Tord Gustavsen on how his quartet has cut loose on their latest album
Amusician whose bands in the past have attracted such media responses as “quiet is the new loud” and “quietest band in the world”, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen can generate a honed down yet irresistible groove quite unlike any other, and he and saxophonist Tore Brunborg cut loose with unprecedented fire – sacred fire, one might say – in his quartet’s latest album, Extended Circle.
The album, on the ECM label, is a superb showcase of the band’s established ability to quietly generate potent tension and feeling through restraint, and this alchemy can be experienced live in a rare Scottish gig at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall next Friday. With Gustavsen, the impression is that every single note he fingers from the keyboard has been quietly considered for heft and effect, as evidenced in the delicacy of such tracks as Silent Spaces and the quiet, ambulatory progress of The Gift.
Elsewhere, however, the tightly controlled but irresistible groove of Staying There works itself into something as near funk as you’ll hear from this outfit, while a standout track comes from Gustavsen’s long-standing involvement with Norwegian church music. A traditional hymn, Eg Veit Himmerik Ei Borg – A Castle in Heaven, is lyrically built up on piano before Brunborg’s tenor sax declaims the hymn with fiery passion – not a word habitually associated with this band – while Mats Eilertsen’s double bass rumbles and Jarle Vespestad’s drums and cymbals chitter behind.
Speaking from his home in Oslo, Gustavsen agrees that to a certain extent, the band has cut loose – “but to me, it is the same basic approach. We’ve always had a combination of restraint and passion, but that can work out in different ways. On this album we’ve found ways to include a bit more dynamic and more…” he chooses his words carefully, “you could even say extroverted playing, within our framework of a contemplative, stripped-down approach.”
The hymn is one Gustavsen, now 43, has known since childhood.“It carries an intense duality of sorrow and hope, both in its music and in its lyrics. And those lyrics are at the back of my head. Hymns and spirituals [are] a fundamental part of my core and it’s a blessing to find new and mature ways of relating to those roots.”
He continues to write music for church choirs and also loves working with solo vocalists, regarding it as vital for him, as an instrumentalist, to stay in touch with singing in what he calls “this strange crossroads between abstraction and lyricism”. An outstanding example of this emerged in his 2009 album Restored, Returned, which featured music built around WH Auden’s poetry, sung in beguiling tones by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Gustavsen is proud of the album, which won a Spellemannsprisen – a “Norwegian Grammy”. Asked whether he might repeat the exercise he refers to settings of poems by Rumi, Hafez and other Sufi poets he has performed with the singer Susanna Wallumrød. “That’s something I loved doing and at one point we might record it.”
Interestingly, the new quartet album begins and ends in the piano trio format he has so meticulously honed over the years. The bassist of his former trio, Harald Johnsen, passed way in 2011, and the pianist feels a respectful enough time has passed to perhaps consider his old favoured form again.
In the meantime, however, he regards the quartet as still evolving. “It feels like we may be approaching more trio playing,” he says, “but what I’m passionate about just now is the juxtaposing of different internal duos and trios within the quartet.”
On his website (www.tordg.no) Gustavsen delves at length into the psychology of improvisation, something he has pursued academically as well as musically, and writes in terms of “my quest for a deepening of my own playing”. Is it fair to ask him at what stage along that quest he now stands? “Parts of that might be better answered by people listening from the outside,” he replies, “but it is an ongoing process, and this passion for uniting raw emotion with elegance and an almost meditational type of playing will never be finished.
“It’s probably my life’s mission to keep exploring the different dilemmas and challenges and potentials of that, because it’s connected to a very fundamental life purpose of mine – musically and spiritually – to unite intense presence with calmness.”
The Tord Gustavsen Quartet play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 7 March, www.thequeenshall.net