Monday, 19 October 2009

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble @ Queens Hall, Edinburgh...

It may have taken a few days to get this posted, but then it has also taken a few days for the effects of the gig to sink in and fully hit home. Just as Tord seems to consider and deliberately execute every stroke of the piano keys, a pause for reflection probably wasn't a bad idea really, although in truth there's little I could have done to write up the gig any earlier having only just arrived home after a few days of much needed holiday in Edinburgh. What I suppose I'm trying to say is this: Friday night was deeply impressive, and I don't often leave a concert hall feeling so completely satisfied. In order to set in in context and get some perspective takes a decent amount of time, so rather than stringing together a list of superlatives and pressing 'publish', I've taken some time to reflect.

Although I've enjoyed his trio of trio discs for ECM and enthusiastically greeted Restored, Returned when I first heard it last week, it should be noted that I didn't go along as a committed fan ready to enthusiastically lap up anything he offered. Despite having had other opportunities to hear him play, this was the first time I'd actually committed to going out to hear him live. I went into the gig looking for some confirmation of his talents, needing to be fully won over. The '70s is really my favourite decade for Manfred Eicher's iconic ECM label, and the Esbjörn Svensson effect - a superficial reinvention of the piano trio to a point where they're proliferating at a rate which makes them too hard to properly evaluate - has also made me harder to impress when it comes to this old established format.

It turned out that in much the same way as with Marcin Wasilewski earlier this year, first hand experience was enough to make the breakthrough. There's really nothing like seeing a good live performance to help understand what makes a musician tick. Last Friday I feel as though I may have got close to understanding where lies the bottom of Gustavsen's estimable depths, and as a result I now feel more comfortable to embrace him as an outstanding talent.

The opening night of a 10 date UK tour and the first time that this particular quartet had played together in concert, Gustavsen seemed to sense that something special was in the air. Everything about the leader was hushed and respectful, and his quiet introductions of the musicians - Tore Brunborg, Mats Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad - spoke volumes about how pleased he was to be there with them. Integral to the performance was the sound engineer, brought on the tour as the Ensemble's 'fifth member', and rather like seeing true high definition television for the first time, you wish that standards could always be as high and are surely in for a disappointment next time you go back to a standard presentation. In some branches of jazz such clinical precision may not be necessary, but for Gustavsen's subtle gestural music it is imperative.



Unlike the latest CD, where the fifth ensemble member is vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen, last Friday's music was purely instrumental. Gustavsen has worked with vocalists - notably Silje Nergaard - in the past, but for this tour the band were cut back to a four piece. From several short lullabies to feature pieces such as 'The Child Within' and 'The Swirl', the new album was the group's main focus, and the same low key and thoughtful modes of expression predominated. 'The Gaze' stood out among the newer pieces, though everything that the quartet did was in truth perfectly executed. Only on the Spanish-tinged modal piece 'Where We Went' did the group seem to let go, a strictly relative relative observation in as much as the ensemble's letting simply consisted of digging in to a deep modal groove. Normally I'd be looking for dirty blemishes, grit and grease as a sign of authenticity, but Gustavsen establishes a convincing exception. He has no need for any of that in his music, and you only need to see him writhe at the piano stool to know that he's lost in the process, as deeply involved in the act of making music where everything counts as any expressionistic avant-gardist.

If there was anything about the music that was disappointing then it was Brunborg, only because he relied so heavily on Garbarek for his voice and direction. Rather like hearing a Coltrane disciple with no twists of individuality, the effect is slightly uncomfortable when you strongly believe (as I do) that jazz should be about individual expression. For a Norwegian to lean so heavily on an influence is of course no worse than the hundreds of Coltrane disciples around the world who bring nothing new to the table, and as far as this particular project is concerned it must be said that Brunborg's approach was perfectly fitting and appropriate.

The long-haired almost bear-like bassist Mats Eilertsen oozed cool concentration, his rich woody tone and guitar-like virtuosity recalling the heyday of Palle Danielsson. Vespestad seemed to be in a constant state of slow motion or suspended animation. A heavily miked drum kit meant that the smallest gesture resonated around the walls of this beautiful old hall, and given the group's almost holy asceticism - they even closed the set with an 'evening prayer' - the former church made a fitting arena for such a deeply moving and in some ways ritualistic performance.

This trip had started out as another hardly required excuse to have a weekend away in Edinburgh. What we witnessed at The Queens Hall on Friday was something very special, and after the sonic-slugging that characterised much of 'On The Outside' last week it was impressive proof that intensity and passion can be just as powerfully realised in quieter ways. Anybody can play loudly and with a lack of discipline, but to distil so much emotion into such a potent brew is something that you don't encounter every day. To say that 'less is more' misses the point because the same quiet approach that Gustavsen shares with Cor Fuhler and latter day Crispell is not actually 'less'. Welcome to my quiet revolution...

Fred Grand

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