Recording of May 2005: The Ground

Tord Gustavsen, piano; Harald Johnsen, double bass; Jarle Vespestad, drums
ECM 1892 (CD). 2005. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, eng. DDD. TT: 60:13
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument. This is a comprehensive technique . . . a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it. What has to happen is that you develop a comprehensive technique and then say, Forget that. I'm just going to be expressive through the piano.—Bill Evans

Listening to jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen's stark, silence-filled keyboard ruminations, one can't help but think of the great Bill Evans. While Evans' music had more heart and soul than what's present in Gustavsen's cool, impeccably designed sound paintings, the working out of ideas, the sense that Evans was always rehearsing, creating anew each time he played, is similar to the quiet, irresistible surfaces the young Norwegian has made his specialty.

What's fascinating, and ultimately the reason Stereophile lavished praise on Gustavsen's ECM debut, 2003's Changing Places, and now on this new set, is the power the pianist-composer is able to create by playing so quietly and so introspectively. I found myself leaning toward my speakers, reaching for the volume knob and then just listening. I don't know if I've ever heard any other music this quiet and unassuming, or that demands so much active engagement from the listener. ECM's typically warm, spacious sound aids and abets this process.

The knock on Gustavsen is that he's all design and no sincerity; that the tranquil, finely embroidered faade is all there is. While it's true that many of these 12 tunes, most about five minutes long, are nearly interchangeable, and that The Ground on some level can be heard as one long exploration for piano, bass, and drums (as opposed to individual songs), the exquisite tinge of sadness in almost every track belies any notion that Gustavsen and his music are emotionally vapid. That and the sheer weight of all his hushed pondering, brooding, and meditating at the piano are proof that while he may be philosophically a bit too stoic and Nordic, and musically a bit too controlled for some tastes. Gustavsen and his very able and equally buttoned-down collaborators, bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, are interested in provoking emotions and ultimately saying something, however hushed, with their music.

One odd thing about both Changing Places and this new medley of cuts is that, if you know standards, listening to Gustavsen's music can turn into a mildly puzzling (and kinda fun) exercise of wondering just where you've heard that bit of song before. In "Edges of Happiness," to name just one instance, the chords he plays as a motif sound as if lifted from a well-known standard, yet repeated hearings brought me no closer to identifying which one than the first time I heard it. Gustavsen obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and his own compositions sound at the same time uncannily familiar and absolutely fresh, almost pristine.

If there's a flaw to all this, it might be Gustavsen's seeming unwillingness to depart from the slowish, mid- to downtempo progression that all his musical performances follow. It would be nice to hear him break out and stretch his digits, perhaps with a horn player driving the tune. While he and his trio operate almost as a single entity, each of the three extremely sensitive to where the other two are moving musically, it might be interesting (are you listening, Manfred Eicher?) to add some new players, some new spice to Gustavsen's admittedly flavorful piano wanderings.

But those are minor quibbles with what is, like Changing Places, another knockout session. Quiet, introspective jazz piano has rarely if ever been so flavorful or so, yes, compelling. The guys can literally weave spells with Gustavsen's ideas and, as Bill Evans says above, by being "expressive." This is the shortest sixty minute record I've ever heard. Several times during the writing of this review I stopped to allow this set's last three tunes, "Interlude," "Token of Tango," and "The Ground"—all of them continuations of the somber mood and pensive thoughts that permeate the entire album—to carry me away.

If the cool veneers of Gustavsen's music lack fire and volume and repel those who need their jazz more full-blooded and raw, they are nonetheless deeply evocative, stirring in the listener the emotions and thoughts that some complain the music and musicians themselves lack. An artist to watch, Tord Gustavsen is one of the most intricate voices in jazz to emerge in many years, and yet another notch in Manfred Eicher's well-notched holster of vital, previously unheard talents.—Robert Baird