The abstract gospel of Tord Gustavsen

Tord Gustavsen trio, which includes Harald Johnsen and Jarle Vespestad, is playing at the Vossa Jazz festival this weekend. And immediately after Easter they will release their third album, Being There. Gustavsen’s trio has experienced quite extraordinary popularity beyond the jazz scene, but without ever having compromised in terms of the music. -I wish to poke a little fun at the boundary that is always drawn between art-jazz and pop jazz, or between creative serious jazz and melodic and romantic jazz, says Gustavsen.

Tord Gustavsen Trio (Foto: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen)

By Carl Kristian Johansen / Translated by Christian Lysvåg

The concept of the modern piano trio has been defined and refined over the last 50 years by trios led by great pianists such as Bud Powell, Gil Evans and Keith Jarret. Most contemporary piano trios relate to their work, but with different perspectives of course. Gustavsen’s perspective is nuanced:

-The trio format is partially defined by the heritage from the classic trios, but we draw equal amounts of energy and imulses from vocalists and horns, and from sources like Scandinavian traditional music, impressionism and neo-classicism. We are also in a sort of dialogue with modern electronica; there are alignments there, even if they are not very clear.

-The piano trio is chiefly determined by the intensive chamber mode of playing, which revolves around micro-timing, moments and infinitesimal nuances. The unfolding of the music is based more on miniatures than on orchestral aspects. It’s not that we don’t groove, but focus is on a radical mode of listening –distilled to a kind of melodic minimalism. This is the foundation upon which complexity arises; around it and at the top, says Gustavsen.

-All perspectives are legitimate.
This may sound like a recipe appealing only to the initiated, but the band’s latest release, The Ground, actually achieved a historic top listing on Norwegian charts, as the first instrumental jazz album ever. This reveals a duality in Gustavsen’s undertaking, for in addition to the complex aspects that Gustavsen relates, the music, in its immediate appearance, is distinguished by accessibility and smoothness.

-Reaching the top of the charts was an amusing curiosity, it was never a goal. And it would never have happened if we had strived for accessibility. Our main concern is always unearthing the band’s truest expression.

-At the same time I want to poke some fun at the distinction that is always drawn between art-jazz and pop-jazz or between creative serious jazz and melodic romantic jazz. For me the true division is between the well played and the opposite, rather than adhering to postulates of worthy and unworthy jazz. The most important thing is that the good melody does not fall captive to kitsch, and that stark, honest art can also be achieved in melody itself, says Gustavsen.

Gustavsen and his trio have been met with predominantly splendid reviews, both home and abroad. But there are exceptions. The Danish magazine Jazz Special butchered The Ground: “Worse than death, this record is wasted time. -Complete absence of meaning, there is not an instant of freshness on the entire record.”

How do you respond to such merciless feedback, Gustavsen?

-All perspectives are legitimate, yet I find his critique misconceived, for he is not really grasping what we are up to. There are many levels of listening. The contrasts and dynamics of our music are not to be found on the first level of listening. Most of our reviews have been conversely positive, and based on a different kind of listening, one could assume.

The completion of a trilogy
Being There is the trio’s third album and with its launch we are informed that it also constitutes the last of a trilogy.

-The three albums are charged in complimentary ways, says Gustavsen. They explore a minimal space from related yet disparate angles, in a fairly hard-core way.

Having finished a trilogy, does this entail any plans of disbanding the trio or reshuffling the musical ground pattern?

-As long as this constellation works musically and administratively, there is no reason to alter it. A musical cognizance must be foundational; what is lacking in Norwegian jazz today is not exiting projects but bands that are allowed to grow organically over time. The important thing to me and the trio is to create something that comes across as fresh and novel, not that the basic anatomy of the music is absolutely new. After modernism nothing is completely new. Journalists keep confusing the concept of novelty with simply embracing trends, -and being first or last in doing so. However there is leeway in the notion of a personal expression. Uniqueness resides in being ones own combination of the amalgam of influences that one has received through life. What is stimulating in Norway is that musicians that come from a homogenous musical environment have been able to diversify greatly.

Modern church music
Gustavsen’s background is dominated by modern church music –psalms, hymns and gospel. How is this background significant to your trio’s music?

-Church music is the ground track of my musicality, says Gustavsen.

-Trio music is created in the zone of tension between the sensual basic structure of blues, psalms and gospel on the one hand, and explorative, open tonality on the other. This tension is conditional for my creativity.

Instrumental development must happen in dialogue with one’s personal musical heritage. Creativity on such a foundation has a different substantiality than working with completely alien elements will ever yield.

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