An interview with Tord Gustavsen
After three highly successful trio albums - "Changing Places", "The Ground", "Being There" - amongst the most popular ECM recordings of the last decade, you're proposing a strikingly different music and introducing a reconfigured band on "Restored, Returned". It's hard, of course, to add a fourth volume to a trilogy (!), but did you feel that the trio format had run its course?
Trio playing is still a fundamental passion for me. And I still value the quality of staying with things in organic growth and development, rather than the restlessness of always introducing contrasts and changes in personnel and approach. But this was a very good time and place to take some of my side projects – musical relationships developed over time alongside the trio work – into the main frame of an album release under my name.
Furthermore, I feel that the new ensemble is just as much a natural prolongation of what I have been doing in the trio as it is a "different" kind of music. Musical intimacy – a strong focus on making small details and finer nuances breathe and grow – is just as central to it all. The melodic emphasis is there, the urge for stripped-down beauty. And lastly, several of the new compositions are based on musical miniatures that kept happening as improvised interludes during trio concerts; a form of abstract lullabies combining tonal ambiguity with almost simplistic melodic movements. So, although the music is different with new colours added, the link between the new ensemble and the trio period remains strong.
Some of the new music was written in response to a commission from the Vossajazz Festival. Live performance there included Cecile Jørstad on spoken-word vocals as well as Kristin Asbjørnsen on sung vocals. How did you arrive at the final line-up for the album?
The spoken-word part of it was in Norwegian, thus not very accessible for an international audience. Furthermore, as much as I want an album to have a unified, overall purpose offering something unique to those who listen through it as a whole, I also wanted the release to consist of tunes or songs that can be listened to as individual tracks or small "mantras". I wanted to approach the album just as much as a collection of cherished melodies, as as a unified "work". The concert version with spoken word and musical transitions binding everything together seemed better suited for stage than album in this respect.
You've often said that singers are amongst your most important influences as a player and have had an impact on your own shaping of a melodic line. On "Restored, Returned" 'singing' seems to be central to the music. As well as Kristin's contribution, we have the fine post-Garbarek saxophonist Tore Brunborg, singing through the medium of his horns. How does the proximity of such musicians change your role in the ensemble and what can be said about responsibilities and freedoms for the assembled improvisers here?
Interacting with strong lyrical voices is a huge inspiration for me. Inviting Tore and Kristin into the ensemble changes my role a bit of course; there is slightly less piano featured in theme statements, and also less piano "soloing" in the traditional sense. However, Tore and Kristin share a fundamental duality in their playing and thinking: They are very strong individuals with characteristic sounds and highly original phrasing, but at the same time very committed ensemble players. Both of them move seamlessly between supportive and soloistic aspects of their musical presence, making the totality of the ensemble a dream forum for creative interaction for me. So, the change in my role is not all that drastic – it is more an addition of two more dialogues in the overall musical conversation.
As well as ensemble playing, the music also develops through sequences of duo and trio interaction – was this part of the ground plan? And did the approach to the work change in the course of recording it?
The album is more about exploring the different duos and trios and quartets within the totality of the five people than it is about using the full force of five voices together, yes. This was not really a plan in the first place, but developed very naturally. Part of the reason is probably that I have been doing a lot of duo playing over the years, including duos with both Kristin and Tore. And there have been frequent piano-drums duo sequences with Jarle in trio concerts, too. The transparency and musical flexibility of duo settings are very appealing to me; and in the abstract lullabies on this album, like the opening and ending pieces with Tore and Kristin respectively, we get a fragile yet comforting sound in the duos which really made the compositions shine the way I wanted them to. The approach to the material changed slightly during the recording session, but more regarding the order of the tunes than regarding arrangements. Here, Manfred Eicher played a very fruitful role in hearing the material with fresh ears and suggesting adjustments and re-grouping of tunes.
What drew you to the verse of W.H. Auden, which Kristin Asbjørnsen sings here?
I was only familiar with a couple of Auden's most well-known poems in Norwegian translations until I spent an off-day on a UK tour in Oxford going to book stores looking for inspiration in the poetry sections... I found "Another Time" there and it immediately opened up to me in a combination of clarity and mystery. I look for instant gratification in poetry if it is to accompany music – metaphors and phrases must have a sensuous appeal both in pure sounds and in the associations evoked. But the poems must also bear the promise of deeper rewards through re-reading and reflection. The poems we use share this quality: you can find yourself at home with them just by understanding half of the words and catching a line here and there on first listen, but you can sit down with them and spend days exploring layers of meaning.
On the album the treatment of the poems from "Another Time" (1940) is, frequently, decidedly bluesy. Now, these were amongst the first of Auden's poems to be published after he moved to America. Did this historical detail influence your settings of the venerable English poet?
