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Tord Gustavsen - Making the piano sing

With its spare, haunting melodies and crystal clear playing, pianist Tord Gustavsen’s latest album, Restored, Returned, has the sound of an instant classic in the Nordic jazz style. Yet the story behind its creation begins, not in the fjords that are usually cited when discussing Norwegian music, but in a book shop in Oxford.

On a day off while touring the UK with his popular trio, Gustavsen went looking for inspiration and found it in a collection of poems by W H Auden. Previously, Gustavsen had only known Auden’s work through his best known poems, such as Funeral Blues and Night Mail, which have appeared in films and been translated into Norwegian. But as he read through Another Time he immediately saw its verses’ potential as song lyrics.
 
“Great poetry – and this really is great poetry - works on different levels,” he says. “You could sit down and spend days and days reading it and continually find new layers of meaning in every poem in that book. It became a passion for me on that tour. But at the same time, there’s also an instant gratification in the metaphors Auden uses and the associations he creates for the reader – they’re very singable – and gradually melodies began to emerge in my imagination.”
 
Restored, Returned is a departure for Gustavsen in that it’s the first of his albums for the ECM label to feature a group other than his trio. His previous trilogy, Changing Places, The Ground and Being There, had surprised everyone, not least Gustavsen himself, by becoming, in jazz terms, big sellers world-wide. The Ground even reached Number One in the Norwegian pop charts, an unprecedented achievement for an instrumental album, let alone a jazz one. Pared to the music’s very essentials and often glacial in its progress, this was about as far removed as can be from the kind of jazz than normally reaches out beyond the music’s core audience.
 
“It was never our goal to make commercial jazz and it wouldn’t have worked if we had set out with that in mind,” says Gustavsen. “For me, you make the music that you’d want to listen to yourself and if you do that with honesty and passion, then you’ll communicate with people. We just didn’t expect to communicate with so many. We were helped, of course, in that the ECM label gave us worldwide distribution and maybe the time was right for the stripped down romanticism that the trio played.” 
 
Fans of the trio’s style needn’t approach Restored, Returned with trepidation as the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble performs with many of the same virtues – it’s only the sound palette that has been expanded. One of the most striking features of the album is singer Kristin Asbjornsen’s terrifically expressive, other worldly singing. Unfortunately, Asbjornsen has had to miss the tour that brings the ensemble to Edinburgh this week due to prior commitments. The other personnel, however, drummer Jarle Vespestad, a hold-over from the trio, saxophonist Tore Brunborg and bassist Mats Eilertsen, will be present.
 
Eilertsen is making a swift return to Scotland, having appeared with Scandinavian quartet The Source at Islay Jazz Festival last month, and observers of the Scottish jazz scene with longer memories may remember Brunborg for his work with Scots pianist Chick Lyall and, before that, with the brilliant Norwegian group Masqualero alongside bassist Arild Andersen and trumpeter and subsequently club scene star Nils Petter Molvaer.
 
Gustavsen speaks of Masqualero with the awe of a musician who was at an early stage of his development when the Oslo-based quintet were seducing Europe with their combination of instantly hummable melodies and surging rhythmical power.
 
“Tore Brunborg was great in that band and he’s still great today,” he says. “He has such a strong melodic voice on the saxophone and he’s the kind of soloist who doesn’t feel he has to show you everything he can do in one solo. He’s more about creating interplay and forming a relationship with the other musicians, which is what this group is about as a whole. I’ve been playing duos with Tore for quite a few years now. Mats has been my preferred bassist for everything except the trio for eight or nine years, and I’ve known and worked with Kristin since we were students together. So because I knew them all and because they all fit right into the idea of playing with the intimacy of chamber music, they were ideal choices when I was putting the group together.”
 
Asbjornsen’s absence, though regrettable, won’t affect the ensemble’s performances too much, says Gustavsen, since it’s the kind of band that plays more duo and trio pieces than actual quintet passages. There’s also an inherent song quality in the music itself, which is something that could be said, too, about his trio albums and indeed about his approach to music generally.
 
“Singing has always been at the core of what I do,” he says. “It goes back to my earliest experiences with church music and having been fortunate enough to work with several great singers as an accompanist, it’s been a major inspiration in my development as a piano player. Ultimately, for me, all music is singing, whether in the literal sense or in the sense of making the piano, the saxophone, the bass and even the drums sing.”


 
From The Herald, October 16, 2009.

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