It had to come at some point and I almost bet my life on the fact that it would happen with the release of their third album … and it did, somewhat. The Tord Gustavsen Trio put out a new album and if you mosey on past those usual “great album …” reviews by people who either get paid to say exactly that or simply aren’t willing to put up the effort to listen to an album more closely before they publish what it is they publish every darn time, you come across quite a few (sometimes guarded) reviews by listeners, both in print and in conversation, who perhaps weren’t too happy with the new album (at first). In short, some people thought it was “boring” or, perhaps less harshly put, “the same procedure as last year.”
To come to the point right away, the latest Tord Gustavsen album is just so damn good that despite my usual expressiveness, I’m a tad lost for words.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
I’ve written about the Tord Gustavsen Trio before, twice on this site and about three or four times on sites which long ago disappeared into the thin air that is the bits and bytes of the Internet, and if you have read any of the stuff I wrote about this trio, you know that I consider them to be one of the finest trios out there, bar none.
Because I went to see the trio live every single time I had the chance, I have a bad conscience this time around for having passed up all of two concerts in my nearby neighborhood (friends went to Stuttgart yesterday who said that it was a stunningly good performance), but real life and the usual dire straits got in the way … as is often the case.
Of course, getting a bad conscience is perhaps way out there, but this third album conveys a sense of completion that gets me a bit worried that whatever happens next for either the trio or the single members might be something completely different. Hence I am somewhat afraid that I might have missed the chance to see this uncanny perfection one last time before Tord, Harald and Jarle heed the call to new shores, a different path, or an altogether reworked approach to what they have so far been doing.
See, as I’ve stated before, the Tord Gustavsen Trio has become an integral part of my life, together with a handful of other artists that satisfy my regular need for an artistic but relaxed, soothing and altogether cerebral approach to music. In short, if you have explosive phases of non-stop work, the Tord Gustavsen Trio and a few others can help you unwind in a manner that does not require you to switch your brain off.
The art of the Tord Gustavsen Trio is the one that accentuates the breathing space both their compositions and the listeners’ perhaps hectic lives need on a regular basis, and Tord Gustavsen has achieved such perfection at involving his listeners in his intimate – at irregular intervals explosive – soundscapes and improvisations that I have to reach for my positively large Bill Evans collection to hear anything that might be comparable.
Jazz purists and ECM-haters will certainly disagree, shrugging the trio’s efforts off as perhaps minor, possibly monotonous and altogether certainly less artistic than what, for example, Bill Evans put out there, but I, personally, couldn’t disagree more. In Tord Gustavsen’s playing – especially when observed live (and there’s the Bill Evan’s parallel), I sense much of the same improvisational perfection, the unwavering love and instinct for creating beauty and the thoughtful approach to a composition. You have to have been there in a smaller concert venue, seeing Gustavsen getting swept away by the moment, to understand what I mean.
To get back to the three studio albums, “Changing Places” (2003), “The Ground” (2004) and “Being There” (2007), they must be seen as a whole, a trilogy that also should be enjoyed as such. Sure, you can get a lot from each single album separately, but recently I took the time to do two complete run-throughs of all three albums and the arcs that become visible are beyond astonishing. I’m second-guessing Gustavsen’s compositional approach, denying that he only added flourishes of and references to the first two albums to provide a sense of closure, assuming that he had a long-range plan for what now is available to us and insisting that either there was a plan from the start or that such connections simply came about unconsciously, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such a satisfying listening experience until I heard these three albums in sequence.
Hell, maybe it is all incidental, but no matter what your take on the approach is, it’s so damn good that I’d like to think that I am right and everyone else who disagrees is wrong.
To be quite honest, I think there are requirements to get the most out of the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s music.
a) You need to have time. In our hectic everyday lives, this is perhaps the most difficult requirement to fulfill, but you just have to take time out of whatever you are doing to sit down and actually listen to what the trio is doing. You need to shut out whatever might get in the way, perhaps pour yourself a good glass of wine, light a candle or two, sit in the sweet spot between your speaker setup, grand or humble, and … listen, both with heart and mind/soul.
b) You need to concentrate on what the trio’s members are doing. I’ve often read that some people are unable to isolate a single musician from the rest, “zooming in” on any one of the members, but for me it is a requirement to get the most out of this music. Listen to a song once to hear the accompaniment, listen to it again to isolate the lead (often piano) voice.