Interesting question – but as I wasn't aware of this biographical fact, any link here must have been unconscious. Also, I tend to end up with a – transformed and abstracted, but still fundamental – bluesy quality or a gospel touch in most of my work anyway.
Let's move through the tracks on the album, one by one. Perhaps you could tell us a little about each, starting with "The Child Within".
A lullaby piece, composed especially with Tore Brunborg's sound in mind, for our first duo concert in 2007. A fragile kind of beauty opens up the album, setting the stage for what we're hoping to do, while also being a piece of gentle closure in itself.
An improvised piece, piano solo leading into drums-piano duo interaction. Lots of space in the beginning, and small motives leading into a little climax, thus already introducing more dynamics and contrast than we are known for. Then the bass enters, with Mats Eilertsen's full and warm sound, introducing himself in an unaccompanied solo section responding to the foregoing improvisation.
"Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love"
A profane gospel song, with lots of space and a slow groove. Kristin's voice enters the scene, with warmth and emotional depth that catches me and moves me every time.
A lullaby-like theme, played over a groove highlighting Jarle Vespestad's incredible touch. The piece is also a prime example of Tore Brunborg's warm tenor sax tone, really bringing out the potential in the melody; and then commenting on it and expanding it in very tasteful and brief improvisation.
A piece in two sections, first with rubato opening and then a hymn-like chorus. I love repeating a chorus like that. It celebrates finding one's way back home, into the warmth of communion and "fire of praising" (a phrase from the poems used), but transformed and enriched by the unknown territories you've visited. Life is not so much about linear movement – it is about spirals and hermeneutic circles. Coming back to the gospel mode is like that to me – both musically and spiritually – it is a constant source of warmth and energy when approached from fresh angles.
"Left Over Lullaby No. 2"
A lullaby with a humming melody placed in tonal ambiguity. Everyone is in here, taking turns in contributing to the melody and offering distinct colours.
"The Swirl" / "Wrapped In A Yielding Air"
A line that echoes the feel of Norwegian "slått" – dance forms in our folk music. Mats' bass playing is subtly funky, in a really uplifting way. The middle section introduces another Auden poem without a fixed melody, with Kristin reciting forcefully.
"Left Over Lullaby No. 1" / "O Stand, Stand At The Window"
A mini-suite that contains a lullaby with somewhat more dynamic shapes than the others, and a song over another Auden poem performed in vocal-piano duo. This lullaby was the initial idea and first composition for the commissioned work for the Vossajazz Festival that evolved into the repertoire of the album. The theme is stated in a broad and evolving unison with everyone playing the theme several times in different octaves. I love the way Kristin also enters into this with high pitches on the verge of breaking but still so tenderly and beautifully carried out.
"Your Crooked Heart"
A freely interpreted instrumental version of the song in the previous track – and the only piece on the album in the classic piano-bass-drums trio format. A steady pulse going into rubato free -time gradually, and myself stretching out more in the improvisation than on the other tracks. I love doing that when it feels right – just as much as I dislike doing it when it feels uncalled for. Obeying the melody, and serving the music as an unfolding and integrated whole, remains the main priority.
To me this is a fundamental theme in our collection of melodies; a rolling lullaby feeling with understated funky undercurrents; expressive improvisation without losing the basic feel and atmosphere of the theme; lots of call -and -response interplay instead of ego-focused soloing; open tonality while closing in on down-homeness frequently. I love Jarle and Mats as a funky rhythm section – the way they combine creative interplay and steady grooving without forcing anything. And I love Tore's organic version of selfless virtuosity in music making.
"Left Over Lullaby No. 3"
An interlude that became a cherished little tune in itself, as we felt the short theme and the condensed chord progression conveyed something substantial. The piece has been performed in piano solo as an encore on concerts, but here it is played in duo with Kristin adding wordless singing and a beautiful miniature improvisation, completing the circle of the album with rough yet soothing sounds, in a lullaby we hope listeners will carry with them.
The Ensemble has a lot of live work coming up in the months ahead, including a major tour of the UK, festivals in Germany, and a series of Norwegian dates. The British dates, I believe, will feature the quartet with Tore Brunborg, Mat Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad, and the Norwegian dates the quintet with Kristin. Which constellations can we expect to see in 2010?
The ensemble can operate in duo, trio, quartet and quintet versions – that's one of the great things about the new formation; it is flexible but still consisting of a steady group of musicians who know the music well and have been playing together over time. Among the projects to come are an extended tour of Germany in April 2010 as instrumental quartet, a tour of Portugal in February 2010 also in quartet; a US release tour March 2010 in quintet format; and a sextet tour in Norway in February/March 2010, also including Cecilie Jørstad on spoken words.
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