Between blue and a dark place

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Wherever the source is of Tord Gustavsen’s inspiration, it must be a dark and watery place. Kicking off a major tour last week, Norway’s power-passion piano master presented his gorgeous, melancholy works against a somber backdrop of evening rain and calm seascapes, reflecting the conceptual cover art on his successful trilogy of albums released since 2003.

 His fourth album, which is also the backbone of his tour repertoir, is no exception as far as the visual art goes. But it certainly sounds a whole lot different. On Restored, Returned, Gustavsen deviates from his basic jazz trio lineup, opting instead for an ensemble with saxophones, vocals and poetry added.

For an artist best known for his quiet, almost fragile pieces, his live act can be surprisingly explosive. On the tour’s opening concert, Gustavsen had positioned himself on the edge of the stage with his pianos and a mostly idle microphone. Using a Rhodes electric piano to complement his Steinway, he sometimes plays both at the same time – with his fingers and feet. Rather than reaching for the far keys, he would sometimes slide along his bench to deliver power chords from directly above. He also reached into the piano’s innards to further tweak certain tones after the piano keys have done their part.

Elaborate ensemble
Singer Kristin Asbjørnsen, with her raspy, Joplinesque voice and bare feet, took center stage in more than one way at the show in the Bærum Kulturhus (cultural center) outside of Oslo last week, chanting lullabyes, hymns and poems. Next, the sharp cone-shaped spotlight would frame the stork-like shape of saxophonist Tore Brunborg, a powerful voice in Norway’s post-Garbarek generation. Every now and then, actress Cecilie Jørstad would appear to recite Norwegian poems by Lars Amund Vaage.

The elaborate lineup may all be an expression of self-confidence by Gustavsen himself, whose modest appearance betrays the fact that he now is at the core of Norway’s jazz community. At 39, he is still young (as jazz musicians go) and clearly eager to take his talent to new places. In a

recent interview with NRK’s radio program Nitimen, Gustavsen described his music as exploring “the doubleness of simpleness and openness.” He also recently became a father, which may explain why some of his new songs are lullabies.

Gustavsen also pursues an academic career. He holds a university degree in psychology, and has written a master’s thesis on the psychology of improvisation.

Some critics disliked the distinct shift of Restored, Returned, with one suggesting that by making the sax and the vocals the main voices in many compositions, his own grand piano sounds less, well, grand. Most reviews have been very favorable, though, with John Bungey of Times Online calling Gustavsen “the Nordic master of less-is-more piano.”

The tour will include several venues in Norway throughout February and March. Later this spring, an international tour is planned with concerts in the US, Germany and Portugal.

Views and News from Norway/Morten Møst