Photo credit: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen
Just as the great classical composers would often use the medium of the string quartet to explore new compositional ideas, techniques and directions, so jazz pianists have often produced their most exploratory work in the trio format.
One of the noteworthy recent exponents of the jazz trio is Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. His Trio, featuring drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen, toured between 2003-08, releasing three recordings, Changing Places (2003), The Ground (2005), Being There (2007), all on the ECM Records label.
Changing Places wasn’t, as it happens, my first encounter with Gustavsen’s playing; he had previously recorded sessions with fellow Norwegian chanteuse, Silje Nergaard, one of my absolute favourite singers. Gustavsen’s understated but deeply felt piano lines in her early recordings certainly made their impression on me, but hearing him let loose in a trio format really bought home the delicate brilliance and originality of his playing.
Following on from the three trio albums, which established Gustavsen’s voice as the preeminent lyrical pianist of the Nordic school, with colourful tinges of blues and gospel never far from the surface in his playing, he developed larger ensembles. The Tord Gustavsen Quartet added saxophonist Tore Brunborg, while the Ensemble added the vocals of Kristin Ambjørnsen.
And for his 2016 release What Was Said (my personal favourite, by the way) he was joined by German-Afgan jazz singer Simin Tander alongside regular drummer Jarle Vespestad.
Along the way, Gustavsen added experimentation with electronic instruments and treatments to his already gorgeous sonic palette.
The Other Side marks Gustavsen’s return to the basic format of the standard Trio after more than a decade of exploring these other musical possibilities. As I listened to preview track The Tunnel over the late summer, I wondered whether this new album would be somewhat a return to Gustavsen’s roots, or be markedly different from the earlier Trio albums ….
The first thing to mention is that, as of earlier this year, ECM Records albums can now be streamed via Apple Music or Spotify, so that you can listen for yourself to this fabulous catalogue of music, including The Other Side.
However, you will undoubtedly still want to purchase the best ECM albums for your collection; each release is an artwork, with brilliant and evocative cover images, state-of-the-art recording and mastering. And as I regularly point out, purchasing a recording is one of the very best ways to show your support for your favourite musicians.
The Other Side has a suitably vivid and inviting cover:
The recording itself includes 12 tracks, taking between them 54 minutes:
- The Tunnel (Tord Gustavsen)
- Kirken, den er et gammelt hus (Ludvig Mathias Lindemann, arr. Gustavsen)
- Re-Melt (Gustavsen)
- Duality (Gustavsen)
- Inger vinner frem til den evige ro (Trad. arr. Gustavsen)
- Taste and See (Gustavsen)
- Schlafes Bruder (J.S. Bach, arr. Gustavsen)
- Jesu, meine Freude (J.S. Bach, arr. Gustavsen)
Jesus, det eneste (Trad. arr. Gustavsen)
- The Other Side (Gustavsen)
- O Traurigkeit (J.S. Bach, Arr. Gustavsen)
- Left Over Lullaby No.4 (Gustavsen)
- Curves (Gustavsen)
The set was recorded in January 2018 at the Rainbow Studio, Oslo, engineered by Peer Espen Ursfjord and produced by ECM label founder/owner Manfred Eicher.
For this new recording, Gustavsen and returning drummer Vespestad are joined by new bassist Sigurd Hole, who replaces Harald Johnsen, the latter having died in 2011 aged just 41. Hole certainly makes a fabulous impression here, his mixture of loose rhythm, deep tone and rich lyricism providing Gustavsen and Vespestad with a superbly apt musical foil.
That said, the loss of Johnsen must surely have been felt by Gustavsen and Vespestad as they returned to the trio format. Scanning the track listing, it’s striking how many of these tunes broach themes of mortality and loss, as was also the case on What Was Said.
And there’s another commonality with Gustavsen’s previous work. While retaining Gustavsen’s characteristic “nordic blues” as a key component of his musical approach, the improvisation here draws with equal tenacity on the more exotic scales that so infused What Was Said. The eastern influence is perhaps most overt on the experimental and deeply satisfying meditation that is Duality, but it is felt elsewhere too, and remains a welcome addition to Gustavsen’s palette.
Rapt religious sentiment also prevails, especially with the inclusion of three J.S. Bach chorale melodies as launchpads to the trio’s musical explorations. These veer between heartfelt depth and ecstatic utterance, offering the album’s most intense pinnacles, and perhaps an invitation to join the trio and ascend to more hallowed ground.
Gustavsen’s forays into electronic instruments and treatments are at a minimum here, but again distinguish this record from the previous trio albums. The occasional keyboard pad makes its presence felt as an ambience more than a focal element, expanding the warmth and depth of texture.
Vestiges of the soft-focus gospel influence, inviting lyricism and harmonic warmth of the earlier Trio recordings still remain however, at times seemingly as counterpoints to Gustavsen’s more recent influences, and are perhaps most apparent in opener The Tunnel, title track The Other Side and closer Curves, all of which are Gustavsen-penned originals.
More than the earlier Tord Gustavsen Trio albums, The Other Side is a grower, amply rewarding repeated listens. The music here has a greater range, musical and emotional, which is quite something considering that the previous recordings were all excellent.
Forced to choose a favourite cut from these tracks I would perhaps opt for Re-Melt, another Gustavsen original. At first the piece seems unassuming, albeit with an enjoyable harmonic twist which subsequently proves fertile ground for the Trio’s improvisatory development. Little by little Re-Meld builds towards its apex, the musical ideas unravelling with a finesse that speaks volumes for the instinctual alignment of this new Trio.
But it is the sequencing and juxtaposition of material throughout this set which lifts it higher and makes it truly special. The contrasts of tension and release, and seemingly of time and eternity, bring a depth of meaning which amounts to more than simply 12 great jazz trio numbers.
This is music that has the power to take us by surprise, to deeply move and supremely delight. The Tord Gustavsen Trio emerge not simply as three musicians at the top of their game, but as consummate masters of the Trio form, delivering a classic album that is far more than the sum of its parts.
The Other Side is available now via streaming services and to purchase worldwide.
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