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„Variation in Continuity“ – an interview with Tord Gustavsen

On „Restored Returned“, your first album after the trilogy of trio albums, you had experimented with a variety of line-up formats, from duo to quintet. What made you settle with a quartet this time?

First and foremost it was a very natural process for me. After the release of “Restored, Returned” we did some touring with the full quintet line-up and some touring as a quartet, but the quartet was the formation that kept developing the best as an ensemble. So it felt logical to keep that momentum and to write and build a repertoire for the quartet. Also it is a group of musicians that I really like to travel with and really like to play with, so it has over the past two or three years definitely developed into my main formation for touring.

You have indeed performed in a variety of different settings, from solo to works with the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. So do you view the quartet as your base working group now?

Yes, it indeed is – but in a slightly different way than the trio was in its days. Because playing in duo, trio or even in extended formats of the ensemble feels like the natural complement to the basic quartet work. It is a really fruitful situation, because we get the combination of stability from having a steady working group, and stimulation from working with the material from different angles.

When did the ideas for “The Well” begin to take shape?

It began right after the release of “Returned, Restored” because I had started writing material that already pointed in this direction. It developed very gradually, the repertoire kept adding new aspects slowly – that is how I prefer to develop things actually. In the course of these years I also had two commissions to work on, which turned out to fit very naturally in the material for the album. So even though I feel that “The Well” has become a very unified and coherent album, it still is a mixture of songs written individually and of pieces written as a commission for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in England 2011 and pieces for the Oslo International Church Music Festival 2011.

Are you able to compose while you are on the road or do you have to go into seclusion somewhere to write?

Both models work for me – to a certain extent. Sometimes I get the best ideas on the road – on soundchecks or in hotels or on airplanes. But to see musical totality or to shape a commissioned work in its entirety I need to be at home and be by myself. Not necessarily in isolation for several days, though. I work better when I spend a few hours in total concentration and then move out of it for a while.

Do you have a kind of masterplan, when you approach a new album? Do you have very definite concepts or ideas of what you want to artistically achieve with an album?

Yes and no. There usually is a vision or a plan (and of course collecting the pieces that we want to record is also a way of making a plan). But it is very important to combine this vision with a kind of radical openness there and then, because nothing ever turns out exactly as planned – and music is greater than plans anyway. The situation in the studio with the musicians has its effects, how they feel on a given date, and how the energy flows and evolves between us. If you get in there with no concept at all it is dangerous because you risk getting a result that lacks a clear profile. But it is equally dangerous to get in there with a plan that is too stiff.
My vision for the recording of “The Well” is in many respects clearly present in the result but also many things turned out different in a positive way! I had originally thought that we would do maybe a bit more of the internal duo or trio playing inside the quartet, but it happened that the overall quartet energy was so good that we just kept playing. Now apart from two trio tunes the rest of the album is in full quartet and that became very natural.
Also before the recording session I may have some idea as to what pieces are essential or central to the musical message of the album – but that may very well change and another tune may end up as the first tune on the album. And a tune that you always play well in concert might turn out as something that you don’t get really right in the studio, so you have to skip it. These things are always very fascinating.

Which tunes do you now see as cornerstones of “The Well”?

The title track, “The Well“, has a bit more elaborate harmonics than we had on our previous albums. It is a bit denser, more things happen and darker as well but still a very melodic tune. And even though we play a bit more, it is still about breath and the space between the notes. So it sums up some things that are different on this album compared to the earlier albums, while still staying very much in the flow of what I have been doing before. The tune “Circling” has in a weird way become a central piece to me, because we totally changed the way we played it in the studio – it got a very fresh, minimalist gospel type energy – almost simplistic, but with some weird little twists in it. There is this combination of groundedness and openness at the same time, which has been my basic musical ideology since the first album.

Two years ago, when you spoke in interviews about “Restored, Returned”, you mentioned that you had composed the tune “Child Within” with Tore Brunborg in mind. Does it happen regularly that you write with a certain player in mind? Was it also the case with some tracks on “The Well”?

Well, in a way more than before. My writing nowadays is done often with this particular quartet in mind. Because I know a lot about the strengths of the individual musicians and I know what kind of landscapes we usually develop together in concerts. So writing this material has consciously or subconsciously definitely been defined by my knowledge of the quartet.

In earlier stages of your career you have gathered a lot of experience accompanying singers. Is your role in the quartet right now, having Tore Brunborg at the front, similar to that of an accompanist of singers?

There are definitely strong parallels between playing with Tore and playing with a singer in that Tore is really a strong melodic thinker. He never plays too much. He is extremely into the lyrical side of the themes. And his phrasing is really singing. The way I interact with Tore is very much the same combination of supporting and challenging as you use with singers. But in the relationship between saxophone and piano it is natural to enter even more flexibly in and out of foreground and background roles, whereas the singer’s role almost by definition is in the foreground. Kristin Asbjørnsen did some very beautiful ensemble singing without words on our previous album – and when she does that it is just the same democratic interchange of musical flow as it is with an instrumentalist – but still a singer with words will always be more to the front. So with a sax player it is easier to be flexible in terms of changing roles or changing places within the ensemble.

You once mentioned that “Restored Returned” had a secret topic or subtext as its themes had all been conceived as a kind of lullabies. Does “The Well” also have such a secret undercurrent thematically?

Not in that way, but this whole notion of abstract lullabies still describes what I do quite well – also on this album, because the tunes, even though they are all different regarding their grooves, their textures or their level of energy, can all be hummed like a lullaby. So in my composing a good hummable melody is still the starting point of things. But with this album it was mostly a matter of arriving at a good selection from all the material we had available, including the commissioned pieces, and creating a good balance between continuity and subtle variation.

The running order of the tracks is interesting. There is a prelude, a suite, and a “Glasgow Intro” in between. Also the piece “Communion” later comes back as a kind of reprise – what is the idea behind all that?

The link to church music is important to me. I think that a kind of gravity from hymns and spirituals is fundamental in my musical orientation. Also, seeing a concert or an album as a kind of liturgical journey makes a lot of sense to me. Furthermore, the tunes “Prelude” and “Communion” are taken from the commission written to the Oslo Church Music Festival, so it was natural to use these titles. “Prelude” is a little tune in itself of course, but primarily it opens up the soundscape for the musical journey on “The Well”. When it comes to “Communion” – it is a beautiful word, and it carries this double meaning: the liturgical sense of the sacrament of Communion is one side of it, but it also signifies the companionship, the being together, the kind of intimate closeness of playing in a band.

Interview: Christian Stolberg

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