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Drawing you in

The Tord Gustavsen Trio's first ever UK performance,
appreciated by REX HARLEY


Northern Europe and Scandinavia has had a special place in the world of jazz for a long time. Emigré Americans, when times were hard in their native land, came to Europe and thrived. Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and a host of lesser names owed their continued existence as jazz musicians to their time here, for instance; and, for the past twenty years or so, jazz has been the preferred medium of a remarkable range of native talent in the chilly lands bordering the Arctic Circle. Norway's most famous export to date has been Jan Garbarek but, on the evidence of their CD, and this concert -- their first ever performance in Britain -- The Tord Gustavsen Trio may soon rival that saxophonist's fame.

Changing Places was a début album which drew accolades all round, not least from Late Junction's Fiona Talkington, who named it her record of the year for 2003. It's a remarkably sustained effort. All the tunes are by the trio's leader, and are characterised by a spare elegance and melodic accessibility which never tips over into the merely saccharine. There is a kind of perfection, in fact.

That's all very well, but recorded perfection doesn't necessarily translate into the auditorium. With jazz, you expect adventure and invention; improvisation and risk-taking; a rapport between the musicians which takes the music somewhere new each time it's played.

The concert began with a version of Deep as Love which was daringly, almost suicidally, slow and quiet. I wondered what my younger companion, by no means a jazz aficionado would make of it. At the interval she put it perfectly. 'It's so contained, and abstract, but it draws you in.' One of the keys to that 'drawing in' was the drumming of Jarle Vespestad, who could hold a rhythm when it threatened to stutter and stall, then softly propel the piece forward, often using his fingers on the cymbals for maximum control of dynamics. Somehow he can create a sense of high drama at pianissimo. Watching him was rather like seeing Art Blakey fitted with a silencer!

The Tord Gustavsen Trio. Photo © Erik Laeskogen
The Tord Gustavsen Trio. Photo © Erik Laeskogen

In fact, much of the pleasure of the evening came from watching. Gustavsen is a slight figure, quietly spoken, who crouches low on the piano stool, his head tilted sometimes at a right-angle close to the keyboard, as if listening for the instrument to tell him where to go next. Then he digs into the notes, his right elbow stuck out at a preposterous angle. At times, when he's really in the groove, he's no longer even sitting on the stool. And, yes, he takes risks.

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Copyright © 4 May 2004 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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