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Tord Gustavsen: Quiet is the New Loud

Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen with bassist Harold Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad

Known as “The City of Dreaming Spires,” the university buildings of Oxford include some of England’s finest architecture, dating back to Anglo-Saxon and Norman times. For more than 800 years Oxford has been home to royalty and scholars, and today tourists come from around the world to visit its historic sites such as the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum or Balliol College, founded in 1263. Huge buses fill the city all year round, clogging up streets that were laid out in much less congested times. It’s something to consider if you’re ever thinking of driving across the city.

Caught in the midday traffic, I’m about 20 minutes late for my meeting with pianist Tord Gustavsen. Once I arrive and make the usual apologies, it’s immediately apparent he’s one of those guys who isn’t fazed by anything. The 34-year-old Norwegian projects an aura of calm that seems to fill the space around him.

At a medium height and slightly built, there’s a coiled-spring intensity about Gustavsen-one that finds focus in his tune “Colors of Mercy.” It’s an abstracted alleluia whose hymnlike quality he made soar the night before in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest concert hall in Europe, where Handel once played.

Gustavsen, bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad are midway through a tour of the U.K., and the pianist is delighted with the way it’s going. Every concert is sold out, yet there’s been no advertising, no campaign in the media; word simply seems to have spread about this remarkable young trio. And it was the same with the trio’s debut album from 2003, Changing Places. Within a year it had notched sales of 65,000 worldwide, which not only took Gustavsen but also his record company by surprise. To put those sales in perspective, the average number of units sold for a CD by a name jazz instrumentalist is about 3,000; 10,000 is considered good, and 25,000 in sales make it, in jazz terms, a hit record.

The Tord Gustavsen Trio’s much anticipated second album, The Ground, which went to the top of the Norwegian album chart on release in January, continues the musical odyssey begun in Changing Places by getting deeper into those moods of faint melancholy you experience when gazing out of the window on a wet Sunday afternoon. “After the first release we found more and more a way of playing together that, while it was very sparse, we were getting sensuality out of that acutely ‘listening’ type of playing,” he says. “And that worked, so the things I wrote after the first album became even more simple, and that development just kind of continued. On Changing Places the most basic tunes are the newest ones. The more complex tunes are the older ones. The songs on The Ground are new and have twists that open the landscape, or shift it, or add a second layer harmonically, but still it’s basically simple songs. The way we played them added more tension, especially between the drums and the piano.”

Gustavsen is a pianist of poetic cast, an exceptionally lucid player with a sure sense of melodic structure and an often-astonishing lyrical imagination. Johnsen and Vespestad follow the precise contours of his compositions with unflappable taste; the trio creates music rich with inner meaning and nuance. If there were an award for the quietest band in the world, Gustavsen’s trio would win it hands down. Their self imposed dynamic range, from an I-can’t-quite-hear-you pianissimo to an Ahh-that’s-a-bit-better mezzo piano, draws you into their music the same way you instinctively lean forward to hear softly spoken conversation.

Their scrupulous use of dynamics gives shape and definition to everything they play. For instance, Vespestad often reduces his playing to pointillistic pings using a knitting needle on a cymbal top, rhythms tapped out by fingers on the snare head or by using two cardboard tubes (of the sort you get with paper towels) to gently shade the music. The transparency that marked Changing Places has become more sharply defined on The Ground, while the compositions are shaped with greater clarity of musical vision, allowing Gustavsen to weave his captivating, highly melodic improvisations to greater effect.

As the group draws you into its music, it seems each piece represents another step on a musical journey within the totality of the album itself. It was during their extensive touring through Europe and the United States in support of Changing Places in 2003 that the group came to a greater collective understanding of its strengths. “We’re a very melodic trio and a very freedom-searching trio,” Gustavsen says. “Both these aspects may be clearer on The Ground. The strong but somewhat abstract ‘gospel’ or ‘hymnal’ feel in much of our playing has also become more evident and central to our approach during the last couple of years. I think this relates to a constant urge to unite ‘openess’ with solid and sensuous foundations.”

The use of the word sensuous in the context of jazz improvisation might sound unusual, but it’s intentional. Gustavsen’s thesis for his cand. philol. degree in musicology from the University of Oslo is called “The Dialectical Erotism of Improvisation.” (The Norwegian education system is slightly different than that of the U.S.; Gustavsen says his degree is more than a master’s but less than a doctorate.) In his dissertation he talks about the friction caused by forgoing instant gratification “in order to achieve a satisfaction on the basis of the unfolding over time…so that you can enjoy the releases, culminations and joys that are actually realized without too much sorrow over the possibilities for gratification that are not.”

