Tord Gustavsen and his trio return with their second ECM disc, The Ground, and for those (like myself) who were totally beguiled by Changing Places the new disc is like a promise fulfilled. Gustavsen and company bring to mind the inevitable comparisons to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, but the Norwegian pianist has a style and demeanor that is all his own. His playing is very lyrical, but still economical, conveying much with few notes. Gustavsen’s piano work is full of blues, gospel, and New Orleans jazz references, and these influences are peppered amongst others, including Evans and classical European music.
Some might point to Gustavsen’s economy of notes as evidence of his Nordic heritage, and perhaps so, but there is so much warmth to his playing and his compositional style that he might just as easily be from the Mediterranean. Tord Gustavsen has gained focus as a composer, and his latest batch of compositions are more readily apprehended than those on Changing Places. The delicate beauty of that album is certainly still apparent on this latest release, but there is a newfound strength and a sense of a group staking out its territory with absolute certainty.
Drummer Jarle Vespestad, who has worked with electro-acoustic, ambient-cum-jazztronica group Supersilent as well as free jazz collective turned interpreters of Bulgarian folk music Farmer’s Market, often recalls Paul Motian and adds deep layers of texture to the group’s sound. Bassist Harald Johnsen is solid, but also finds creative ways to approach his role, sometimes bringing to mind Dave Holland.
Gustavsen can’t help being compared to some other creative new jazz piano trios recording today, but the group have clearly managed to stake out their own territory. At times Gustavsen’s unit can be reminiscent of Esborn Svensson’s EST, but his compositions are rarely as straight ahead in structure as that group’s. At times EST approaches the feel of a rock or pop music band, but Gustavsen, while highly focused on melody, provides a somewhat different approach.
On the other hand, Gustavsen is rarely as light and abstract as labelmates Marcin Wasileski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and Michal Miskiewicz, the Polish trio who emerged this year from the shadow of employer Tomasz Stanko to record their own CD. In addition, Tord Gustavsen wears his admiration for Keith Jarrett closer to the heart. His phrases are peppered with blues and gospel flourishes that can’t help but remind one of the playing Jarrett did with his “European Quartet,” a group that, it so happens, included Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
All of this will disappear in the minds of most listeners once they sit back with a pair of headphones and listen to this CD. The music simply possesses the listener and pulls him or her into its beautiful world where the structure of a piece unfolds slowly and where failing to listen closely puts one at a distinct disadvantage.
That doesn’t sound like popular music, but apparently in 2005 things are much different in Norway than they are in the United States. Listening to the track “Colours of Mercy” one can only marvel at the way the track builds to a remarkable emotional high point before bringing the listener gently down to earth. If you own an iPod, I’d highly recommend importing this entire CD as well as the Wasilewski trio CD onto the thing for those times you want a brief respite from this planet we live on. You’ll come away refreshed and convinced that maybe the world isn’t so bad after all. What more could you ask for from a musical performance?