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05/30/12

The Well
Tord Gustavsen Quartet
ECM Records

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen expanded his customary trio by adding a vocalist and a saxophonist on his last album, and he’s kept saxophonist Tore Brunborg onboard for his fifth ECM record, The Well. The trademarks of what we can by now call the Gustavsen sound are intact—minimalism, iciness, patience—but the inclusion of Brunborg adds a populist, soulful touch.

Brunborg has a bit of David Sanborn or Michael Brecker about him. His playing soars and shivers but doesn’t show off; he’d rather create a certain feel than rattle off a ream of notes. It fits right into Gustavsen’s group, which also features bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad. The quartet’s sound is so understated that one often forgets four men are involved with it.

The Well is something of a concept album—with songs titled “Prelude,” “Suite,” “Communion,” and so forth—evoking both a classical concert and a church service. “Prelude,” with its simple chords and spacious theme, could have come from Chopin’s canon. The shuffling, march-like rhythm of “Playing” underpins a melody drawn from Eastern European (or perhaps Scandinavian) folk. “Circling” is pop-song pretty; though Gustavsen compares it to gospel, it could serve as the backing track for a Norah Jones vocal. The blues, of course, is notably absent in nearly all of this; this is not American jazz, after all. But smart soloing does have its place. When Gustavsen takes a bona fide solo on the somber title tune, it sounds more like he’s accenting—commenting on—the melody, which is merely implied. It’s as though he’s accompanying another soloist, or a singer, who’s not there. It’s all beautiful. Tord Gustavsen is now five for five.

Originally published in May 2012
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