The Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is renowned for the hypnotically hushed tones of the half-dozen albums he has recorded for ECM during the last 15 years. So we were not entirely surprised on Saturday evening, in the stripped-back surroundings of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, to experience jazz at its quietest and most minimal.
Gustavsen’s latest project, unveiled a few weeks ago on his latest release What Was Said, features his regular drummer Jarle Vespestad with Simin Tander, a German-Afghan vocalist. Together, the three musicians take Gustavsen’s minimalist approach to an ultimate level of beauty and perfection.
Holding steadfast to the principle of less is more, on his ECM albums Tord Gustavsen has created a distinctive musical landscape primarily based around a conventional piano, bass and drums trio that distils the music he grew up with – Norwegian hymns and classic jazz – into a unique and exquisitely minimalist style of chamber jazz.
In the remote village of Hurdal at the head of a mountain lake, the son of a Lutheran preacher, Tord first played piano in churches, accompanying local choirs, before combining a classical training with writing his own music that drew upon themes from gospel and jazz-fusion. This lifelong interest in his country’s church music can be traced in the earlier albums, but has emerged as the defining influence on What Was Said – though with an unexpected twist. On the album Gustavsen has taken majestic tunes from the Lutheran hymnal, had their lyrics translated into Pashto by an Afghani poet, and then sung by the entrancing German-Afghani vocalist Simin Tander.
But there’s more to this unlikely mix: along with Norwegian hymns sung in Pashto, Gustavsen has created beautiful settings for 13th-century lyrics by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi. Curiously, no gulf seems to separate the Nordic hymns from the Persian meditations: both conjure the same mood of sensuous bliss and harmony. Gustavsen, who had been reading Sufi poetry for years, talks about the project ‘reaching into a space where I feel that Sufism and Christianity actually meet.
I had also played with Iranian musicians who are deeply rooted in their traditions and have poets like Rumi, Kabir and Khayyam as their national treasures, so that gave me part of the universe I was about to enter into.
It became more and more clear to me that the parallels between Christian mysticism and Sufism are substantial, and it made so much sense to experience these universes together, opening myself in meditation and prayer with those metaphors and angles in the poems from the Sufi tradition, which were every bit as intense to me as from the Christian traditions.
This was the music that Gustavsen brought to the CBSO Centre on Saturday, one stop on a short UK tour he has called, appropriately, ‘Hymns and Visions’. The performance consisted entirely of compositions from the new album – plus two as yet unrecorded tunes. The sound created by each member of this trio is hushed, each note seeming to be surrounded by an infinity of space and time. Yet, from the heart of the music’s delicate restraint emerged an inner mounting flame of yearning passion, expressed particularly in Simin Tander’s vocals.
The whole concept of this project might be said to be channelled through Tander: the album showcased in this concert is essentially a vocal record, and she sings mainly (though not exclusively) in Pashto. Sometimes she sings lyrics from old Norwegian hymns which have been rendered into Pashto by the Afghan poet B. Hamsaaya. Other songs have been transposed, not from west to east but in the opposite direction: texts by Rumi translated into English by Coleman Barks. Tander has explained how she first heard the Nordic hymns in instrumental renditions sent to her by Gustavsen:
Tord had heard me sing in Pashto and had the idea of maybe combining these two worlds, but from the moment I first listened to these melodies it felt very natural because they are hauntingly beautiful. I immediately felt deeply connected to them.
It’s no surprise that Gustavsen’s piano work should be so restrained, each note seeming to be meticulously placed after deep thought. (In a dissertation on the ‘Psychology of Improvisation’, he has written of the dialectic of ‘moment vs duration’ which explores the ‘intense dilemma between the here and now and the unfolding in time’ – which sums up the effect of his sound pretty well.) What is new, however, is his restrained employment of electronics and synth bass to enhance the ambiance. At times during the Birmingham concert these sounds – often the merest hint or sensation – seemed to emerge from nowhere as if by magic.
We could see that sometimes he tapped rhythmically at a synth pad resting on the grand piano; that seemed to be the source of the warm and sustained vibration over which he traced a characteristically minimalist single piano line. In other moments, however, both hands were on the Steinway keys and it was impossible to discern the source of the ‘euphonic halo around a piece, deepening the atmosphere’, in Gustavsen’s own words. It could only be that, by means of some magic, he was able to trigger electronic sounds and samples from the piano keys. However it was achieved, it was done tastefully, in a discrete and unobtrusive way that served the music faithfully. The electronics are a subliminal presence, felt as much as heard.
Meanwhile, Jarle Vespestad explored previously unknown possibilities at the drum kit. Certainly I have never before experienced percussion that can only be described by words such as quiet or hushed. On several numbers all he touched – with his hands, rather than sticks – was a cymbal, damped with a piece of cloth, to create a sound more like a double bass. All three musicians were so closely mic’d that the slightest sound – a breathed note from Tander, a glancing finger on a cymbal, a brushed piano key – was sharp and full of presence, filling the auditorium.
Imagine the fog disappearing –
The fog that makes life grey
When the day of eternal clarity is here
And I am surrounded by light and heavenly peace.
Imagine all the suffering ended
every wound of the heart healed
every tear washed away
and the deep sighs released in the bosom of love.