This suggests a very specific view of music, and where fast tempi can be construed as “instant gratification,” an aspect of playing Gustavsen avoids on both albums. “Sometimes I really appreciate doing an uptempo tune every once in a while, but it’s a matter of discovering where you can get into the ‘zone’ and where you can really build something that has integrity and has a life of its own,” he says.

The challenge for him and his trio, he says, is to “create intensity using different musical tools than people would expect. It was not something I set out to do in the first place, like ‘a very planned thing.’ We started to play together, and we took seriously what we felt were our strongest musical aspects. It’s not about making aggressive statements at all, yet it is about making a strong statement, it takes some courage to not do things! Playing uptempo is really just an easy solution because you get contrast automatically, and it makes people relax, and you can get back to the serious stuff afterward. That’s not the kind of showbiz we want to do. It’s harder, and I feel more courageous to try and build something out of a basic mood, not as ‘contrasts.'”

To understand what he is getting at, listen to how “Tears Transforming” on the new CD moves into “Being There,” which moves into “Twins”-the unhurried way Gustavsen works toward a climax or series of climaxes in each song. What is especially striking is the hint of melancholy within each piece, something common to many Scandinavian players that has been dubbed the “Nordic Tone,” which is really a different kind of blues. “I would think a lot of this is really unconscious because you are shaped by the culture you are brought up in, and even though we live in a very globalized world, and Norway is very much a part of that, it still shapes me differently than it would living in New York or London,” he says. “Some of it is on a conscious level; I hear it sometimes when my phrasing uses Norwegian folk music-for instance, phrases from Setesdal [one of Norway’s oldest folk-music traditions]. The whole thing about melancholy and reflective moods and spaciousness associated with Nordic music, they are in my musical self and will come forward whether I want them too or not.”

The trio originally came together as accompanists for Silje Nergaard, one of Scandinavia’s leading jazz vocalists, on her 2000 album Port of Call. Though the music they play with Nergaard-bright, peppy, poppy-is nothing like that of the trio, Gustavsen says, “We started feeling this chemistry, this sound we make when we play, very focused, very minimalist; something we felt we should develop as a setting in its own respect.” (Since then they have recorded two more albums with Nergaard, At First Light and Nightwatch, and toured extensively with her, including U.S. appearances at Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center last year.)

Gustavsen had a religious upbringing, and he played piano in church while studying the instrument formally. “These inspirations are crucial,” he says. “What I am doing is combining my classical studies with the fact I’ve studied a lot of cool jazz-Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, for example-and the fact that I’ve played a lot of churches, playing gospel music.” Gustavsen also cites the influence of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans on his playing. “I am also indebted to Wayne Shorter for his melodic thinking and composing. Then there are two Scandinavian pianists, Norway’s Jon Balke and Sweden’s Jan Johansson, who make up the cornerstone of my Scandinavian influences. Balke has a basic lyricism and a rhythmic strength that has been a tremendous inspiration.”

At 19 Gustavsen studied sociology, psychology and the history of religion at the University of Oslo, attaining a B.A., and in 1993 he applied to the jazz department of the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim, graduating three years later. He returned to Oslo and continued his career as a freelance musician while continuing his academic studies. During this time he was involved in several musical projects, including the duo Aire & Angels with singer Siri Gjaere and the Nymark Collective, a band that explores rip-roaring New Orleans grooves on 2000’s First Meeting. It takes a while to realize the funky piano player on the latter’s “Blues Tonic,” for instance, is none other than Gustavsen.

He says the interaction that comes from playing with different musicians is as important to his musical development as his work with his trio. “All the things I have been encountering, the projects I’ve been involved in over a period of 10 years away from the trio, they are for me sufficiently different to be a very fruitful contrast in modes of playing music. At the same time there is a definite link for me. Obviously you place this link to some of the rhythmic aspects that will be applied in any setting, basically the crucial link being getting ‘in the zone’ where I can connect to the music. That’s the only link that is crucial. If I can’t get into that ‘zone’ then I shouldn’t be in the band. I think that’s the thing with me all my life, especially the last 10 years. The zone can come from different sources. I know the feeling of being in that zone, so my ability, my experiences and also my perception of how to make a band work is getting clear, and clearer.”

But it’s the combination of Gustavsen, Johnsen and Vespestad that is reconfiguring the language of the traditional piano trio into a very personal musical dialect. “It’s imperative for us to have a real relationship between composition and improvisation,” Gustavsen says. “It’s an organic thing. All members of the trio are very focused on that.” Originally Published