CD Review: Tord Gustavsen Quartet - Extended Circle

Tord Gustavsen Quartet - Extended Circle
(ECM Records 376 0239. CD Review by Adrian Pallant)

 It's now some ten years since Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen’s ECM debut which began with a trilogy of trio releases (Changing Places, The Ground and Being There). 2009′s Restored, Returned appeared to divide opinion as Gustavsen augmented to an ensemble, with saxophonist Tore Brunberg and Kristin Asbjørnsen’s intruiging vocalisations of W H Auden’s words, which then evolved into the first quartet recording, 2012′s The Well.

So to this sixth and latest release, Extended Circle, featuring that same four-piece line-up – Gustavsen on piano  with Tore Brunborg (tenor saxophone), Mats Eilertsen (double bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums) – in an outing which, whilst familiar, seeks to further push the creative possibilities. It’s safe to acknowledge that Gustavsen’s sound is like no other… clear, spacial, reverential, often wistful, yet mostly radiating a dignified calmness; and frequently there are subtle spiritual references (linking to the leader’s roots in church music) which imply the meditative stillness of cathedral vespers. But perhaps it is the introduction of Tore Brunborg’s tenor to the fold that has allowed Gustavsen’s original vision to break new ground. Referencing the album title, he describes his current band as “a creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective. We want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles.”

Right There introduces the album in classic Gustavsen piano trio mode… simple, sustained and quietly melodic – no surprises. But following is a bustling arrangement of a Norwegian hymn tune which the pianist says he has been playing all his life – Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg (A Castle in Heaven). In proverbial swan-like style, Tord’s piano lines somehow manage to gracefully flow over an otherwise turbulent undercurrent of bass and drums, the piece then opening out further with the introduction of Brunborg’s tenor whose climbing, reaching vibrato style here is not unlike Garbarek’s. Resulting from concert sound-check exploration, it’s a welcome ‘extended circle’ shift. The spontaneous extemporisations of Entrance, plus a later variation, are another indication of change (although it’s familiar territory for bassist Mats Eilertsen). And whilst there is an evident freedom in these two improvised miniatures, the quartet are still able to share and communicate beauty from within its loose structure.

A reminder of why many of us fell in love with Tord Gustavsen’s restrained piano is to be found in The Gift, as each of the trio players eloquently and loftily balance their contribution with each other. With Eilertsen’s delicately-placed Bachian octaves sounding for all the world like those of MJQ’s Ray Brown, and with Tord’s characteristic acciaccaturas, its simply a pleasure to unashamedly wallow in its completeness. Brunborg shares with Gustavsen the buoyant melodies of pleasant bluesy, gospel-tinged Staying There, before the lucid solo piano allure of Silent Spaces somehow elevates to a still higher plane. And, adapted from a liturgical mass for choir composed by Tord Gustavsen, the quartet’s Devotion reveals an engaging passage from darkness to light, culminating in Brunborg’s affirming tenor alleluias – beautiful imagery.

In an unusually bright and breezy major key, The Embrace glints with Brunborg’s joyous tenor improvisations… though with an unsettled, unresolved close. Then Eilertsen’s typically melodious bass transition leads to two final tracks – Glow, Vespestad’s precise snare and cymbal momentum supporting sax, piano and bass in their searching lines; and The Prodigal Song, an amiable trio conclusion whose artistry deserves to be examined closely.

At this stage in his musical journey, and with this current line-up, Tord Gustavsen continues to transfix with contemplative sound, space and emotion (touring the UK from 7-16 March 2014). Exquisitely recorded and packaged by ECM.

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