The Tord Gustavsen Quartet l to r: Jarle Vespestad, Tore Brunborg, Tord Gustavsen, Mats Eilertsen
I like a bit of melancholia in my music, and you couldn’t get more melancholy than the second album by the Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground – described in the Guardian when it was released in 2005 as wallowing ‘in those feelings of faint melancholy you get when gazing out of the window on a wet Sunday afternoon’. The spare, slow moving but hauntingly beautiful melody of ‘Tears Transforming’, the opening track of that album, was my introduction to the Norwegian pianist’s trio which, ‘if there was an award for the quietest band in the world’ – to quote the Guardian again – ‘would win it hands down’.
On Sunday evening we went to the Barbican’s new Milton Court venue, exquisitely furnished in what could possibly be Norwegian wood, to hear Tord Gustavsen’s Quartet play a considerably more dynamic show. The music here – as on Extended Circle, the new album by the Quartet – sounded more muscular, more purposeful, than on the trio of restrained Trio albums (Changing Places, The Ground and Being There) that we have grown to love in our house. I don’t know to what extent the addition of saxophonist Tore Brunborg was responsible – he was certainly not alone in launching off from the passages of meditative stillness into less fragile, more gloves-off improvisations.
They began quietly enough, as Gustavsen explored the keys of the piano almost inaudibly, the hush broken only by the whispering of brushed cymbal from Jarle Vespestad. But Gustavsen was soon on his feet, Keith Jarrett-style, black-suited and hunched over the keyboards like some Nosferatu figure, writhing and twisting as the sinuous melodies spooled out. Jarle Vespestad is, apparently, renowned for his aggressive drumming; as if recognising his own predilections, but affecting some restraint, at times he applied a towel to his drum kit, in order to muffle the sound.
The programme consisted of tunes from the new Quartet album, Extended Circle, along with older trio pieces – all of them re-worked in fine improvisations that revealed an ensemble in perfect tune with each other. In interviews about the new album Gustavsen has agreed that the quartet cuts loose more than on the trio albums:
But to me, it is the same basic approach. We’ve always had a combination of restraint and passion, but that can work out in different ways. On this album we’ve found ways to include a bit more dynamic and more…you could even say extroverted playing, within our framework of a contemplative, stripped-down approach.
Gustavsen introduced several of the numbers in a hoarse whisper. One, he said, was in a major key – ‘something rather difficult for us as Norwegian musicians; we are more at home in the minor, the melancholy’. But there’s something else: he has described some of his songs as ‘wordless hymns’:
I grew up singing hymns. Whenever I can stretch out for new land musically on the basis of a fundamental hymnal structure, then the music becomes liberated. Anyone can play weird stuff, it’s finding a way that feels rooted yet free, and for me, that freedom is connected with spirituals and lullabies.
This religious influence has often been acknowledged by Gustavsen, who played in church while growing up, and it was apparent at times in this performance. Introducing ‘Eg Veit I Himmerick Ei Borg’ (‘A Castle in Heaven’) from the new album, Gustavsen explained that it is based on a Norwegian folk song, often sung at funerals, which nevertheless has at its heart a message of hope:
I know of a heavenly stronghold
shining as bright as the sun;
there are neither sin nor sorrow
and never a tear is shed.
I am a weary traveller;
may my path lead me
from here to the land of my father;
God, protect me on my way.
Gustavsen says has known this tune since childhood:
It carries an intense duality of sorrow and hope, both in its music and in its lyrics. And those lyrics are at the back of my head. Hymns and spirituals are a fundamental part of my core and it’s a blessing to find new and mature ways of relating to those roots.
It’s on this beautiful number especially that Tore Brunborg’s sax soars to the most passionate solo of the night – one very much in the style of Jan Garbarek. It’s a spine-tingling moment in a a brilliant concert.
With regard to the title of the new album, Gustavsen has described the Quartet as:
A creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective. The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead… we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.
This passion for uniting raw emotion with elegance and an almost meditational type of playing will never be finished. It’s probably my life’s mission to keep exploring the different dilemmas and challenges and potentials of that, because it’s connected to a very fundamental life purpose of mine – musically and spiritually – to unite intense presence with calmness.
– Tord Gustavsen