c) You need a decent sound system. This music floats and you need a system that reproduces that sensation. This is not really music for a car stereo or a boombox if you want to get more out of it than is first apparent. If you want to get beyond the “hey, this is pretty good” sensation, you need a system that can put you in the middle of these sessions, revealing at least some of the sensationally intimate recording quality oozing out of the speakers.
d) Yes, although from a financial standpoint the musicians might disagree (after all, they want to sell their music to everyone), I also think you need some experience to get the most out of these recordings. Personally, I think having listened to Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Jan Johansson – even Teddy Wilson – as well as to interpretations of Edvard Grieg‘s piano music, Eric Satie and Robert Schumann has helped me see more in and understand more of what I’m hearing. If you do not have any experience, you might easily dismiss Tord Gustavsen as perhaps esoteric or even, at times, too minimal. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a musician who clearly has roots in compositional history, and it is more than evident if you listen closely.
e) You need to be appreciative of silence and contemplation. Paired with the need for giving this music time, you also need to give it the space it needs to allow it to “hit” you in the right spot. In fact, I would say that you need to turn your mind off and your brain on, if you know what I mean.
To go way out there, the last time I allowed myself enough time to play all three of the Trio’s albums back to back, I was reminded of my favorite author, James Joyce, who often set up a serene stage to then pack a wallop. He was a true master of words as well as literary technique, and when he threw a punch, it wasn’t one that was supposed to bowl you over; it was one that focused your attention. He bent the grammar (“One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutandry grammar and goahead plot”), he created language instead of only using it and he created a flow that reached near-perfection if you, the reader, were to give in to it. His use of secular epiphanies right and left, surely counter-balancing his disillusionment with organized (Catholic) religion, added a whole other dimension to his literary achievement.
Tord Gustavsen and his trio are much like that. Not only do the musicians create the flow, a beauty of melody throughout and artistic perfection in creating a satisfying whole, they also more often than not emphasize a hymnic approach more in the sense of personal experience than in that of majestic or artificially reverent composition.
Yes, the usual disclaimers apply: This is my life, my experience and my approach, and your mileage may well vary drastically, but if you allow me to be so blunt, I don’t really care. These three albums are some of the very best music amongst the thousands of CDs I have and you can spit venom or ridicule what I’ve said … my stance won’t waver. When all things are added up, you cannot deny that Tord Gustavsen’s trilogy now completed with “Being There” is a 21st century work of art that will – beyond doubt – stand the test of time.
Tord Gustavsen Trio:
Tord Gustavsen (piano), Harald Johnsen (double-bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums).
Tord Gustavsen Trio: “Changing Places”, ECM 2003.
Recorded December 2001 and June 2002 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, Norway. Engineered by Jan Eric Kongshaug and produced by Manfred Eicher.
01. Deep As Love (05:54)
02. Graceful Touch (03:50)
03. Ign (04:33)
04. Melted Matter (05:25)
05. At A Glance (04:18)
06. Song Of Yearning (08:16)
07. Turning Point (05:47)
08. Interlude (01:01)
09. Where Breathing Starts (08:49)
10. Going Places (05:33)
11. Your Eyes (05:07)
12. Graceful Touch (variation) (04:33)
13. Song Of Yearning (solo piano) (01:59)
Tord Gustavsen Trio: “The Ground”, ECM 2004.
Recorded January 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, Norway. Engineered by Jan Eric Kongshaug and produced by Manfred Eicher.
01. Tears Transforming (05:38)
02. Being There (04:13)
03. Twins (05:01)
04. Curtains Aside (05:13)
05. Colours Of Mercy (06:09)
06. Sentiment (05:34)
07. Kneeling Down (05:47)
08. Reach Out And Touch It (05:48)
09. Edges Of Happiness (03:09)
10. Interlude (02:07)
11. Token Of Tango (04:07)
12. The Ground (07:21)
Tord Gustavsen Trio: “Being There”, ECM 2007.
Recorded December 2006 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, Norway. Engineered by Jan Eric Kongshaug and produced by Manfred Eicher.
01. At Home (06:11)
02. Vicar Street (03:42)
03. Draw Near (03:51)
04. Blessed Feet (06:04)
05. Sani (02:36)
06. Interlude (02:18)
07. Karmosin (05:08)
08. Still There (04:17)
09. Where We Went (05:48)
10. Cocoon (04:45)
11. Around You (05:33)
12. Vesper (04:24)
13. Wide Open (04:39)