It is over a decade since the Norwegian pianist TORD GUSTAVSEN first made gentle yet very distinctive waves with his piano trio. Now, after quartet albums and his vocal/piano/drums project What Was Said, he returns to the classic jazz piano trio format for a new ECM album, The Other Side, and an extensive UK tour which begins later his month and culminates in an EFG London Jazz Festival concert. Peter Bacon interviewed him by email.
LondonJazz News: It’s been 11 years since your last piano/bass/drums trio album, and in the interim period you have included saxophone and vocals in your group recordings. Why the return to the trio format for The Other Side, and why now?
Tord Gustavsen: It has not felt right until now. After the tragically early passing of bass player Harald Johnsen from my first trio, it did not feel right to just do a new trio with the same instruments. Also, the quartet with Tore Brunborg on saxophone, and the project with vocalist Simin Tander, were both formations that demanded full attention as bands and musical organisms, and that developed strongly over time. And then, when I started thinking that it could be time to do trio again – with the piano more in the main melodic foreground, it all had to mature into a situation where I could avoid thinking about how to “follow up’ the old trio, and instead just play, here and now, un-forced.
LJN: Most of your albums – and certainly all the piano trio ones – have been recorded in the depths of a Norwegian winter. Accident or design? And if by design, does the season play a vital part in affecting the mood of the music?
TG: This has happened mostly by accident, I think. January is a good month to record, though, because there is often not so much touring going on then. I really don’t know how much the season affects the music – but it’s fair to assume that there are some links…
LJN: Drummer Jarle Vespestad has been the constant in all your recordings. What makes him special?
TG: His extreme ability to combine attentive interplay and melodic focus with stable foundations and subtle groove. And his skills in dynamics – the ability to play extremely quietly over time when needed. And his sound – you can immediately hear that he is playing. And the fact that he actually likes my music enough to stick with it…
LJN: And tell us about Sigurd Hole, the double bassist on The Other Side. How did you meet and what does he bring to the trio?
TG: I met Sigurd a few years ago when he played with me in a project with choir and poetry recital in Norway, and I liked his playing a lot. Sigurd then joined my quartet when Mats Eilertsen left around 2014-15, and did some concerts with us, a tour of Australia and New Zealand, plus concerts in Norway, Poland, Turkey, Romania and the UK. After this, the focus shifted to the project with Simin Tander and the album What Was Said with world-wide touring in 2016 and 2017, with synth-bass and drones instead of traditional double bass.
Still, what we had started with Sigurd kept maturing under the surface, and when we took up trio playing in 2017 the interplay was already there, and has developed further into a musical relationship that I really cherish. Sigurd brings the right kind of musical patience and wisdom – and stable, yet inventive playing. And he has very special arco skills – that is, playing with the bow on the double bass with various techniques. And this adds new textures and also percussive elements to the soundscape.
LJN: Your own playing on The Other Side sounds to me not only like a further honing of your style, but also – in seeming contradiction – a broadening of it. Is that a fair hearing? Are there new influences that you feel you are bringing to your compositions and improvisations?
TG: I really appreciate you seeing it like this. In a way, there is nothing ‘new’ on The Other Side from my side as compared to what I have been doing with the quartet, with Simin Tander, and in my solo concerts the last couple of years. But then, if you compare it to the earlier trio albums, there is a substantial development.
I like the term “broadening” – it is not so much about linear development and leaving something behind, it is about including new ideas, stretching out, and returning to your main “themes” or musical “message” in ever new ways. I play more “orchestrally” on some tunes now, I play more abstractly on some tunes, I play even more reduced on some tunes, but there are also more dynamics. And still a basic contemplative approach. And I use some electronics and deep-end sounds (the album deserves to be listened to on good speakers and with the volume turned up to really hear the deep-end qualities and the textures produced by electronics on some tunes).
All this has been gradually growing in my playing during the 11 years since the last trio album, especially during the last five years. The influences come from many sources – for example from listening to electronic music, from playing Bach with a choir and a Norwegian fiddle player (!), from playing with Iranian musicians – and fundamentally from listening closely to classical piano players and being inspired by their touch and the way they shape timbre-colours.
LJN: You have included in the album your arrangements of other composers. Tell me about them and why you chose them.
TG: Hymns and chorales have always been an important part of my musical “self” – as a listener, as a non-dogmatic liberal church-goer, and as a performer. But they did not make their way into the albums under my name until What Was Said in 2016 (except for the one track Eg veit i himmerik ei borg on Extended Circle from 2014). It feels very natural now to combine original compositions and folk tunes and even the Bach chorales – it did not before… I guess we had to arrive at a point where we just played with it, and did not try too hard… and, concerning Bach, to a point where the respect for the great master turned into gratitude and freedom rather than anxiety and doubts as to what is “allowed”. Of course, one can not “improve” Bach – his compositions are so complete and perfect. So, we had to arrive at a point where we could steal and borrow in the most unforced way and simply treat these amazingly good songs as just that; good songs to approach with a here-and-now attitude as jazz musicians approach their “standards”.
Then, the hymns and chorales we play are also really important to me as texts, although we do instrumental versions. I often think of the lyrics when performing them – in a way we indirectly interpret or comment on the message of the texts. The Bach chorales are important in this way: O, Traurigkeit is a lament – expressing deep sorrow and longing for release. Jesu, meine Freude is about deep joy, the joy that lies under our ups and downs and embraces both suffering and celebration. And Schlafes Bruder is actually a song about welcoming death – but here our interpretation is more paradoxical. Jarle started playing a really uplifting groove during a rehearsal, and I just felt that this theme could perhaps fit, although quite far from how it’s usually played… and all of a sudden we were indirectly interpreting the chorale as being about release in resurrection – about new life on The Other Side (sic.) of suffering, or moving towards the light…
LJN: You have described in a previous interview with me the idea that “a concert is a meditation”. Can you expand on that idea? And also, how does a recording differ from a concert – how does a listening audience in the room, or the absence of one, affect your performance?
TG: Both an album and a concert to me can have a structure almost like Prelude (opening up, purifying our minds and getting rid of distractions etc.); Kyrie (confession / openness / transparency / willingness to surrender); Gloria (celebration / deep joy); Agnus Dei (contemplation on the divine presence or the “sacred” incarnated in us here and now, whether or not one uses a word like God); Communion (companionship, shared presence); Sanctus (release and gratitude); Interludes (small spaces to take a breath); and Postlude (ending and re-affirmation). This parallell between mass and concert means a lot to me, although I don’t follow it in any strict way in normal concerts. Furthermore, playing itself equals meditating or praying to me – opening up, being vulnerable, stretching your mind outwards and observing the innermost vibrations at the same time, sometimes receiving gifts of insight, breathing deeply.
As for the audience, the most beautiful thing is when you can feel that they take part in all this – that we are on the journey together. But I can never be an entertainer – I will never be able to play for the audience first and foremost. I have to play for myself first and try to make the music I would have liked to listen to myself, and then expand the circle to include the audience and experience them. The other way round would not have worked for me. (pp)
The Tord Gustavsen Trio’s The Other Side is now out on ECM.
26 October: The Tower Digital Arts Centre, Helensburgh
27 October: Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
28 October: Triskel ECM Weekend, Guinness Cork Jazz Festival
29 October: The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
30 October: St. George’s, Bristol Keyboard Festival
31 October: Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
1 November: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
2 November: Turner Sims, Southampton
3 November: Lakeside Arts, Nottingham
16 November: Cadogan Hall, EFG London Jazz Festival