Jazz CD Reviews

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble – Restored, Returned – ECM

Norwegian jazz pianist Gustavsen strikes off in a new direction with this one, though again stretching the usual definition of what constitutes jazz.

Published on March 15, 2010

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble – Restored, Returned – ECM

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble – Restored, Returned – ECM 2107 ****:

(Tord Gustavsen, piano; Kristin Asbjornsen, vocals; Tore Brunborg, tenor & soprano saxes; Mats Eilertsen, doublebass; Jarle Vespestad, drums)

Norwegian jazz pianist Gustavsen strikes off in a new direction with this one, though again stretching the usual definition of what constitutes jazz.  Probably influenced by the mini-revival of the old poetry-and-jazz idea, he has added three new players to his original trio setup, and one of them is vocalist Asbjornsen, singing Gustavsen’s sensitive settings of four poems by W.H. Auden – one of them the title of the new album. To my ears Asbjornsen’s voice is someplace between that of Rickie Lee Jones and Patricia Barber – neither of whom I like, but these interpretations are growing on me. It’s a small, often raspy little voice, not musically smooth but highly communicative. O Stand, Stand at the Window is especially powerful in Asbjornsen’s interpretation.

Breaking musical categorizations, these pieces are really modern lieder which just happen to have doublebass and drums in the ensemble. Brunborg’s sax reminds me of Jan Garbarek in its keening, lonely tone; as a matter of fact most Norwegian saxists sound a bit like that to me. Gustavsen can create whole impressionistic musical canvases with just a few quiet notes on the piano.  The themes seem to grow slowly out of tiny kernels. His stated goal is a stripped-down sort of beauty, and that it is. There are few piano “solos” here in the usual sense. Gustavsen refers to his material as “abstract lullabies” with a fundamental bluesy quality.

The Child Within, which opens the CD, is clearly a lullaby piece, featuring a plaintive sax line, sounding more like a clarinet, with piano accompaniment. Way In has a drums and piano interaction and more dynamics than most of the tracks. The first Auden setting is Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love – described by Gustavsen as a profane gospel song.  Spiral Song has a slow loping beat in the rhythm section over which we hear the tenor sax beginning in its lower register. It builds higher in a sad folk-like tune. The album’s title tune opens with unintelligible vocal sounds by Asbjornsen. It is in two sections, with the second featuring a hymn-like chorus. Left Over Lullaby No. 2 has more wordless singing from Asbjornsen. The Swirl is the most funky of all the tracks and closer to normal jazz style, though very quiet, subdued and dark in tone. The second part of this medley leads us into the Auden poem Wrapped in a Yielding Air, continuing the underlying beat. Here Asbjornsen’s voice sometimes sounds like Madeline Peyroux.

The words to the Auden poems are included in the booklet – thanks, ECM.  Recorded in Oslo, the sonics are up to the high standards of the label. If this sort of super-laid-back and subtle improvisation is on your wavelength, this CD should be on your list. If not, it could drive you bonkers.

  The Child Within, Way In, Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love, Spiral Song, Restored Returned, Left Over Lullaby No. 2, The Swirl/Wrapped in a Yielding Air, Left Over Lullaby No. 1/O Stand Stand at the Window, Your Crooked Heart, The Gaze, Left Over Lullaby No. 3

 – John Henry

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