research (interviews and analysis) with contemporary “scenic” music theory, psychodynamic theory and dialectical philosophy.
I focus on the stimulating analogies between physical, social, and musical intimacy in this respect; where the challenges of coming to terms with controlling vs. being led, of recognizing otherness while keeping a centered sense of self etc., are crucial and constitutive of our being-in-the-world – our being in a social group, our being in a relationship, and: our being in the dialectical erotism of improvisational music.
It is the trio’s debut CD, “Changing Places” (released by the prestigious ECM Records in 2003), which is drawing the juices from my Class-A amplifier … it is on constant replay, fighting for air space with the trio’s equally astonishing second release, “The Ground”.
Not that Tord Gustavsen hadn’t already made a name for himself in the European jazz scene when his trio’s debut hit the market. Most people might know him as the lyrical force behind Silje Nergaard, herself a by now world-famous jazz singer with a very distinct musical profile, but also his lesser known recordings with Aire & Angels ( a vocals/piano duo together with singer Siri Gjaere), the Nymark Collective (a quartet which “[…] offers creative, funky neo-New Orleans grooves; down-home feeling with fresh approaches; Nordic perspectives on American jazz; sensual music with intellectual challenges – in a highly original mix”) or Basunstedet (a recitation of texts by German poet Paul Celan (1920 – 1970) embedded in chamber-like jazz music by Gustavsen) are, now that I have had a closer listen to them, fabulously good (and equally difficult to get hold of). On top of that, Gustavsen is in demand as a frequent contributor to various mostly Norwegian jazz recordings, and once you start looking for his name, he seems to be all over the place.
As Gustavsen states about his musical quest on his homesite:
Taken together, the bands and projects represent my quest for a deepening of my own playing, in a dual movement that goes towards getting more and more intimate with the history of jazz (at present, the earliest decades of this history are in fact my main focus, although contemporary jazz art is really my main field) – while never sacrificing the imperative of an individual “voice”; expressing itself in existential encounters with the here-and-now situation in playing.
This dual task is extremely challenging. It is one that can never be accomplished with completion. But it offers a constant flow of possibilities for emotional-intellectual fulfillment in grooves, phrasing, melodies and timbre. And when the music is really happening, I feel privileged to be able to contribute something.
Harald Johnson plays acoustic bass, a man who “[…] forms a bridge between generations in Norwegian jazz, as he is equally at home with creative be-bop and cool jazz musicians, as with avant-garde projects. He has played with Bjørn Johansen, Sigurd Køhn, Christian Reim, Jan Erik Kongshaug, as well as the Silje Nergaard Band on tour and on cds – in Tord’s trio, Harald’s own lyrical voice is brought to the front, along with his remarkable inventive-yet-solid musical foundations”
Jarle Vespestad is the trio’s drummer and has been “[…] one of Scandinavia’s most in-demand jazz musicians for several years. His range of experience covers the bands Farmers Market and Supersilent, as well as duo cooperation with saxophonist Tore Brunborg, trio with Petter Wettre, and appearances with Bugge Wesseltoft. Along with fierce technique and startling abilities in complex rhythmic landscapes, Jarle has a unique sense of expressive minimalism and quiet moods, which is really featured in Tord’s trio.”
The music these three make is, when compared to the above-mentioned Svensson Trio, more relaxed with a wonderful and constantly present atmospheric feel to it, more reminiscent of classical music, especially that of the chamber music type, than the upbeat, swinging and often heavily electrified tracks of their Scandinavian contemporaries. Gustavsen is in the lead at all times, creating riveting melodic soundscapes that the New York Times has tried to describe as “… slow music that melts off the bandstand into puddles of feeling, backed by a low-key funk rhythm; it’s séance music”. Andy Hamilton of JazzReview notes in his editor’s choice review of the debut album:
Changing Places is an unusual achievement.
[…] Technical display is at a premium, and the compositions are beguiling, simple and intensely melodic. Gustavsen avoids flourishes of emotion, and while it’s brave to begin an album at the funereal pace of ‘Deep As Love’, it’s braver still to continue that way. But this is a tempo which allows real improvisation, as Lee Konitz would put it. ‘Turning Point’ in particular is hauntingly beautiful.
Changing Places is a distinctive achievement and marks the emergence of a potentially major talent.
The Trio’s debut recording, “Changing Places was such a rare thing of beauty that I would not really agree with the many critics who have placed their second release, “The Ground”, squarely above it, noting the refinement of technique and the broadening of the concept. Jazzwise UK wrote in its review:
[…] The transparency that marked out Changing Places, has become more sharply defined, while the compositions are shaped with greater clarity of musical vision, allowing Gustavsen to weave his captivating, highly melodic improvisations to greater effect.
Somehow this group draws you into its music, and each piece is a musical journey within the totality of the album itself. When the album is over you realize the extent to which this group has probed into the very heart of musical meaning. …
There really is not a piano trio in the whole of jazz that sounds like Gustavsen’s, which has continued to grow together into a remarkably integrated unit refining a vision of jazz that is very much its own.
Yes, the album is that good, and many people I know like it a bit better, but I find myself returning to their debut recording more often, because it simply is more soothing and lacking the more frequent flourishes of excitement “The Ground” offers. The problem is that when you have two such tremendously good recorings in your collection it is just too difficult to pick a winner. That would be like saying that you like your older son better than the one born a year earlier.
I have to admit that I’m sometimes at a loss for words when it comes to describing the utter beauty of this music. Jessica Nicholas, reporter with “The Age” (Australia), experienced the same problems when she had to describe what she had just heard at a live concert in Melbourne (Melba Hall, January 17, 2006) a few weeks ago. I think that what she wrote captures the essence of both the CD releases and the live experience perfectly. It is spot-on:
In the end, though, the profound emotional impact of this music has very little to do with technique. And, ravishingly beautiful as Gustavsen’s tunes are, one gets the impression that he and his colleagues could play a TV jingle and cast the same sensory spell.
This is the point where words start to seem inadequate, and feelings and responses come into play. In fact, perhaps the most meaningful way to describe this trio’s music is in terms of its effect on the listener.
Tuesday night’s concert at Melba Hall was an intensely moving experience. Gustavsen, in particular, radiates such a palpable sense of openness and trust – in his colleagues, in the free-spirited flow of the music, and in the audience – that it’s impossible not to respond. And there’s a subtle but powerful optimism at work that makes his compositions feel like an angel’s embrace, or a reassuring hand on one’s shoulder.
Even more deliciously, there’s an unmistakable glow of sensuality coursing through each tune – often hovering seductively beneath the surface, but occasionally propelled by the trio into a tension-filled torrent that produces an exhilaration so complete that it might almost be called ecstasy.
On a final note, ECM Records, known for their attention to sound and the audiophile qualities of the releases bearing that name, have outdone themselves with “Changing Places”. The sound is warm, crisp, transparent and a perfect example of how music should be recorded. Unfortunately, labels that have such a consistently good output are, still today (or even more so today) a very rare breed indeed.
If you buy one CD this year, it should be “Changing Places”, if you buy two, add “The Ground” to your shopping basket, and if you need some presents for friends who are intelligent listeners and in dire need of some music to help them wind down, buy many copies of both and give a pair to each one of them. They’ll be friends for life. You can take my word for it.