Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, Thursday 13 March, Scene Norway Plus.

When ‘Changing Places’, the debut album by the trio of Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen, came out in 2003, it nearly passed me by. It took a telephone call from David Fraser, ECM’s British press person, who’s the most unpushy PR imaginable, to tactfully advise me that I needed to give it a listen. Once heard, the music made a very strong impression; indeed, it was an impression that continued to grow and grow until it became difficult to contemplate life without the album’s stately yet quietly soulful – funky, even – measures. For this was jazz so relaxing yet so satisfying both sensually and intellectually that it could almost fulfil the painter Henri Matisse’s much quoted aphorism about an art that one could sink into like a familiar armchair.

In fact, the Matisse dictum is worth quoting in full: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

To place Gustavsen in this context is not to do him down at all – for who could do down Matisse, or say he was not a serious artist? – but rather to raise up those qualities that may at first seem decorative or illustrative but actually contain within them depths of meaning that can go on and on and on, creating a succession of layers that the listener/viewer can choose to unpeel or not. While the depth of Gustavsen was there from the beginning, its mysteries continued to expand through the two subsequent albums – ‘The Ground’ (2005), and ‘Being There’ (2007) – that went to make up his remarkably of-a-piece trilogy of trios. It was with the trio that Tord Gustavsen first came to St George’s, playing two performances that must have coincided with the release dates of the second and third albums. Heard live, the music seemed to deepen even further, as the memorable (“catchy” would be the pop word) themes were extended and elaborated on through adventurous improvisations that left no doubt about the trio’s jazz “chops”, both individually and collectively. When I went to review them at the Lichfield Festival in the summer of 2005, the supposedly cool music was so on fire that you almost had to stand back to escape the heat as Gustavsen burned with an intensity that recalled, for me at least, open-palmed ecstatic pianists like the late Don Pullen, while the band as a whole put me in mind of a mid-Sixties Miles Davis Quintet rhythm section.

After the trio came the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, actually a quartet, with the saxophonist Tore Brunborg added to Gustavsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, and Mats Eilertsen replacing Harald Johnsen on double bass. It’s this group that has performed at St George’s for the past two Gustavsen performances, and that will appear again on Thursday 13th March. There’s now a trilogy of Ensemble/quartet albums to set alongside the trilogy of trios, and while all are good, I think the latest, ‘Extended Circle’, is the best so far. The music has also, of course, deepened once again, and the interplay between church and folk, classical music and jazz, and composition and improvisation, appears even more nuanced than before. All in all, I think this Gustavsen show – his fifth at the venue – is going to be very special.

At 6.30pm, there’s a pre-concert talk (free to ticket holders), with Tord Gustavsen in conversation with Late Junction’s Fiona Talkington, presented as part of our Scene Norway Plus programme.

Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer


Thursday 13 March, 8pm