In the two years that have elapsed since the recording of a debut album that proved both a popular and a critical success, the Tord Gustavsen Trio have toured extensively, many miles of roadwork serving to emphasise and underline the uniqueness of Gustavsen's concept. Of the very many Norwegian artists that ECM has introduced over the years, Tord Gustavsen must count as one of the least “Nordic” in musical temperament. If the contemplative component of his music and its quietude still reflect Scandinavian priorities, the manner in which he has sought and located connections to early jazz – especially the blues, gospel music, and the nexus of Caribbean music and New Orleans jazz - is entirely his own. Tord Gustavsen is looking out at the tradition from a highly personal perspective, making sense of both his background as a Norwegian, and his enthusiasms as a jazz scholar and player.
"The Ground" reveals a stronger sense of purpose and a greater conceptual rigour than its predecessor: without sacrificing the clear-edged melodic sensibility that can already be considered one of the hallmarks of Gustavsen’s writing, the musicians are better able to do improvise within the structure of the pieces.
“In the course of touring”, says Tord Gustavsen, “we’ve come to a deeper understanding of our strengths. We’re both a very melodic trio and a very freedom-searching trio, and both those aspects may be clearer on the new record. The strong but somewhat abstract ‘gospel’ or ‘hymnal’ feel in much of our playing has also become more evident and central to our approach during the last couple of years. I think this relates to a constant urge to unite ‘openness’ with solid and sensuous foundations.” Gospel elements in the music go back to Gustavsen’s childhood and to teenage years spent playing the piano in church. “The hymnal elements in our music represent a kind of post-modern but sincere ‘sacred’ attitude in our approach to music at large. And wordless hymns may also have emerged from my personal need for music of support and hope in times of grief.”
The relationship of written material to improvising is calibrated differently in this trio, with none of bebop’s impatient rushing past the “heads” to improvise on the changes. These tunes don’t work that way. “I like to think of a piece as a whole. And I’ll use a lot of fragments from the composed piece, melodic fragments, also in my improvisations. Sometimes small fragments used for development. In any case, it’s imperative, for us, to have a real relationship between composition and improvisation -- it's an organic thing. All members of the trio are very focused on that.” Yet simultaneously the band members are taking greater freedoms, with drummer Jarle Vespestad in particular playing through the song-forms with much creativity and subtlety, and, to quote Gustavsen, “expressive minimalism”.
The Gustavsen Trio toured the world’s festivals even before making their first ECM recordings, with all three members comprising the band of popular singer Silje Nergaard. Singers figure prominently in Gustavsen’s history, much of his work has been with vocalists. Singers number amongst his most important influences, too, the names of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith often coming up in conversations with him. It can be argued that his piano style, honouring and caressing a melody, owes at least as much to singers as it does to other pianists, although he has of course paid due attention to Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, as well as to Jon Balke and Lennie Tristano.
“The Ground” is being rush-released in Australia, firstly, in time for the Trio’s appearance at the Wangaratta Festival near Melbourne on October 29/30/31. European and North American releases follow in January/February 2005.
Demand for live concerts by the band is high for 2005. A central European tour is planned for February, followed by US and Japanese dates in April, and in October the trio will make another British tour.