Tord Gustavsen Ensemble: Restored, Returned

Pianist Tord Gustavsen is definitely pushing ahead. After three inspiring recordings working his distilled magic within the constructs of a quiet piano trio, the Norwegian bandleader has expanded his purview to include both saxophone and the human voice. Gustavsen has a solid history of working with singers, and vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen was clearly up to the challenge.

Opening with two beautiful instrumentals (“The Child Within” and “Way In”) before introducing Ms. Asbjørnsen, Gustavsen shows that he has lost nothing in terms of subtlety, nuance and gentleness of pacing. Saxophonist Tore Brunborg adds a burnished sound to the ensemble, and if left strictly to the instrumentalists this band could have ended up sounding a lot like Keith Jarrett’s old European quartet. But with Asbjørnsen in the mix, Gustavsen’s group becomes a more unpredictable entity, and more challenging.

The overall mood still leans toward melancholy and down-tempo, and Asbjørnsen’s voice fits perfectly between Brunborg’s sax and Gustavsen’s keys-at the end of “Left Over Lullaby No. 1” she floats into a hypnotic, wordless dialogue with her eloquent bandmates. Gustavsen himself is never dominating as a player but is always in control and shrewdly uses Asbjørnsen on only half of the tracks. The rhythm section of drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Mats Eilertsen are appropriately restrained and maintain the gentle, lithe spirit that Gustavsen’s music demands. The group arrangements are spacious, and the improvisations consistently impressive. The album closes with “Left Over Lullaby No. 3,” leaving this listener restored and eager to return.