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Tord Gustavsen Trio in New York

At the close of his trio’s recent Merkin Hall concert in New York, pianist Tord Gustavsen introduced the group’s last offering of the night as "another wordless hymn." It’s as honest a description of this Norwegian export’s musical métier as one can find.

In typical exploratory fashion, the trio began the 75-minute set not with a familiar piece from their acclaimed debut Changing Places or something from the just released The Ground, but with a new piece entitled "At Home." Though the band’s label marketing folks may have cringed (I doubt it, since the trio’s home is the ever-independent ECM), it stated the obvious to those of us who believe the group to be jazz’s next classic trio: they’re not looking back; they’re moving forward.

It was a point that was made time and again as the evening’s music unfolded.

Whereas on disc the group shifts between romantic elegance to quiet storm, in performance these embers ignite. "Graceful Touch" dedicated by Gustavsen "to those in the noble art of classical touch" began as the title would suggest, but was quickly emblazoned into a fiery and exhaustive study of the middle range of the keyboard. Like a resurrected Glenn Gould, Gustavsen’s hands explored the myriad harmonic combinations, his face hovering just inches from the keys, his body rocking like a shaman in trance.

Though clusters of Keith Jarrett could be heard throughout the evening (along with the inevitable hint of Bill Evans romanticism), the Gould comparison is not so far-fetched. Like many European pianists of his post-modern generation, the 35-year old Norwegian is just as at home parrying a dissonant blues with bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad as he is gently pecking a folkish melody worthy of a Grieg miniature or in rhapsodizing romantic a la Rachmaninoff.

His impassioned playing belies a level of absorption of which Gould would’ve related. At times, Gustavesen astonished with double octave runs, hammered dissonant clusters, muted the piano strings with his hand, and worked the sustain pedal for an echo effect all at the service of the music. On "Twins", Gustavsen’s continual rocking coaxed a squeak from his piano bench which he quickly incorporated into the rhythmic swirl, perfectly on beat.

The pianist transformed the quiet nobility of the new disc’s "Sentiment" into a reeling and rapturous credenza splaying a path somewhere between Chopin introspection and the transcendent mysticism of the whirling dervishes. Body rocking to the internal rhythm, heel stomping out the cadence, Gustavsen achieved a level of chant-like rapture that I’ve only witnessed a pianist achieve once before and that was fittingly at one of Jarrett’s revered solo performances.

All of this would be a virtuosic musical moot point if Gustavsen were not so ably supported by Johnsen and Vespestad. Despite working with a rental bass, Johnsen showed himself a subtle time keeper, often seconding the melodic line beneath the pianist. In the style Paul Motian and Gerry Hemingway, Jarle Vespestad eschews big percussive presence in favor of rhythmic coloration. His sympathetic cymbal play and fills were rarely at the forefront, yet always defining the direction of the music. On "Twins" he created a masterful percussion solo, adding quiet layers of rhythm and pause, perfectly in keeping with the yin and yang nature of the piece.

The closing "Colours of Mercy" exemplified all the best elements of the group’s music. Another of Gustavsen’s deja-vu melodies sounding here like an undiscovered gem from Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, the trio developed the tune as if reluctantly, gently prodding it into being.

As the three locked onto the development of the melody, there was that feeling I can only describe as a resonant ache in the playing as in the simplest gospel music. The playing - unforced and not the least bit showy - seemed an honest attempt to express in musical form the willing of sorrow into joy. Above all, there was a patience, understanding and appreciation of space and silence.

As Gustavsen wound down the harmonic conversation, Vespestad came in beneath him like a whisper: a slight patter on the tom, a touch on the cymbals. For a minute (not more), the two locked eyes and traded places in rearranging the silence, the pauses lasting longer than the few notes they offered.

It’s impossible to emphasize how brave this seemed where the pause had to be adhered to so stringently, where a misplaced note would sound awash with noise.

It was like dancing with silence.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Tord Gustavsen
  • Concert Date: April 21, 2005
  • Subtitle: Live at Merkin Hall
  • Venue: Merkin Concert Hall
  • City State Country: New York, NY
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