What the heck is happening up there in Norway, anyway? Looking at the roster of world-class jazz musicians this country has produced, you would be forgiven for thinking that jazz is the most popular music there. It’s not, but it does enjoy a sound base of musicians and fans. Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Karin Krog, Jon Christensen, Sidsel Endresen, , Per Jørgensen, and Nils Petter Molvær are all fairly well known among fans of modern, interesting, and even cerebral jazz. To these names must be added that of the Tord Gustavsen Trio, who has released their first CD, Changing Places, on ECM this year.
In a move similar to American trio The Bad Plus, Gustavsen has given his songs somewhat enigmatic, interesting titles that do not scream “jazz” to the listener used to more pop-oriented fare. For example, “IGN,” “Going Places,” and “Where Breathing Starts” could all the name of top-charting rock tunes. Any similarity between the two trios ends there, however, as Tord Gustavsen’s compositions are highly lyrical and his trio plays at a slow, meditative pace, seldom rising above a conversational tone.
His pieces have real intimacy as well as a false familiarity that pulls the listener in immediately. For example, you might swear to having heard the melody of “Graceful Touch” or “Melted Matter” before, but it’s doubtful that you have. The melodies are sometimes evocative of Chick Corea’s work (also on ECM) with his first version of Return to Forever or his duets with Gary Burton—romantic, but never rococo. Gustavsen also brings Bill Evans to mind—with his delicate touch and an acute sense of phrasing, how could he not?
The trio follows suit, never stepping on the pianist’s toes. Drummer Jarle Vespestad, who has worked with the Norwegian electric band Supersilent, remains very controlled, adding strokes of color but never upsetting the balance of the composition. Bassist Harald Johnsen plays with a singing tone, not merely accompanying but weaving his way between the latticework structures of Gustavsen’s compositions and improvisations.
Changing Places is the kind of recording that might well find favor among those looking for atmospheric music. You could put this on in most any setting, from casual dinner party to lazy Sunday morning and never risk offending anyone or dulling conversation. You’d be missing a lot of the intentional beauty of this CD, though. With most of the tracks washing over the listener like a sigh, you’ve got to really pay attention to stay focused on the music and hear it unfold. Deceptively simple at first, Changing Places is a gorgeous album that provides layers of substance on repeated listening. This is one disc that will be in my CD player for months to come.