Concert review: Tord Gustavsen Quartet

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK
23-03-2012

Tord Gustavsen at rehearsal before last night's concert. (Picture: Russ Escritt)

There are times during a Tord Gustavsen concert when I notice I have been holding my breath for a while. It’s partly the feeling that my breathing might be audible over a stroked piano key or a gently brushed cymbal, certainly within my own head, but perhaps even to those sitting around me. And it’s partly that so absorbed am I in what I am hearing, so attentatively am I leaning forward, straining not to miss the most delicate nuance, acutely aware that this moment must be absorbed and treasured because it is so fleeting, that to be attending to things as trivial as breathing are beside the point.

Gustavsen has written a song about this – it is called Being There, it is from an early Trio album but it was exquisitely reworked and re-presented last night in a full, interval-free concert that focussed on the Quartet’s new album for ECM, The Well, some of which was commissioned by Cheltenham Jazz Festival, but also included some new and as yet untitled tunes that show that the composer’s well of melody, harmony and mood is far from running dry.

It’s really hard to imagine a band more suited to playing the pianist’s music than this one.

Drummer Jarle Vespestad has, of course, been with Gustavsen from the very start of his ECM recording and international touring career. He gets the most beautiful sound from a drum kit and is the most nuanced player, from cymbal scape and brush shimmy to something as difficult to do, yet so seemingly casually executed as letting a drumstick bounce on a vellum and repeat/fade in perfect time.

So musical at the bottom end, via tom-tom and bass drum, is Vespestad, that double bass player Mats Eilertsen is freed to play a more textural role in the group, often bowing lines, or strumming strings. He and Vespestad can also lock into the most subtle of grooves, as driving as they are quiet, and as intense as they are restrained.

The lyricism that saxophonist Tore Brunborg brings to the band could not suit Gustavsen’s melodies better. In fact, piano and saxophone weave seamlessly through the tunes, swapping main and counter melodies with an uncanny sympathy. And Brunborg’s ability to mix the particular skirl of Scandinavian folk music with American jazz saxophone style is just right, too. reflecting as it does both Gustavsen’s very specific Norwegian mood with his own American gospel sensibility.

Gustavsen appears to have visited Vespestad’s hair dresser since his last visit here, and although I am sure it’s coincidental, this new shaved appearance has given him an increased physicality at the piano. He might keep the volume down but in his desire to wring every last meaning and emotional nuance from an improvisational phrase he will push back the piano stool, or crouch briefly, twisting his forearms in line with the keyboard,  and bowing down to get his ear to the ivory. His solos were heartfelt, hugely intelligent and a masterclass in “being there”.

The encore was, I was told, a quartet arrangement of part of a Requiem Tord has written for large choir. It provided the perfect closure to what had been a perfectly judged concert.



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