Tord Gustavsen’s career has been unusual. His first two albums on the ECM label, Changes (2003) and The Ground (2005), sold over 200,000 copies between them. It happened because Gustavsen is a Svengali of the piano. He draws you into his encompassing atmosphere of rapt contemplation. His music feels soothing at first, but the depth of his emotional exposure requires creative listeners. To participate with Gustavsen on his journey is to embrace one’s own emotional exposure.
His most enduring achievements are his ECM trio albums. Opening is the fifth. Gustavsen’s bassists have changed over the years, but his drummer has stayed the same: The underrecognized Jarle Vespestad, with his suggestive shading and precisely placed meaningful details, is something of a Svengali himself.
Another unusual aspect of Gustavsen’s career is its continuity. His aesthetic domain has remained remarkably stable. Opening is 12 tracks but it is one whole. The elemental melody of “The Longing” sounds elusively familiar. Perhaps it’s a hymn you heard as a child, or perhaps it’s a love song you can almost remember. In fact it’s new, an alternative to silence, barely a form. Steinar Raknes, the trio’s new bassist, threads poignant counterlines through it.
There are tunes like “Findings II” that Gustavsen describes as “freely improvised.” They are like flowerings of momentary lyricism, but so are his finely wrought notated pieces, like “The Circle.” All of Gustavsen’s music sounds like spontaneous composition. He is always feeling his way into his songs. What makes him special is that along the way he finds so much beauty. His quiet chord chains can sound hesitant, but they cohere into firm resolutions, and his melodies, wherever he finds them, are revelations of breaking light. Opening will attract some late-arriving new members into the Tord Gustavsen cult.