(Tord Gustavsen; piano, Sigurd Hole; bass, Jarle Vespestad; drum)
Michael Pollan’s pithy pronouncements on healthy food and eating are some of the defining memes of our time, “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.” “Shop the periphery of the grocery store and stay out of the middle.” etc. In a search for economy, Pollan boiled these down into one epigram: “Eat food, mostly plants and not too much.” Parallel dictates might be derived from the music of Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose style expresses its own didactic economy. “Play music, not too much, mostly melody.” For Pollan’s “Don’t forget the oily little fish,” we could substitute, “ Don’t forget the whole notes.” In fact, the more I listen to Gustavsen’s trio, the more it seems to inquire after verities by way of research into the elementals of music and beyond music.
To position this musician: He belongs to the improvisatory forms of Jazz: the sub-genre piano trio. There are tunes (all credited to the leader) with loosely arranged choruses featuring some of the most modest soloing you will ever hear. But then we must start subtracting things: all of bebop harmonic argument is out, ditto any jagged modernistic rhythmic displacements. Virtuosity makes no appearance; Indeed, velocity is shunned in favor of a medium pulse that gives way to floating suspensions of time.
Apparently, the audience for this music was not concerned about its affiliation to the contested notion of Jazz. Gustavsen’s first records vaulted onto the Top Hits list in Norway (The Ground, 2005, reached number one position, while Being There, 2007, reached number three) This has never been achieved by any mainstream jazz record. Nor has ECM ever produced a record which attained to this level of popular prominence. What qualities of this music are key to its genre-erasing affability?
For one, it is meditative, but without the sluggish navel-gazing which comes from predictability. The rhythm section, Sigurd Hole on bass and Jarle Vespested on drums, has attained to the rare art of playing slowly with rapt attention to detail.
Too, the lyricism is more focused and precisely-shaped than the typical impressionistic gestures of jazz ballad playing. This is probably because Tord relies so heavily on the fragile melodic line alone that there is no room for error or imprecision. At its finest, it sounds as unselfconscious and whole as folk-music.
The recording at hand, The Other Side, is the first by the trio in a while. About half of the record marks a return to what has made the group so popular, its exquisite lyrical simplicity. The other half though pushes outward into new territory with some arrangements of traditional hymns and a three pieces by Bach. The latter is most surprising from a trio that has deemphasized harmony as a first principle.
The first tune, The Tunnel, has about twice a many chords as are typically deployed by the pianist and they provide enough extra ballast to keep the 6-minute piece heavily earthbound. The studio sound is boomy and reverberant even by ECM standards. The second tune, Kirken, den er et gammelt hus, is a traditional tune entirely in keeping with the Tordian feel. A long brooding introduction gives way to a folky melody which is embellished by an almost Scarlattian baroque ornamentation. Bass thrums to the merry perradiddles as the trio goes deeper into the waltz groove, darkening the mood, thickening the texture, and ending abruptly without having wasted a single note.
After this highlight, Re-Melt revisits well-known territory with a middle-tempo minor key tune sounding indistinguishable from the best moments on the first three records. The second traditional tune unfolds at a heavy funeral march tempo. The arco bass adds some keening whale sounds. The drummer provides a haze of metal and a general feeling of oppressed inebriation. Then, it’s back to the Tordian ABCs on Taste and See, which sounds like a lullaby. The right hand soloing is minimalist, while the bass and drums have little to do.
Schlafes Bruder, the first of three Bach “tunes,” starts with snappy snare work and piano over a pedal point. Tord lifts a portion of a choral; the Bachian cadence is lovely while the right hand mostly ignores its implications to find its own way melodically. It is a piece of great ingenuity; what could be harder than to meld one’s own style–especially one based on simplicity–with that of the Great Master?
Jesu, Meine Freunde follows, with more attention to the lyrical top line of Bach and more delicate interactions with bass pluckings and decorative effects from the kit. The form strains but holds as a romantic effusions of a jazz sort break through. There is an almost Jarret-like sense of upward lift. As beautiful as this is, the following Jesus, det eneste, is even better. Unpredictable hymn-like chords support a chorale-like melody that modulates whimsically. It is a grand affirmation of the rare sort, inducing tears.
The title track serves up nothing new. It sounds like the group wood-shedding to the purpose of finding the essence of the folk–hymn-modal inspiration that animates the record as a whole. It amounts to inconclusive research with some atypical demonstrations of finger-wiggling and sustained volume.
The final Bach piece, O Traurigkeit, is a minimalist reduction of the choral. Tord again shows his rediscovery of the trill. At the very least, some notion of Bach is pointing the pianist into new territory here; it is a fresh and grave meditation without pretty notes.
Left Over Lullaby features a minor key piano sketch expressive of a personal conundrum. Finally, with Curves, we find the trio in dead-center ECM zone with pared-down modal playing on a deep voiced bass current. Sigurd Hole’s instrument is spectacular and shines on both a solo and a dialog of subtle inquiry with the piano. Fittingly, we end softly. It is, after all, a Tord Gustavsen record, and low-volume playing is the good manners learned at home by these fine musicians. This record expands the horizons of this sympathetic unit. One would like to see more investigations into this folk/trad/classical world to balance out and complement Gustavsen’s instinctive love of pretty lyricism. Highly recommended.