This past June, Coastal Jazz brought a very unique trio to town that defied my expectations to deliver one of the most sublime concerts of the year at Christ Church Cathedral.
Tord Gustavsen has led a traditional piano trio for many years now, one which normally serves up a very pristine and beautiful (if often mournful) music. It’s almost out of place within the ECM catalogue because it is, on first impression, so very softly melodic, yearning and romantic. There is little in the way of abstraction, improvisation or inverted and toyed-with melodies that are typical of so many ECM recordings. His first trio outing for ECM was 2003’s Changing Places which features a gauzy curtain-like image on the cover which fits the mood almost too precisely. It would be dinner background music if you failed to listen carefully. But do. It’s so lovely!
Along with bassist Harald Johnsen (and more recently Mats Eilerstsen) in his usual working group is drummer Jarle Vespestad, who was previously with the insanely talented improvising Norwegian supergroup known as Supersilent (which they certainly were not, which was one reason he headed to the fold with Gustavsen). I’d seen him in 2008 with Supersilent and was initially surprised at hearing him settle into a far less abstract jazz idiom. With Gustavsen’s material, Vespestad frequently sticks to fingertip, brush and soft mallet. He’s a subtle master and his restrained style leaves no hint at the power and fury he’s capable of generating in other settings.
And that becomes the point. Gustavsen seems to cherish restraint and all of his recordings follow a similar path. Nothing is underdone or overdone. Everything seems considered and polished, but not to the point of preciousness. I’d previously avoided seeing him live because as much as I enjoy the recordings, I couldn’t imagine it translating well to the concert hall and generating much excitement. But that was a mistake, and I nearly did it again this year.
The new CD is called What was said, and in place of a bassist, it features Afghan/German singer Simin Tander. It is a unique set because it has Tord reworking traditional Norwegian Lutheran hymns (with which he was raised), creating new pieces around the poetry of Rumi, and otherwise creating delicate, gem-like fusions around themes of grief, longing and unbound faith. Simin sings the pieces in English, Pashto and an improvised, imagined language where translation isn’t necessary…or possible! However, a quiet room and a good sound system is. It almost comes at a whisper at times, so much so that I imagined the music risked being so delicate as to float away in a venue like Christ Church Cathedral when performed live.
On the evening of the concert I had a front row seat, right in front of the minimal drum kit. The trio emerges and right away there is the feeling that something special’s going to happen. And it does. Jarle comes out in a dark, snug suit and eventually brings out a glass of red wine. A class act, and he is a joy to watch in performance. Tord also cut a fine, gentlemanly figure and stopped on occasion to speak (softly) about the music and the international and interfaith nature of some of the pieces.
Most of the new CD is performed, but offering versions that make it a live tour de force! Simin Tander is magnificent and lets fly several times during many ebbs and swells of the evening which are bathed in a subtle electronic soundscapes and given added weight with Tord playing synth bass parts with the left hand. Simin was most riveting when she employed singing techniques which I cannot name but I assume are typical of, or adapted from, her ancestral homeland. The Cathedral, under tarps and scaffolding while restoration and construction carry on, was not only the perfect venue but felt like the perfect place for discovering a new faith in the live experience of a music steeped in several.
The next morning I met Tord and Simin at The Sandman Inn, one of the least appealing looking hotels in the city’s least appealing downtown zone. An aging 1980s sports architecture aesthetic dominates the area and I was at a loss for location options. Oh, and I had 15 minutes before they were to be picked up to be taken to the airport. Gracious and generous, they arrived at my makeshift spot by a shelter on the QE Theatre plaza, coffees in hand. They looked effortlessly great. We enjoyed a brief chat and were able to get these portraits done in time for them to make the connection for their show that night in Rochester! Sometimes you just need a little faith!
Check them out here: