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September 2003

Tord Gustavsen Trio
Changing Places
ECM Records

Driven by mysterious forces of nature, a new crop of jazz pianists issues forth every year. According to the merciless Darwinian principles that govern fitness and survival, only a few stick around. Tord Gustavsen is one who should stick around.

When I played Changing Places for the first time without reading the jewel box, I thought it was an album of standards-lost standards that I could almost remember. Gustavsen writes songs with an aura of completion, of melodic finality. Changing Places will make the personal short list of favorite late-night jazz recordings for everyone who hears it. Gustavsen possesses a reflective lyric sensibility that overlays seamlessly on midnight.

He was born in Oslo in 1970, studied at that city's university and also at the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim, and has spent much of his career backing Norwegian singers who are unknown in the United States. His work would not sustain interest over very many late nights if there were not firm musical substance beneath that dreamy, seductive, alluring surface. When Gustavsen begins to elaborate and extend his own melodies, his lines compel close attention through their absence of cliche. His touch is light but certain, and he does not so much play his music as think it aloud or breathe it.

Song titles like "Deep as Love" and "Song of Yearning" and "Your Eyes," in their unabashed romanticism, suggest that Gustavsen might be a sentimentalist. He is not. He is just not very good at titles. Tunes like "IGN" sneak up on you as they gather subtle urgency and find a groove, sometimes suggestive of gospel, sometimes of Scandinavian folk sources.

Piano trio recordings, especially those as understated as this one, are dependent on high-resolution audio for their effectiveness. Trios like Gustavsen's require a recording of uncommon intimacy and precision in order to render the nuanced inflections, the details of shading and emphasis, that give this music its quiet power. It is interesting that, while audiophile labels often provide voluminous information about their recording philosophies and techniques and equipment, ECM simply indicates that an album was digitally recorded by Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. It is extremely rare when an audiophile label achieves higher quality recorded sound than that which Kongshaug provides for ECM, month in and month out.

Originally published in September 2003
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