Rumi? No. This is ‘Imagine The Fog Disappearing’, a hymn written in 1845 by the Norwegian priest and author Wilhelm Andreas Wexels and sung by Simin Tander in Pashto. Hearing words sung in a completely exotic language must be a large part of the reason why a hymn usually heard at funerals sounds so sensuous. Tander’s intimate vocal conveyed deep emotion and spirituality, and was superbly matched by Gustavsen and Vespestad on the instrumental passages between the verses.
Elias Blix, a 19th century Norwegian professor, theologian, politician and writer of hymns (who was also largely responsible for translating the New Testament into Norwegian) was responsible for ‘Journey Of Life’, a tune which started slowly with a marching beat created on the cymbal with his bare hands by Vespestad while Gustavsen leaned into the grand to dampen the piano strings with his left hand to echo Tander’s singing that moved between a beautiful articulation of the verse and wordless vocals that echoed the percussive sounds of piano and drums:
I want to walk with you on life’s road
My heart wants to follow you until death
Like the small flower reaching for light and day,
my heart and my breath yearn for You,
Oh God, blossom in me,
Let nothing separate me from you.
I realise I’m giving a somewhat false impression here of listening to this music by quoting the English translations of the lyrics from the CD booklet. Live in concert, or at home on CD, what you hear is wordless: the sounds without meaning of Pashto sung by Tander simply become a third instrumental, coiling between drum and piano. Gustavsen has addressed this issue of lyrics which most listeners will not understand, but whose sources are religious:
Of course to me it’s a dual intention. This is a devotional project, and the way in which the words transcend the boundaries between forms and traditions is important for me. But it’s also fully OK to approach it as a pure musical experience. The sounds have texture and content. For anyone who feels invited to dive deeper, the lyrics and translations are there, but this is not the kind of music where you have to read in order to listen.
There were occasions when Tander did sing in English. ‘What Was Said To The Rose’ – the title track of the album – is a translation of a poem by Rumi. Tander’s tender and expressive vocals bookend a Gustavsen setting which features in its middle passage a surging instrumental interpretation of another Norwegian hymn in a dialogue between Gustavsen and Vespestad.
What was said to the rose that made it open
was said to me here in my chest.
What was told the cypress that made it strong and straight,
What was whispered the jasmine so it is what it is,
Whatever made sugarcane sweet,
Whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush like a human child,
That is being said to me now.
Gustavsen and Vespestad duetted on the purely instrumental ‘Rull’, a number that featured Vespestad’s insistent drumming and melodic piano from Gustavsen. Then we were back in the world of Rumi with ‘The Source of Now’, Gustavsen’s hymnal piano and feather-light touches by Vespestad’s brushes, framing a meltingly sensuous vocal by Tander:
Aphrodite singing ghazals.
A sky with gold streaks across.
A stick that finds water in stone.
Night so peaceful.
This is enough was always true.
We just haven’t seen it.
The hoopoe already wears a tufted crown.
Each ant is given its elegant belt at birth.
This love we feel pours through us like a giveaway song.
The source of now is here!
One of the highlights of the evening came with Tander’s delicate recitation of ‘I Refuse’, the stark and powerful poem by Kenneth Rexroth, a major influence on the Beat Poets whose work I remember reading as a student in the sixties as I drifted towards anarchism, and himself influenced by Rumi. His friend Thomas Sanchez once described him as a ‘long-time iconoclast, one-time radical, Roman Catholic, Communist fellow traveller, jazz scholar, I.W.W. anarchist, translator, philosopher, playwright, librettist, Orientalist, critical essayist, radio personality, newspaper columnist, painter, poet and long-time Buddhist.’ Which pretty must covers everything. The poem speaks of stoicism and a defiance of the past, its final words ‘You are wrong’ repeated again and again by Tander:
I have closed my ears, I refuse
To listen to my mouth weeping.
I have closed my mouth, I refuse
The taste of weeping eyes.
I have closed my eyes on the past.
I was not there. I was away.
At the poles, in the Amazon.
I am not going to have been
Where you say I was. You fancy
You can force me to have lived
The past you want.
You are wrong.
The trio added two additional tunes not on the What Was Said CD to the set. These were announced by Tord as ‘Sorrow And Joy’, a Norwegian folk song, and ‘another poem by Rumi about drowning’.
The highlight for me came with Gustavsen’s setting of a traditional Norwegian hymn ‘A Castle In Heaven’ (it first appeared, played by his quartet, on the Extended Circle album). It’s a beautiful tune, now cast in a new light as Simin Tander sings a Pashto translation of the original words. On the Extended Circle version, a fierce and turbulent saxophone solo by Tore Brunborg sees out the track. On Saturday night, Simin Tander broke out into wordless Islamic wail that sent shivers up my back. Sadly it’s not to be found on the recorded version.
I know a castle in Heaven
Shining like the sun
There are no sins nor sorrows there
There are no tears, no crying.
What was said is undoubtedly Gustavsen’s most intimate and spiritual album so far. At the outset of the Birmingham concert, he invited all of us in the audience to join the three musicians in a personal journey which turned out to be one of great beauty and quiet intensity. Seen and heard live, this is music which is utterly compelling and spellbinding.