Listening to “At Home,” the opening track on Being There, The Tord Gustavsen Trio’s most recent CD, one cannot help but think of this European unit as being highly influenced by the Western classical music tradition. And you’d be right, but this group is anything but ‘chamber jazz.’ On its previous two releases, 2003’s Changing Places and its follow-up, 2005’s The Ground, Gustavsen has seldom made explicit the influence of blues, gospel, and other building blocks of American jazz, but the influences were there, nonetheless. On Being There he widens his range to include pieces that make some of his American influences clear, but the disc is still a showpiece of control and subtlety.
There’s plenty of the meditative sound that The Tord Gustavsen Trio has worked with since their debut, but there are some tracks where the energy level is boosted quite a bit for this group. “Vicar Street” almost bristles with energy, largely due to Vespestad’s kinetic, yet restrained in its enthusiasm. Vespestad is an unusually light drummer, especially on the tracks where he uses brushes. His work on these tracks is very light and approaches the drum set in an unusually gentle way. The concept of meditation is a good one to explain the work of Gustavsen and his trio mates: their playing becomes like following one’s breath. Thoughts and ideas float by like clouds against a blue sky that is always there. The listener is required to listen in the moment to catch the music’s meaning, neither focusing on what has just happened nor anticipating what is to come. It’s a daunting task to remain fully engaged enough to play this music, and it demonstrates the incredible skill of these musicians, rendering any overt show of virtuosity unnecessary.
A couple of tracks really stand out among the group’s oeuvre. “Blessed Feet” makes Gustavsen’s love of American blues and gospel explicit, reminding the listener at times of the work of Keith Jarrett’s ‘European’ quartet. It demonstrates that, while Gustavsen and company may be trained European musicians who are influenced by the Western classical tradition, they are also very cognizant of the American roots of improvisational jazz. No jazz-oriented pianist who wants to be taken seriously today can ignore either area. To play in the Western tradition without an understanding of both improvisation and Afro-American musical history is to be more of an improvisational classical composer than a jazz artist. On the other hand, to play without an understanding of musical compositional structure and traditional Western harmony is to be either very primitive or radically avant-garde. “Where We Went” introduces Spanish and Moorish overtones, sometimes sounding a bit like one of Chick Corea’s Spanish piano fantasias, albeit with distinctly less percussive bite.
Music such as that created by Gustavsen and many other ECM (in particular, but not exclusively) artists is designed in a way that is antithetical to the way many of us listen today. That is to say that it unfolds slowly in time, eschewing hooks that serve to impress an actual musical phrase upon the mind, choosing instead to create a certain atmosphere that the listener begins to crave the more he or she is exposed to it. And the more one is exposed to Gustavsen’s recordings, the more one takes away in terms of narrative arcs across a single CD or across the entire trio of discs ECM has released by this trio.